The three movies we cover in this episode are: Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusade saga – Kingdom of Heaven; Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic – Alexander; and Zach Snyder’s 2006 extravaganza – 300. We decided to start with these because they all fall into a classic Hollywood genre: the sword and sandals epics. What these films have in common is also what makes them weird because when you think about that kind of movie, you think of it as something way outdated and not a popular draw. But in the years since 9/11 THEY KEEP SHOWING UP.
Sure, Ridley Scott made Gladiator in the 1990s, but part of what made that movie such a success was that it sort of reimagined the genre. We weren’t expecting him to go back to that well again. And Oliver Stone, whose obsession with history is usually – even notoriously – centered in 20th century American history – is suddenly interested in Alexander the Great. And superhero movie auteur Zach Snyder decided that the best follow up to his remake of Dawn of the Dead was a graphic novel revisiting a battle from ancient Greek history.
What are the lies agreed upon that these movies have in common?
That lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians.
That the East and the West have always and will always be enemies.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan. It stars Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, among others. Bloom is a French blacksmith named Balian who heads off to the Crusades because his life is really crappy in Europe. In fact, at the beginning of the film we get a helpful scroll telling us all that Europe is a mess and men are fleeing to the east to seek their fortunes.
The year is 1184 to be precise (which is between the Second and Third Crusades for those keeping score), Jerusalem is ruled over by Christians at this point in the 200-year collision between Christain and Muslim. Apparently, because he’s the bastard son of a knight (Liam Neeson) who convinces him to go along, Balian is able to quickly acquire all the skill he needs, like swordfighting.
Once we’re in Jerusalem, it isn’t really what the average viewer is expecting. After their previous victory, the Christians have set up a King in Jerusalem (Edward Norton), who is trying to keep the multi-ethnic, multi-religion, multi-racial territory in a workable peace and hates it when fundamentalists show up – in other words, Crusaders. The rest of the movie is the tolerant/enlightened Christians, including the King, his advisor Tiberias (played by Jeremy Irons), Balian, and the King’s sister, Sybilla, played by Eva Green, as well as the equally reasonable Saladin (played really well by Syrian actor/filmmaker Ghassan Massoud) trying to stop the region from blowing up into a war because of the ignorant, violence-loving radical Christian Knights Templar, who act as the posse for Sybilla’s husband, Guy de Lusignan.
Initially, when Balian arrives and claims the lands given to his now-dead father, the plot is dedicated to showing the improvement of the lands, and the wise leadership of the King. We are introduced first to Saladin’s chief minister and then to Saladin himself, who are also eager to keep the peace so that the various people can prosper.
There are a series of escalating events, all caused by either Guy himself or the leader of the Knights Templar, Raynard (played by Brendan Gleeson). Multiple times, a major war is averted due to the tolerant leadership on both sides. But eventually, war is provoked. Raynard kills Saladin’s sister and so Saladin is forced to respond. And that gives Guy and his fundamentalist followers the excuse to drag the entire society into a giant confrontation between Muslims and Christians.
The battle becomes a siege which becomes a stalemate. Eventually, Balian and Saladin parlay. They agree to spare the innocent people of Jerusalem by having the Christians retreat and leave the city to Saladin.
Of course this also means that the lands and title that Balian inherited from his crusader father must also be abandoned. And the end of the movie finds Balian living happily as a blacksmith in France again, with Sybilla as his wife. The next wave of crusaders come through town on their way to retake Jerusalem yet again, but Balian refuses to join them. A final message on the screen reads “nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Holy Land still remains elusive.”
It seems since Braveheart every one of these sweeping historical dramas needs a big speech. Let’s listen to Balian describing the true meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven:
Ridley Scott and William Monahan are getting the 12th Century to do a lot of heavy lifting in the cultural commentary department. But they aren’t alone. Oliver Stone, similarly, seems to have thought Alexander the Great would be a good vehicle for him to work out what he was feeling in response to the current state of affairs.
Alexander (2004) was written by Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and stars Colin Farrel, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto among others.
The film is based on the life of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, who conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and part of Ancient India. Stone begins by showing us Alexander’s early life, including his difficult relationship with his father Philip II of Macedon, his strained feeling towards his mother Olympias, and his “close friendships” with other noble Macedonians. But most of the film concerns the conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BC. It also details his plans to reform his empire and the attempts he made to reach the end of the then known world.
Stone can’t decide whether Alexander’s mission of blending civilizations is laudable or fanciful, and neither do the characters. It is clear Stone is flummoxed by Alexander’s sexuality and we have to endure his discomfort as well.
Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, which isn’t bad I guess, but he had some nasty things to say about the Persians:
At the end of it all, Alexander’s story doesn’t quite work for the message of tolerance – because the Greeks were the ones who didn’t seem so keen – and Oliver Stone couldn’t decide whether Bablylon and India were awesome and way more fun than Greece, nor could he deal with Alexander’s homosexuality because it got in the way of his textbook exoticization of the “East”.
300 doesn’t have any of those problems. 300 (2006) was originally a graphic novel by Frank Miller and inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. It is directed by Zach Snyder and written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, and Rodgrigo Santoro as Xerxes
In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in a mountain pass. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Persian King Xerxes led an army of well over 100,000 men to Greece and was confronted by 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Xerxes waited for 10 days for King Leonidas to surrender or withdraw but left with no options he pushed forward. Leonidas and the 300 sacrifice themselves to allow Greece more time to prepare and fight another day.
The movie version of this story sets the elders of Sparta, who refuse to ok Leonidas’s pan to keep the Persians at bay, against the brave 300. It’s revealed as the movie goes on that at least one of those politicians has been bribed by Xerxes. Played as a true slimeball by Dominic West, he forces Gorgo to hav sex with him in exchange for a promise to send reinforcements, but he doesn’t and then he tries to publicly shame Gorgo to further discredit her and her husband. Gorgo kills him. Her husband might be dead, but virtuous Sparta will live on in her son, and with the leadership of Leonidas’s right hand man Dilios, one year later, the Greeks fight as a united force and repel the Persians.
In between the bloody fighting there are moments to speak about a clash of civilizations, mythologizing Sparta as a democratic racial stronghold and Persia as the colossus from the East. Let’s listen to the fateful meeting between Xerxes and King Leonidas:
So why have we chosen these three movies? Why did the writers, directors, and producers all decide to make these movies? Why did they think the movie going public would want to watch these movies? Simply by the way we’ve summarized these films you’ve probably started to pick up some common elements. But to make things clearer, let’s remind everyone just what was going on between 2004 and 2206, when these movies were released.
The George W. Bush administration launched an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 after misleading the public about connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Bush famously declared mission accomplished in May, although the war dragged on for another 8 years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure, and he infamously called the war a “crusade,” alarming even the conservative National Review, which depicted a cartoon Bush as a Knight Templar. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan was also raging, and had been since right after 9/11. The moviegoing public in the west watched wars rage in these two Muslim countries. It was styled by media and pundits and some lazy historians as a clash of civilizations. And it was in this moment that Hollywood felt compelled to excavate the history of the region where those clashes had supposedly been going on for millenia.
The problem is that Bush himself, amazingly, was unable to articulate a coherent strategy or message about what came to be known as the Global War on Terror. Let’s listen to Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress just days after 9/11
Notice how he distinguishes between Islam and the radical extremists represented by Al Qaeda and compare that to this impromptu press conference on the White House lawn.
So now, let’s return to the plots of these movies…and the lies agreed upon:
In the aftermath of 9/11, the lies agreed upon were that lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians. And that the east and the west have always and will always be enemies.
Bush’s speech to Congress is a careful expression of the clash of civilizations, a sentiment that seems more like Balian’s on the walls of Jerusalem. There are good Muslims and its a shame it had to come to this, but this war must be fought.
Bush’s Crusade press conference, where he attacks the evil doers and condemns the barbarism trying to attack a superior western civilization is all 300, except if we were being historically accurate it is the Spartans who are the savage barbarians and the Persians the cultured civilization.
Alexander is muddled and wavers between preaching a clash of civilization thesis versus coexistence and mutual respect. I think this might be the most accurate description of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Muddled, improvised, swallowed up by the East, like all who came before it.
It is painfully clear by now that that September 17, 2001 Bush speech ushered in an era of endless war, something our three movies also address. The Crusades, Alexander’s conquest, and nearly a century of Greece vs. Persia followed rapidly by Greece vs. Greece.
What have we learned from the endless wars, both real and imagined? First, the fundamentalists are the most violent, and often Christian or representing the West. The Spartans are the blood thirsty death cultists and Alexander’s Macedonians wander the known world for no discernible reason.
Second, if you think you will be greeted as liberators, think again. The Crusaders learned this hard way, as did the Persians, and later the Spartans for that matter. Alexander’s enlightened idea of blending civilizations was less popular with the Greeks than the people he conquered.
Finally, the wars pit the disciplined and heroic West versus the chaotic hordes of the East. In 300, the Persians are literally monstrous. If defeat comes at the hands of the East, and it does in each film, it is only because of their vast numbers, indifference to death, and slave mentality.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
Over this season we’ve traveled the world and looked at actual revolutions as well as social revolutions and failed revolts. Here, in our final episode of the season, we’re returning to one of the classics. In the spring of 1917, a revolution began in Russia with the mutiny of starving, poorly armed and poorly clothed soldiers at the front. By the fall, a moderate revolution had given way to radical revolution. It’s difficult to identify a single geo-political event since then that can’t be traced back to the Russian Revolution.
But the meaning of the Russian Revolution, and the meaning of America’s opposition to the Soviet regime that followed, has changed many times. The bi-polar world order of the Cold War era looks pretty black and white. Starkly different political philosophies apparently underpinned that Manichaean world view.
The reality was very different. So the lies agreed upon in this episode are about how the United States has understood, and treated, the political philosophies of socialism and communism at different points in the 100+ years since the Russian Revolution. And how America’s stance at any given time wasn’t necessarily shared with the rest of the West.
Since the beginning of Season 1, we’ve talked about how Hollywood often reinforces historical lies by reverting to familiar narratives, oversimplifying historic events, or allowing one event to stand in for another. This week, however, we’re looking at how, in both cases, our movies push back against those kinds of lies, rather than reinforce them. 15 years apart, Dr. Zhivago and Reds ask their audiences to follow complex stories that sweep across vast territories and refuse to fall into neat categories of good and evil.
So what are the lies that David Lean (by way of Boris Pasternak) and Warren Beatty (by way of John Reed) are refuting?
Well, first of all that the Russian Revolution was a calamitous and unwarranted defeat of democracy and capitalism.
Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in totalitarian dictatorship.
And finally, following from that, that if A and B are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy.
That seems like a tall order to cover in one episode, with 2 films. But trust us. Looking at these films, and the context within which they were made, will do most of the work for us.
As we always do, let’s start with a recap. One is 56 years old, the other merely 40, so we won’t trouble you with spoiler alerts.
The incredibly beautiful , that is to say, visually stunning Dr. Zhivago was released in 1965 and directed by David Lean, the brilliant English director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Passage to India. Long-time collaborator Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay, adapting the 1957 novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak. The book was very popular in the West, but, as you might expect, banned in the Soviet Union for decades. I guess the idea was to film it in the Soviet Union, but that wasn’t possible (although I was fooled). It was filmed mostly in Spain.
The international cast is stellar, representing a who’s who in cinema during this Golden Age of Hollywood. Omar Sharif is the titular character, Yuri Zhivago and his star crossed lover, Lara Antipova, is played by Julie Christie. Geraldine Chaplin is Tonya, Zhivago’s long-suffering wife. Rod Steiger is the loathsome Victor Komarovsky; Alec Guinness is Zhivago’s long-lost half brother Comrade General Yevgraf Zhivago; Tom Courtenay is the Bolshevik purist Pasha, Lara’s husband who later morphs into a cruel general known as Strelnikov. There are other great performances by Ralph Richardson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Rushingham.
It’s surprising to read that critics weren’t sold on Dr. Zhivago when it first came out, but it is the eighth highest grossing film of all time in the US and Canada. It won 5 Oscars, but lost most of the big ones to The Sound of Music. Some critics accused it of trivializing history, which we will discuss I’m sure, but to say the film “holds up” is an understatement. Dr. Zhivago is 39th on the American Film Institute’s 100 years 100 films list and the British Film Institute voted it the 27th greatest British film of all time.
The film is mostly set against a backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War, which lasted until about 1922. The first scene is a narrative framing device set in the 1950s when Yegrav Shivago, a senior Soviet official, is searching for the daughter of his deceased brother Yuri, Dr. Zhivago, and Lara. Yegrav tracks her down and begins to tell his niece her parent’s story.
We are then treated to some gorgeous flashbacks of Yuri’s life in rural Russia, his young adulthood in turn of the century Moscow, and then his experience as a doctor witnessing the horrific suffering of the Russian people during World War I. An orphan, Yuri is taken in by the Gromekos, wealthy family friends from Moscow. They educate Yuri to be a doctor and pair him off with their daughter Tonya. His life seems set, but he is a poet at heart and his well-planned life is derailed when he meets young Lara, a 17 year old dress maker who is victimized by her mother’s influential consort, Victor Komoravsky. She is also dating the idealistic Socialist activist Pasha. These complicated relationships occur amid the backdrop of growing tensions in Russia as the small, but vocal Socialist movement challenges centuries of Tsarist rule. As we know, World War I topples the already fragile Romanov dynasty, throwing Russia into chaos and revolution for years.
After Yuri is drafted as a battlefield doctor, he encounters Lara, who he admired only from a distance in Moscow. After Pasha had joined the war, she volunteered as a nurse. Yuri and Lara fall in love, but stay true to their spouses, although Pasha is feared dead. News of Lenin’s return, the czar’s abdication, the provisional governments, seem very distant at first, but that will change dramatically.
Yuri returns to revolutionary Moscow. The Gromeko mansion is now commandeered by the party and the family lives in one room. Yuri is a romantic humanist, and he is drawn to the ideals of the revolutionaries. But his proletariat neighbors and the increasingly intolerant and radical Bolshevik elite only see the family’s privilege and wealth. Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf visits and warns Yuri to take the family to their dascha and wait out the chaos and violence. They pack up and go on an amazing train ride punctuated by the violence of the civil war. At one point Yuri meets Pasha, now Strelnikov, who declares Lara is better off thinking he’s dead.
Let’s play the clip of Yuri meeting Strenilkov. Its gives you a sense of why Yuri’s simple humanism is suddenly dangerous during the paranoid, radical phase of the revolution.
I think that line, “The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it” is important. There is always a lot of talk about history in the films this episode.
As if by fate, Yuri and Lara reunite in the small village and begin a passionate love affair that is interrupted by the civil war. Yuri is kidnapped for two years and forced back into service as a doctor. Horrified by what he sees, he deserts and finds that his family fled to Paris. Their pasts catch up to them, however, when Victor shows up to warn them they are both in danger – Lara for being Strenilkov’s widow (Strelnikov is now on the enemy list – a clear case of the revolution eating their own) and Yuri because of his poetry, which was once deemed idealistic and populist, but is now too bourgeois and personal. They are forced to split up, but Lara is pregnant.
The tragic story ends years later when Yuri dies of a heart attack after running to try and catch Lara when he sees her on a Moscow street. Lara perishes in a Stalinist gulag. The final scene takes us back to Yevgraf speaking with their daughter, Tanya, who may have no memory of her parents, but seems to have Yuri’s artistic spirit.
Released 16 years later, Reds is also the story of a man and a woman who were sympathetic to the revolution but became casualties of its radical phase. Another 3.5 hour long epic drama, Reds covers the lives and careers of journalists and writers John Reed and Louise Bryant. Reed was an avowed communist activist and author of the amazing first hand account of the Russian Revolution – Ten Days That Shook the World. Reds is Warren Beatty’s baby. He co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in the film alongside pretty much every other great actor he knew at the time. Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director, but Reds lost the Best Film award to Chariots of Fire. A number of cast members, Beatty included, were nominated for acting awards, but only Maureen Stapleton won for her role as anarchist political philosopher and writer, Emma Goldman.
And let’s just look in awe at this cast. We can imagine Beatty just calling up his buddies and saying, “Hey, wanna make this movie with me?” So, Beatty is John Reed, but I found that Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant stole the film as Reed’s companion and eventually wife. The character evolved into a fiercely independent talent in her own right. We have Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill; Edward Hermann, Richard Gilmore (or FDR, if you prefer that reference) himself, as writer and activist Max Eastman; we mentioned Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman; Jerzy Kosinski, the author of Being There, which had just been adapted brilliantly for the screen by Hal Ashby a couple of years earlier, plays one of the original Bolsheviks and Lenin associate Grigory Zinoviev. There are some other noteworthy appearances by young Paul Sorvino, young M. Emmett Walsh, George Plimpton, and William Daniels, who was John Adams in 1776 if you remember, but here plays a leader of the American Communist Party. Even Gene Hackman plays a cantankerous New York publisher for about 30 seconds. Like we said, it’s a who’s who of Warren Beatty’ rolodex.
Most effective, though, are the appearances of real-life witnesses to the era, and to the lives of Reed and Bryant. Their memories of the events on screen are interspersed throughout the film and lend the story some real authenticity. Some of the witnesses include radical writer and activist Scott Nearing, suffragist Dorothy Frooks, Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, and writer Henry Miller. I even caught comic actor Georgie Jessel, if you can believe that.
The point of the interviews is to highlight just how dynamic and close-knit the community of artists and activists living in Greenwich Village was in the 1910s and 20s. And also, crucially, to remind Americans that this era was not so far gone – there were still living witnesses to it. And that to be a Communist, or at least a socialist, or a labor leader, was neither rare nor outlandish. 1917 was a moment when liberal democracy was really only just getting started in many countries and was still in the future for others
Reds begins in Portland, ORegon in 1915 where we meet Louise Bryant suffocating in a bourgeois marriage. She’s an artist, writer, journalist but her ambitions are thwarted so far from the action. John Reed, a socialist journalist, comes around to preach an antiwar message and encourages Louise to come to New York. She takes him up on this and gets dropped into the intimidating world of more accomplished figures feeding off of each other’s talent. Initially seen as just another Reed conquest, Louise fights to establish her own voice and become more of Reed’s equal than a consort.
As Reed gets drawn further into anti-war activism and socialist party politics, Bryant has an affair with Eugene O’Neill, played memorably by Jack Nicholson in an understated performance, and gains confidence in her own work. When the US gets into the war, Louise travels to France and becomes a war correspondent. Reed comes looking for Louisa and convinces her to go with him to Moscow and report on the revolution they have all been hoping for.
We get a great montage that illustrates the intoxication of the moment. Here we hear them reading the dispatches they are frantically writing for whatever papers will take their copy.
Unlike the journalists we discussed in earlier episodes, Reed and Bryant see their journalism as having a very specific and necessary political agenda.
But Reed, one of the few Americans in the country at the time, is more than just a journalist here, he becomes part of the revolution, speaking at rallies and preaching US worker solidarity with the new regime. We watch the Kerensky governments fall apart and the Bolsheviks rise. Reed hob knobs with Lenin and Trotsky, but mostly he’s about getting the Comintern to sign off on Reed’s pet project, the breakaway Communist Labor Party of America.
At this point in the film we come to view Reed as an egotistical, self-important figure. This is his major flaw, but also what drives him. And it’s after this first trip to Russia that Reed writes the book that makes him famous – Ten Days that Shook the World.
Louise Bryant is back in the US, facing the wrath of a government pushing the post-WWI Red Scare pretty hard. Reed is already charged with sedition and Louise is suspected of it as well. Congress doesn’t understand the Bolshevik Revolution and calls Louise forward to testify, both because she was a witness, but also because they want to silence and intimidate any socialist voices. Let’s play her exchange with some Senators at a hearing:
And she’s right on a number of fronts, but about the Soviet government working.
This is where Reed goes off the rails. He goes back to Russia to represent American communists, but winds up staying and working for the new propaganda department. Reed is also struggling with a kidney ailment that is progressively getting worse.If you want to get a sense of just how unhinged Reed has become, adopting the worst parts of the Bolshevik platform, consider this argument with his friend Emma Goldman. She also goes to Russia hoping to see a glorious revolution unfold, but the civil war empowers the violent and oppressive elements over the idealists.
As harsh as Reed sounds there, he’s kind of right. The Bolshevik revolution is not what anyone planned for, but it happened the way it happened. It can only “work” with an enormous body count. Reds is interesting because it shows how disconnected Greenwich Village activism can be from the reality of a revolution as complex and violent as the Bolshevik takeover of a backwards, agrarian empire. I mean, what do these overeducated writers and playwrights have in common with peasants in Baku?
Reed does get a little disillusioned, mostly because he can’t be in charge of the American communists, and tries to leave Russia. He walks to Finland and is detained for over a year while Louise, always loyal to him, moves heaven and earth to save him. Released in 1920, Reed goes back to Russia, but his spotted typhus is only getting worse. By the time Louise sees him in Moscow, Reed is on his last legs. She cares for him, but Reed dies soon after their reunion. Reed is just one of three Americans buried in the Kremlin.
Some Americans today are obsessed with the apparent threat of ‘socialism’. This hysteria, ironically, has increased since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, rather than decreased. So it’s interesting to watch these two movies – both made during particularly “hot” phases of the Cold War. In fact, it’s downright disorienting. In both films, the arguments being made by critics of capitalism or critics of dynastic imperialism are, quite frankly, treated as perfectly legitimate ones.
In other words, it’s complicated. In a common development after revolutions, and particularly after revolutions that are then attacked from without, the doctrine of communism is gradually coopted to become the cover story for authoritarianism. The goals of the revolution — an end to private property and the control of the means of production by the proletariat, are replaced by a regime that claims to act on behalf of the revolutionary ideals, but in an emergency capacity because of the threat from without.
Meanwhile, socialism, which seeks to create a more just and equitable distribution of wealth and greater control of the means of production by the people, but through democratic processes, is on the same spectrum as classic communist ideology, but isn’t the same. And social democracy in varying forms, took firm root in the democracies of the West in the 20th C. Except the US.
And this is what takes us back to our films – they are both the product of writers, directors, who possess a particularly common world view in most of the West: that there are complex variations in versions of socialist and communist philosophy. And, as a political and economic philosophy, it can coexist with democracy.
Mainstream American Cold War culture wasn’t interested in parsing those details.
So how did these movies get made and what was going on at the time?
Well, Pasternak’s novel was published in 1957 after being banned from publication in the Soviet Union. Always up for making political statements while claiming they are apolitical, the Nobel Committee promptly bestowed the Nobel Prize for literature on Pasternak in 1958. He was forced to refuse it, and so the novel and Pasternak became cause celebres in the West, particularly the US.
But it’s complicated. The book was published by a press run by the Italian Communist Party. Not some bastion of the New York publishing world. And Pasternak himself, given many opportunities over the decades since the revolution, had always steadfastly remained in Russia. He was not a dissident nor was his book a critique of communism in the way that it was portrayed by the West.
In fact, he and Yuri Zhivago had a lot in common. They valued individual idealism, which put them on the wrong side of the party. But they both believed in the ideals of socialism: a more equitable society where the dignity of the individual was valued. And, considering his background and the projects he gravitated to, David Lean likely did too.
We can look at Lean’s films today and focus on Alec Guinness in brownface playing an Indian in Passage to India and an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. But the empathetic treatment of the female and Indian protagonists in Passage, and the respect and time given to the Pan-Arab movement that Lawrence championed, suggest he had deeper sympathies.
The Britain of the post-WWII era took a very different path than America. Victory in the war and prosperity after it led Americans to adopt a syllogism that the nation was successful because it was righteous and the proof of its righteousness was its success. Although we know now that the post-war era was one of strong union membership and progressive taxation that funded a vibrant civic life, the bi-polar logic of the Cold War led Americans to think of their country as the negation of the USSR.
Britain, on the other hand, responded to the destruction of the war with a commitment to a cradle to grave social welfare system. Here’s Sir William Beveridge, reading out the basic principles of his report, delivered just before the end of the war.
And on the European continent, generally speaking, the public and their governments were also quite comfortable telling the difference between democratic socialism and totalitarian communism. So what we see in David Lean, being attracted to Pasternak’s story, is a sympathy for the ideals that drove the Russian Revolution and a fascination for the possibilities of good and evil on all sides of an incredibly complicated revolutionary era.
Warren Beatty was never afraid to splash his political and social views on screen, and he definitely used his talents and gravitas in the service of a film most Americans would likely go out of their way to avoid if it were not for the amazing cast he put together. Reds is released months into the Reagan presidency, a true watershed moment in American politics that represented an escalation in the Cold War. A biopic about an avowed American communist buried in the Kremlin is a statement film, no doubt.
Reds was based on a book written by a pioneer in the field of film and history, Robert Rosenstone. Rosenstone wrote John Reed: Romantic Revolutionary in 1975 and served as a historical consultant for Beatty on Reds. Using this experience, Rosenstone began to advocate that historians take the moving image as a source seriously, and that in turn, film makers take historians seriously. In 1989 he was asked to create a film section for the American Historical Review, the flagship publication for the AHA. For anyone interested in the discipline of film and history, start with Robert Rosenstone’s History on Film/Film on History where he uses Reds as a case study.
But let’s look back to this precarious time of the early 1980s, right after Reagan’s election. Why there was no Red Scare on par with what Jack Reed and Louise Bryant experienced in the wake of World War I and the world changing Russian Revolution, the cultural shift turn to the Right was palpable in politics and even in Hollywood. After all, Hollywood is about pandering and the Reagan revolution seemed to have the upper hand. Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris – killing commies, refighting Vietnam and winning, unrepentant nationalism, evil empire rhetoric – Hollywood didn’t care, the box office has spoken.
On television, Family Ties was signaling that the social idealism of the Sixties was giving way. The hippy parents raising Alex P. Keaton, Young Republican. And of course President Reagan, who cooperated with McCarthy during the 2nd Red Scare in his role as the President of the ?? of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, was signaling the end to the Sixties idealism.
Let’s refresh our memories (at least for some of us old enough like us) about the cultural zeitgeist with Reagan’s evil empire speech.
“The focus of evil in the modern world.” Reds, as we’ve shown, gives you the whole spectrum. The idealism behind the revolution was genuine and given the regime it overthrew, warranted, but Reds also shows the brutality and oppression resulting from the civil war, mass starvation, and outside pressures. Reagan’s America had no interest in subtlety.
Let’s review our lies to refute before getting into some more topics. First, the Russian Revolution was a disaster and posed an immediate and sustained threat to democracy and capitalism.
Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in a totalitarian dictatorship. As if Stalin was just right around the corner.
And finally, following from that, that if lies one and two are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy.
I am always interested in the Bolshevik concept of history, which of course begins with Marx. History as a force that basically replaces God. Communism will conquer history and every temporary setback or tragedy, even monumental loss of life is forgiven if it moves history along the correct path.
When we add Lenin we get the idea that this inevitable history can be helped and moved along through the efforts of a particularly dedicated cadre. Both our films feature discussions about prioritizing history over the private life, like Pasha abandoning Lara. When he massacres the wrong town, Pasha brushes it off as a victory for history nonetheless. Alec Guinness speaks to this when, in the very first scene of the movie, he chastises an engineer who wants to increase the capacity of the dam where Yuri and Lara’s daughter now works: “You are an impatient generation,” he tells the engineer. Meanwhile, the story he tells is all about the private life Pasha declared dead.
In Reds, Reed conflates history with his making his own mark in said history. He will abandon Louise, and even the revolution at one point when the COmintern refuses his request to lead the American communists. He just walks off to Finland. Louise, Emma Goldman, and some other American activists know history is contingent – which is why Louise can tell Congress Bolshevism in the American context makes no sense. But at the same time, as so many of the witnesses – those whose interviews punctuate the movie – keep making clear, it was perfectly reasonable and rational to try and find a different version of social justice for the United States.
There is something very American about Reds, and very Russian about Dr. Zhivago. In Reds, the hero is a man who believes he can shape history, that his can-do attitude will be welcome and a valuable addition to the cause. As viewers, we are at the center of the struggle for the soul of the Bolshevik party, the course of the revolution in Russia, and the shape of Communism in America. John Reed believed he was vital to all three.
In Zhivago, history is something that randomly and destructively intersects with people’s lives. We get a sense of the vastness of the struggle precisely because it seems to keep crashing into the lives of our lovers, despite the fact that they never seek it out. The viewer experiences WWI, the Russian Revolution, the subsequent White and Red civil war, and the results of Soviet forced progress through to the 1950s. And the end of the movie shows the young woman, Yuri and Lara’s daughter, dwarfed by the monumental dam, as she walks away with a balalaika slung over her shoulder. History looms over her but she also carries a small bit with her.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
Last episode we talked about social revolution, a different thing altogether from the sort of violent political upheaval bringing about regime change or throwing off the yoke of western imperialism. Women’s suffrage and the slower, incremental struggle for equal rights is no less revolutionary, but it’s what some might call a permanent revolution. In this episode we stick with social revolution, but the focus is on labor. There’s a lot of violence associated with workers’ rights, at least at the beginning of the century, and like women’s rights – it is a work in progress. If anything, we’ve probably taken steps backwards since our featured films were made.
Our three films were produced within a decade of each other, 1979 to 1987, when labor faced immense struggles in the face of the Reagan Revolution. Not only did Reagan fracture the normally reliable Democratic coalition of voters, peeling off many blue collar workers, his administration slashed and burned decades of meaningful worker protections in basically every industry. We start with John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), a film about the infamous 1920 coal miners strike in West Virginia. Next is Norma Rae (1979), Martin Ritt’s film starring Sally Field and based on a true story of a North Carolina textile worker who pushes for unionization. And then a darker story, Silkwood (1983), about Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power whistle blower and union activist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1979.
So, what are our lies agreed upon in this episode? Well, the first is that history is a story of progress. A lot of it just, well, isn’t. And workers’ rights in America is a case in point. Unions are weaker today than they were when these movies were made. And they were made in response to an active campaign to reduce workers’ rights and vilify unions during the 1980s.
Our second lie is tied directly to the first but gets a bit more specific. It’s that dangerous conditions for workers are a thing of the past, relegated to Dickens’ novels and the sweat shops of the turn of the last century. Students are assigned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (about meat processing plants in Chicago circa 1900) or taught about the Triangle Factory Fire (when almost 150 women were killed in a sweatshop fire in New York in 1911) largely so that we can congratulate ourselves that we no longer subject workers to those conditions.
The historical truth is that efforts to protect workers from exploitation have never been adequate. And that employers are always favored over labor by the lawmakers who should be protecting them. These statements sound political. But if we simply look at the historical record, we see quite clearly that they are statements of fact. The politics can come into the philosophical discussions of whether and what we should do about it. But the history is starkly clear.
Matewan is a brilliant writing and directorial effort by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It stars Chris Cooper as Joe Kenehan, the union organizer who comes to town amid increased tensions between coal miners and the all-powerful Stone Mountain Coal Company. James Earl Jones, and boy its great to see him in the flesh acting, is “Few Clothes” Johnson. All of us Mary McDonnell fans will be happy to see her as Elma Radnor, who runs a boarding house and is mother to Danny, an aspiring preacher and young coal miner who actually is providing the voice over from a perspective decades removed from the 1920 event. Danny is played by singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie in some circles. Another one of our favorites, David Straitharn is the pro-union police chief Sid Hatfield (as in the Hatfields and the McCoys), who is caught in the middle of the impending violence.
The film begins with Joe, a United Mine Workers representative, arriving to town to organize angry miners facing wage cuts. The company imports Black and Italian workers to break a strike, setting up major conflicts within the town over who deserves to be unionized and who doesn’t. We see just how powerful Stone Mountain is – controlling every aspect of Matewan, even if Chief Hatfield is itching for a fight with their hired goons. Stone Mountain plants a mole in the union, played by perpetual villain character actor Bob Gunton (he’s the warden in Shawshank Redemption and we just saw him as Woodrow Wilson in Iron Jawed Angels), who turns people against Joe and urges the miners to get violent. This would justify using force and crushing their efforts.
All of this drama and intrigue comes to a head when a private army of union busters arrives and the inevitable confrontation turns into an all out gun battle in the center of town. The Matewan massacre, of which Joe is a victim, is the precursor to the most violent episode of the Great Coalfield War that started in 1912. A year after Matewan, the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted 10,000 miners against 3,000 armed lawmen and mercenaries, resulting in 100 dead. It was the largest armed uprising in the US since the Civil War. Have you ever heard of it?
Every film this week dramatizes both the conflicts between labor and management as well as internal divides over race, gender, and even age. A lot of these union efforts happen in the Jim Crow South and workers often had to overcome their learned prejudice to see the bigger picture. When James Earl Jones walks into a union meeting hoping to join his workers with the miners, Joe has to do some convincing. Let’s listen to him start to bridge this divide.
Norma Rae is a 1979 film, directed by Martin Ritt and written by the married writing team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch from a 1975 book, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, by NYTimes reporter, Henry Leiferman. It won Field an Oscar and a Cannes award for Best Actress, and was nominated for Best Picture. Despite the movie poster image of Field making the film look like it was a rom-com, Norma Rae is probably best remembered for the iconic image of Sally Field standing on a workbench on the factory floor holding up a huge sign reading “UNION”. It also starred Ron Liebman as union organizer, and Beau Bridges, as Norma Rae’s husband. The always great character actors Pat Hingle and Gail Strickland, round out the cast.
Boiled down, Norma Rae is the story of a young woman with not much education taking on the ownership of a textile factory in rural North Carolina. Working conditions are poor and the health of her friends and family suffer because of it. Her growing anger at the situation coincides with the arrival of Rueben, Rob Liebman’s character, a New Yorker from the national union tasked with organizing a chapter way down South.
Unlike the overt brutality and danger in Matewan, here we see how anti-union action has become more sophisticated and passive aggressive in the decades since the 1920s. It takes us through the very real, nitty gritty details of unionization efforts, including the pettiness, the intimidation, and the exploitation of racism and misogyny by the owners to undermine the pro-union efforts. And it’s not just the owners. Officers come from the national office to try and sideline Norma Rae once they hear rumors that she’s – in the parlance of the time – a whore. More on that later, when we talk to our first guest on this podcast.
Norma Rae is not as explicitly grounded in the language of class warfare and socialism as Sayles’ Matewan, as you might expect, but it is effective in showing how high the stakes are, how much poor people are conditioned to accept their fate, and how hard it is to get a diverse group of people to join together in common interest. Here’s a scene with Ron Liebman urging the textiles workers, some Black, some young, some old, to tell their stories about premature deaths, illnesses, and the indignities of working under bad circumstances.
When watching this scene, you can almost see the revelation on people’s faces as recounting their own miseries makes them realize just how poorly they’re being treated.
Silkwood should be a more remembered film than it is. Released in 1983, it stars Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell. Based on the 1981 book, Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Howard Kohn, the screenplay was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlin, and the film was directed by Mike Nichols. The pedigree is incredible. Both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, and Cher won (deservedly) the Golden Globe. Quite frankly, her performance in this reminds me of just how fantastic she was as an actress and what a shame it is that she chose to get huge amounts of face-freezing plastic surgery and focus on her concert show instead of continuing to give us incredible performances like she did here, and in Mask, and in Moonstruck.
Silkwood is different from our other two films because it takes on what was seen then as a relatively new industry. Coal mines, textile mills – these are where the modern proletariat came into existence. And yet, the plight of workers in unsafe conditions pales in comparison to the accidental death of millions should things go wrong at a nuclear power plant. Silkwood is as much about whistle-blowing and the perils of deregulation as it is about the eternal struggle between labor and capital. The Kerr-McGee Fuel Fabrication Site, which operated in rural Oklahoma between 1965 and 1975, seems to be filled with sick people. Workers are regularly “cooked” by radiation and scrubbed raw in showers as if that helps. The implications go beyond their safety, but the newness of the industry means the classic measures of unsafe conditions don’t even really apply.
Like Norma Rae, unions get involved and in this case don’t have the workers’ interests at heart, seeing the impending disaster at Kerr-McGee as a publicity opportunity. Given Karen’s access to documents and X-rays proving the plant was working too fast and sloppy, shipping faulty fuel rods, the union uses her to gather documentation and expose the company in the press. The film ends with Karen driving to meet a reporter, but she sees headlights bearing down on her. Officially, Karen was killed in a one-car accident, but the film (and the book it is based on) implies she was “silenced” for being a whistleblower.
After visiting Washington with other union reps to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission, some union sponsored doctors show up in Texas and scare the Hell out of the workers, finally telling them the truth about their prolonged exposure to plutonium. After that bomb drops, Craig T. Nelson confronts Ron Silver, the union rep, and lays bare a common theme in our films – is it better to have fair and safe jobs or no jobs at all? Let’s play that clip:
Honestly, he has a point when he asks Ron Silver, where were you years ago? Why now? Unions, at least the management or national offices, are not always cast as heroes in these films.
While Matewan was a small, independent film that didn’t get much screen time upon its release, what Norma Rae and Silkwood remind us of is that Hollywood used to make character and plot driven movies about and for grown ups. And they were both critical and commercial successes. We miss those days. I think the starpower and resources behind films like Norm Rae and Silkwood have to do with the country’s turn to the Right, culminating with the Reagan Revolution which ushered in an era of giddy, reckless deregulation and attacks on unions. Breaking the unions and deregulating almost every industry are enduring legacies of the Reagan era, I think it is safe to say.
Look, we all know Hollywood’s reputation for liberal elitism, although what’s more corporate than the film industry this last 30 years, This was before the rise of independent films – like Matewan – when studios still had a stranglehold on production. Why did they do it then? But being openly liberal and progressive in the 1980s contradicted the Zeitgeist, and challenged the status quo. For every Rambo and Schwarzeneggar flick you have a Silkwood or a Norma Rae. There’s a market for dissenters in times of great political realignment, right? Think about how popular West Wing was in the Bush years. Some of us wanted to live in a world with a liberal academic president who easily won two terms. You know, Science Fiction.
Labor is all but broken today, but how did it get that way, and why were the 70s and 80s a turning point. Let’s dig a little deeper into that story. The formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955 might be considered a high point for the modern labor movement, stringing together a series of wins from collective bargaining. For example, manufacturing workers tripled weekly earnings between 1945 and 1970. But even, then, just a third of wage earners were unionized.
As we see dramatized in all three of our films, however, women and minorities were not always welcome in unions. Or, at the very least, their problems were not prioritized over strictly economic gains. The AFL-CIO did push for civil rights and backed Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights Act, seeing in it a chance to promote labor. But what changed between the 60s and 70s?
Neither of us are labor historians, so let’s cite our sources here. I’m summarizing information presented in Foster R. Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History. From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation. This was an era of industrial restructuring and the beginning of cheap goods from foreign markets flooding the country. This just decimated the unions, prompted tons of closings, and led to more concession bargaining. This is when unions give back pay and other benefits in exchange for job security.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Warren Harding era. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor’s flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s.
Reaganomics is synonymous with the unproven but enduring trickle down argument – cut taxes for corporations and watch them invest properly and for the good of all. Still waiting for that one. It is also about deregulation, which just underwent another wave during the Trump years. Let’s listen to former Labor Secretary RObert Reich explain what we’re up against. And yes, we know Reich is a big leftie and this is overtly anti-Trump, but the information is accurate.
And to move this away from Democrats vs. Republicans, Reich’s old boss Bill Clinton was no friend of unions himself. The world changed and it probably won’t go back to those post WWII days of unions achieving incremental progress for all.
Neither Norma Rae or Silkwood mention the words Occupational Safety and Health Administration, because hey, it’s not that exciting, but it definitely is part of the story. Passed in 1970 during the Nixon administration (and for all his faults, the guy created the EPA as well), OHSA provided much needed protections for workers by creating some federal guidelines.
The issue here is the ‘chemical revolution’ and the danger industrial chemicals posed to clean air and water, let alone workers exposed to them every day. Whether its textile mills in North Carolina or the poorly regulated nuclear power industry in places like Oklahoma, OHSA was intended to provide a modicum of protection for all of us. A film from 1979 (Norma Rae) and 1983 (Silkwood) dramatizing WHY such an agency was needed is not surprising, although it doesn’t do so explicitly.
The Reagan era was also the period of increased Cold War tensions. Nixon signed the SALT I nuclear weapons limitation treaty in 1972, but by the 1980a, Not only Reagan, but also his buddy Margaret Thatcher, were fearful that the SALT II nuclear weapons limitation treaty that Jimmy Carter had signed with Brezhnev in 1979 was a sell-out. The duo believed that Brezhnev was ramping up weapons production because the USSR felt increasingly isolated in a world where Eastern Europe was being forcefully kept in line and China was friendly with the US.
Brian and I can certainly tell our listeners that when we were growing up, we firmly believed we wouldn’t survive to adulthood. A nuclear war was going to end it all. US-Soviet belligerence in the 1980s was at an all time high. And Hollywood responded with a series of movies that looked at nuclear warfare directly, and nuclear power as an indirect critique. The same thing happened in Britain. Movies like Testament, about a family in California in the aftermath of nuclear war, and TV movies like The Day After in the US, and Threads in Britain, covered the same story. And activists like Dr. Helen Caldicott had their voices amplified through documentaries like If You Love this Planet. Let’s listen to a bit of that here. She’s addressing a room full of very scared looking young adults as she talks about the Cold War nuclear arsenal.
So it’s in this geo-political environment that the critique of nuclear power safety is happening with movies like Silkwood and the China Syndrome. Criticism of one was supposed to also help halt the other.
So, how do our films address the lies agreed upon? Let’s review those. First, one of the most common myths Americans believe, especially, is that history is a story of progress. It may be incremental, but things improve and we become more enlightened, and all that. Workers’ rights and unions are actually weaker today than they were when these movies were made.
Second, and Robert Reich kind of got to this, is that unsafe and unhealthy worker conditions are a thing of the past. Tell that to Amazon warehouse workers peeing in bottles, or basically any worker in the meatpacking industry who, it has to be said, are completely unprotected by the law because of immigration status. They can be coerced to work 24/7 to break our supply chain problem and contract Covid at alarming rates and there’s hardly a peep out of the then Trump-run regulatory regime.
Matewan is a tragedy, a real life massacre, and John Sayles’ 1987 film is meant to remind us of just how difficult it was to achieve the most basic protections for workers. The fact that the Stone Mountain company paid you in vouchers you could only spend in their stores, mandate that you live in their houses, compelled you to rent equipment they owned to do the job, and threatened you with a private army and police force any time you got out of line is not fictional. This was the status quo in early 20th century America.
Here’s James Earl Jones and other Black miners getting the run down from a Stone Mountain boss. It’s pretty remarkable:
As for the second lie, of course coal miners died early from black lung and perished in easily preventable accidents. Matewan shows this as well. Matewan is about shining a light on this 1920 tragedy in 1987 to highlight the dangers of this industry being deregulated once again.
Rather than discuss Norma Rae between ourselves, we thought we’d bring in an expert on the subject instead. What follows is a conversation Lia had recently with Joey Fink, an Assistant Professor of History at High Point University whose scholarship just happens to be on the real life JP Stevens unionization effort in Roanoke Rapids.
Silkwood is not really a story about union organizing. But it is a movie about labor, this time combining the long-standing problems of management disregard for worker safety despite the existence of a union, and the fears about nuclear power and nuclear war that was central to the zeitgeist of the 1980s. It’s main character is also a whistleblower, which is a role that seems to be more and more in the media spotlight today, which maybe should tell us something about how broken our checks against corporate, government, and military malfeasance are today.
Her story is a tragic mystery to boot. And the union here is not cast in a positive light. The union calculates that the health and safety of workers is less important than any publicity you generate from exposing corporate malfeasance. In Silkwood, no one is on your side – the town, the company, your co-workers, the Atomic Energy Commission, or the union you look to for protection. When it comes to complicating the lies agreed upon, Silkwood gets an A+
Special thanks to our guest, Dr. Joey Fink of High Point University
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
So far this season we’ve covered violent, political revolutions that toppled old regimes and erected new ones, sometimes with radically different ideological underpinnings. We devoted three episodes to the American Revolution and our two episodes on journalists caught in revolutionary situations included films about revolutions in Central America and Asia. Today, we want to highlight social revolutionaries who actually effectuate change (or in some cases prevent change) in their own political system.
That’s right, they deserve their own season, too. We can draw on labor organizers and civil rights advocates, of course, but this episode concerns how Hollywood represents the evolution of the women’s rights movement in the twentieth century. Specifically, we are interested in the suffrage movements in Britain and the United States. But also, because that basic right to vote did not alter the myriad ways in which women were marginalized and disempowered socially, politically, and economically, the long overdue follow up to suffrage – we wanted to include coverage of so-called second wave feminism, which spans the early 1960s through the 1980s.
And one thing we noticed is that there are surprisingly few comprehensive treatments of both topics in film and television, at least before the 21st century. We think we’ve chosen three quality productions that take suffrage and the broader feminist movement seriously while also doing what we are really interested in highlighting in Lies Agreed Upon, giving some insight into the political and cultural context of the periods in which our two films and one miniseries were produced.
Going chronologically, our first film is Iron Jawed Angels (2004), an HBO film focused on Alice Paul and the American suffrage movement. Next is the British production Suffragette (2015), which highlights the experiences of working class followers of Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain shortly before World War I. Finally, we have the nine episode miniseries Mrs. America, which was first shown on FX in 2020. Mrs. America covers the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment by such second wave luminaries as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and Gloria Steinem. But, unexpectedly, conservative women organized by Phyliss Schlafly mounted a successful campaign to stop its passage. Mrs. America really captures the complexity and divisions within both camps, something only possible with nine hours at your disposal instead of 120 minutes.
The first of our lies agreed upon in this episode is that America has always been at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The reality was that suffragists in the United States learned from and borrowed tactics from the British suffragettes.
The second lie is a classic tactic of power – that any division or variation within a social justice movement invalidates the cause. There is always a temptation for Hollywood to whitewash internal struggles and disagreements in order to assert the virtue and deservedness of the participants.
And the third lie is tied to the second. By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, textbooks and popular culture could claim that victory had already been achieved. The reality – that equality for women is still unrealized – went unacknowledged and unaddressed.
Let’s recap our productions
Iron Jawed Angels was directed by German filmmaker Katja von Garnier, who had a rather slim filmography before this feature and much of her work since is meant for the European market. Four screenwriters produced this script, which actually makes sense because at times the film can’t decide what it wants to be. The cast combines some good young talent from the early 2000s with an icon like Angelica Huston, who appears briefly as Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Movement, Lois Smith as another elder stateswoman in the movement, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Julia Ormond as the tragically underused labor lawyer Inez Milholland. We also have a glimpse of the great Margo Martindale as Harriet Eaton Stanton, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Luckily she is much more prominent in Mrs. America, as Bela Abzug.
But this is a young person’s film about the younger and therefore more radical women behind the final push for suffrage in the 19teens, specifically Alice Paul, played by Hillary Swank, and Lucy Burns, played by Frances O’Conner. Molly Parker plays a fictional wife of a fictional senator and Vera Farmiga plays the Polish-American suffrage and labor organizer, Ruza Wenclwaska. Lia and I both agree she is wasted here. I guess we should mention McDreamy, aka Patrick Dempsey, who plays a Washington Post cartoonist and ostensibly a love interest Alice Paul. He is, unsurprisingly, not a real person and conjured up here to sexualize Alice Paul and capitalize on his Greys Anatomy fame.
The film begins in 1913 when Alice Paul and Lucy Burns return from England having participated in the more radical suffragette movement organized by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia and Cristabel. The two lobby the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association to go directly to Congress and the recently elected Woodrow Wilson and lobby for suffrage. This sets up a clear generational divide that plays out the rest of the film. For now, Paul and Burns organize the Woman Suffrage Procession at Wilson’s inauguration, which leads to some violence and involves forcing African-American women to march behind white women to appease southern delegations.
Frustrated over money issues and tactics, Paul and Burns break off and form the National Woman’s Party. They really get into trouble by picketing outside the White House in the famous Silent Sentinels action, provoking the police and federal government to respond with force, especially after World War I begins. This gives the government a license to act with force. The most harrowing scenes in the film take place in the Occoquan Workhouse where the arrested women are subjected to forced feeding after deciding on a hunger strike, not unlike their British counterparts.
It’s not surprising the women who undertake this extreme form of protest are accused of being mentally ill. In this clip Alice Paul explains precisely why she is doing this, and actually wins over the doctor assigned to evaluate her. Let’s listen:
When word leaks out about this brutal treatment, the pressure on Wilson grows and he uses the occasion of the war’s conclusion to support the 19th amendment, which passes a few years after his speech. The film ends with great optimism and unity of purpose, showing a long scroll of nations that followed suit and granted women suffrage, and some still yet to do so.
Suffragette takes us across the pond and it shows because this is a thoroughly British production. It is directed by Sarah Gavron, who is very intentional in her career about producing films about women, especially given the scarcity of female directors in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter). The script is written by Abi Morgan, who has some impressive credits to her name, like The Iron Lady, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, Shame, The Hour, a drama about a news show in the 1950s UK, and Brick Lane, also directed by Gavron.
The cast is impressive and replete with some of your favorite Brits, and Meryl Streep just for kicks as Emmeline Pankhurst. This is a film about working class women primarily, so the big historical figures are not as prominent as in Iron Jawed Angels. We have Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, the laundress slowly drawn into the suffragette movement, as our chief protagonist. Helena Bonham Carter is Ellyn, a fictional character representing real figures in the movement, Natalie Press as Emily Davison, the suffragette killed at the 1913 Derby race, and another recognizable British actress Romola Garai as Alice Haughton, the wife of an MP who enlists Maud into the cause. Brendan Gleeson deserves a mention as the Special Branch detective out to take down Pankhurst and her followers.
The film begins by really inserting us into the misery of working class women’s lives, specifically the laundresses who die young, are paid nothing, and suffer nonstop sexual harassment if not assault at the hands of male bosses. Maud is 24, a mother and wife with no political inclination until she witnesses a suffragette action during a delivery. Frustrated by her working conditions, Maud agrees to testify before David Lloyd George’s Parliamentary committee on the suffrage issue. It’s worth playing some of that because you begin to see Maud’s growing commitment to change.
What you get from this is how linked economic exploitation is to the issue of suffrage. Of course, the hearings result in nothing as women’s suffrage is tabled by Parliament indefinitely.
Maud’s involvement comes at a cost – her employer turns on her, her husband becomes cruel and vindictive, even taking her son away from her before ultimately relinquishing custody altogether. Maud is powerless to do anything about it, which is the point of her growing radicalization. Maud throws herself into the movement, which is based on direct action – vandalism, disruption, etc . . . . Brendan Gleeson hunts Maud down and tries to turn her, but she refuses. The suffragettes are subjected to brutal treatment in prison, including forced feeding.
Let’s listen to Gleeson interrogating Maud and her forceful condemnation of everything he represents. It is interesting to compare with Alice Paul’s comment we just played.
The film concludes with the fateful events at Derby Day when Emily Davidson is killed either accidentally or by suicide (we aren’t sure) by King George V’s horse. Her funeral is an international event and brings greater attention to the issue of suffrage, which as the ending scroll informs us, was finally granted to women over 30 in 1918.Women gained rights over their own children in 1925 and equal voting rights to men in 1928.
Mrs. America, the FX series from 2020, was created and co-written by Dahvi Waller, a Canadian screenwriter who won several awards for her work on Mad Men. I like looking over the producer list and seeing almost all women at the helm, and that goes for the many directors who worked on the nine episodes. The cast is uniformly excellent as the actors totally embody their real-life characters without resorting to obvious impressions.
This starts with Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, someone I reviled but Blanchett humanizes her. On the other side, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem; Uzo Aduba is Congressperson and first female presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm; Margo Martindale is second wave feminist pioneer Bella Abzug; Tracey Ullman is perfectly cast as Betty Friedan; Elizabeth Banks is a Republican feminist, Jill Ruckelshaus. And Sarah Poulson plays a fictional composite character named Alice Maccray, a close friend of Schlafly who becomes disillusioned with her Eagle Forum movement. And because we love John Slattery on this podcast, he is a very good Fred Schlafly, the not always supportive husband of Phyllis.
We can hardly break down each episode and do it justice, but the premise of Mrs. America is a detailed look at the fight to pass the ERA, or in the case of Phyllis Schlafly’s grass roots movement, Stop ERA, between 1972 and 1980. The last episode concerns how each side adjusts to Ronald Reagan’s election. The series begins when the women’s movement is at the height of its political power as older activists like Friedan and Abzug contend with younger, media savvy activists like Gloria Steinem.
And while the second wave feminists flex their muscle and lobby Democrats and Republicans alike to pass the ERA, seeing it as a fait accompli, we get a fascinating look into the life and career of Phyllis Schlafly. I had no idea she was basically Henry Kissinger, a Harvard educated expert on nuclear warfare and national security, but her gender prevented anyone taking her seriously, which we see several times in the series. She had political aspirations as well, so when her friend Alice suggests they organize against the ERA because it supposedly threatens the “homemaker” and counters family values, Schalfly runs with the issue in part to satisfy her own ambitions.
Here is the first time Schlafly rolls out her new platform in a speech to other conservative women. I like it because you can tell she’d rather talk about what the meeting was originally about, anti-missile shields.
You can tell she’s a gifted orator, writer, and would have been a formidable politician.
Each episode covers a crucial moment in the ERA fight in the 70s and always begins with the count of the number of states that ratified the amendment. The real stories are the fascinating internal dynamics within the feminist movement primarily, but also in Schlafly’s Eagle Forum which housed everyone from disaffected housewives to raging racist KKK members and John Birch Society devotees. She was willing to embrace them all while others, like Alice (played by Sarah Poulson) were horrified.
But the feminist movement had its own divisions, and not just generational. Were African-American women supported? Maybe a little better than what we saw in Iron Jawed Angels, but we see this is a movement led, still, by privileged white women. And Betty Friedan famously warned against the “lavender menace” posed by lesbians in the National Organization of Women. While she came around later, Mrs. America delves into this divide as well. And then there are personality clashes. Was Bella Abzug the best face of the movement given her cantankerous nature? And was Steinem too young, famous, and beautiful to be taken seriously? Elizabeth Banks’ character shows that many moderate GOP women wanted a say as well.
One great episode revolving around Shirley Chisolm takes on the significance of her presidential run, which while important symbolically, was barely supported by people like Abzug who wanted a safe, reliable George McGovern to push the ERA over the finish line. Chisholm refused to back down and gives this great speech at the DNC in 1972. Let’s listen to Uzo Adaba as Shirely Chisolm
What’s worse is that McGovern betrays all his promises to the movement to secure his nomination.
Well, we know the ERA does not pass and Schafly certainly had a lot to do with it, but her efforts were not rewarded in the end. The series ends with Schlafly expecting a phone call from President-elect Ronald Reagan inviting her into the cabinet as UN ambassador, a thank you for her powerful donor list. Instead, Reagan tells her he has a “woman problem” thanks to Stop ERA and he fills her slot with Jeanne Kirpatrick, another national security expert who, get this, was pro-ERA.
So, what contemporary events influenced our three productions? Let’s start with 2004 and Iron Jawed Angels. Although the film seems like a straightforward biopic about Alice Paul and a younger generation of suffrage activists pressuring a president and Congress to act, the weight of Iraq and the growing opposition to the Bush administration’s handling of both the war and the increasingly oppressive domestic political environment are all over this film.
The Sentinel Action was deemed a provocation once the US entered World War I because all of a sudden Woodrow Wilson was a wartime president. The Espionage Act of 1917 gave the government all sorts of power to arrest and imprison anyone considered disrupting the war effort, showing disloyalty, or “inciting insubordination.” What was once lawful political protest was criminalized and Alice Paul and the other sentinels found themselves in the Occoquan Workhouse as a result.
The Patriot Act of October 2001 was another expansive piece of legislation erecting a permanent surveillance state and increased federal power to target domestic “enemies” and criminalize some speech. But beyond this, especially after Iraq, any sort of protest was deemed “unpatriotic” by both the Bush administration and a cowed press that still felt torn between holding politicians accountable or waving the flag (sometimes literally on screen 24/7).
But there is one episode that comes to mind that reminds me of Iron Jawed Angels, although I think the film came out right before this controversy heated up and captivated the nation. It is the dignified, albeit relentless antiwar protest of Cindy Sheehan after the death of her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan. Sheehan camped out in front of George Bush’s Texas ranch for a good bit of the summer of 2005, drawing the ire of Fox News and others. But she did not relent, continuing her protest over years, including during the Obama years through Trump.
You can find pictures of Sheehan outside the iron gates of the White House, occupying the same space as the Sentinels. In the film the suffrage activists seek an audience with Wilson, but they were turned away despite making themselves omnipresent. Sheehan did the same with Bush. Let’s listen to an interview with Cindy Sheehan on Keith Olbermann’s old show from 2005.
The public pressure on her to be quiet and support the war was great, but she used her influence well. Bush was clearly uncomfortable for most of that year because he didn’t know how to handle the peaceful, but disruptive protest. Wilson felt the same.
The British production of Suffragette was announced in 2011 and finally released in 2015. Interestingly, it is the first feature film to be shot in the Houses of Parliament. A film like this about a century removed from the 1913 Suffragette Derby, really the climax of the film, is supposed to invite reflection on “how far we’ve come” and often, “how much further do we have to go?” The promotional campaign included the cast in t-shirts with Emmeline Pankhurst’s slogan – “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” You can imagine how that went over. It’s always interesting when the rhetoric of one social movement a century ago clashes with the contemporary age.
We see a lot of white women in our three productions. It makes sense for the suffrage films, especially in the UK. Iron Jawed Angels felt obligated to invent a scene with Ida B. Wells, a founder of the NAACP and suffrage activist, demanding representation at the 1912 inaugural march, even if it made the southern white women uncomfortable. But that was the last you heard from people of color in either film. As our lies agreed upon note – we often focus on suffrage and forget the century of work to achieve equal rights. Suffrage is a white woman’s battle, according to our mediated universe, but part of the ongoing struggle for equal rights is the value of all women’s active participation, and the culpability of white women in perpetuating racist institutions in the name of challenging misogynist ones.
Mrs. America does show this side of the story with Shirley Chisolm, who had no patience for sacrificing her historic candidacy to placate the largely white leadership of the women’s movement. It’s heartbreaking to watch the thwarted ambition of Chisholm, really effectively expressed by Aduba, who won an Emmy for her work. Here she is talking to her husband.
Beyond that, other Black women (and lesbians for that matter) broke away from the Friedans, Abzugs, and even Steinems to create parallel organizations that valued their voices. What I like about Mrs. America is that it does not shy away from highlighting these internal divisions, disputes, and sometimes just outright failures to do the right thing. No movement is pure and unified, so why represent it that way for the screen.
Mrs America is very recent, 2019, and naturally it is colored by the Trump years, #Metoo, and the continued discussions around intersectionality. This is simply the idea that some people are disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: race, gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc . . . Addressing one at the expense of others is incomplete. We see this throughout the series on both sides of the argument. Black women in the movement feel their white counterparts don’t care or understand their experience; Lesbians were excluded openly by Betty Friedan, at least early on in the movement; Phyllis Schlafly has all the ambitions of her sisters on the other side of the hill and endures some of the same sexism, but actively works to perpetuate it because she sees it as the only avenue to power – but power as defined and circumscribed by men.
It’s really interesting to hear Cate Blanchett, who was a producer for the series, comment here about just assuming the ERA was in the Constitution. She can be forgiven for thinking this as an Australian. This clip from ET Canada features first, creator Dahvil Waller, then Blanchett, and producer Stacy Sher.
The shadow of Trump and the current iteration of the GOP looms over the series as Schafly helps mobilize the coalition that has ruled the party since Reagan, more or less. We watch her smite her moderate foes and we can’t help but roll our eyes as the Elizabeth Banks character says with confidence – “The Reagan Revolution will never succeed.” In the postscript, we learn that the last book Schlafly wrote before her death in 2016 was The Conservative Case for Trump. She had no problem reaping what she sowed.
Let’s round out our discussion by revisiting the lies agreed upon.
The first lie is that the Anglo-American world was always at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The triumphalist narratives in our two suffrage films do little to disrupt this narrative. Sure, this progress comes at a great cost, but the imprisonments, physical assaults, and even deaths ultimately have meaning and achieve results. Iron Jawed Angels in particular makes suffrage seems a pretty easy journey from point a to point b. Mrs. America, made in 2019, is a bit more cynical as you might expect, but make no mistake – the US is the center of the world here and the world is watching the ERA intently. Never mind that much of Western Europe took such laws for granted, like Cate Blanchett indicated.
The second lie is about power in social movements. We are conditioned to assume there is always unity of cause and broad representation and any divisions within the movement only harms it. I think all three do a good job with this, even IRon Jawed Angels, although they simplify the disagreements as one of young vs. old. This 20 something upstart Alice Paul is going to bring the old biddies into the 20th century. Suffragette does not so much examine divisions as depict the consequences of extreme action realistically. The state is violent and pushes Pankhurst’s followers towards direct action. Mrs. America is mostly about divisions – in the women’s movement, in the conservative movement, and yes, in the country. Divisions that are far more visible and destructive in 2019 than in 1975, for example.
It is an appropriate historical irony that Mrs. America – a product, in part, of the #MeToo movement, in that it looks at the ongoing struggles that extend way beyond the simple right to vote – has a strong focus on Chisholm. Tarana Burke, a black feminist activist, coined the phrase #MeToo, as a rallying cry around the issue of domestic abuse a decade before its appropriation by white women, many from Hollywood, in response to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and others.
And the third lie is tied to the second. By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, in textbooks and in popular culture,the struggle for equal rights for women went unacknowledged and unaddressed. The vote was just the beginning, of course, but first, second, and third wave feminism hasn’t had much pop culture treatment. Mrs. America is pretty remarkable for not only giving us a great deep dive into the ERA movement – Abzug, Friedan, Steinem – but it is pretty revelatory, as Blanchett says, about the other side. I didn’t know much about Phyllis Schlafly and Stop ERA. Something like Mrs. America is long overdue.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
This is our second episode on a theme we call “Covering the Revolution” – a subgenre of films popular in the 80s in which the focus is Western journalists thrown into the chaos of “Third World” revolutions. These men, mostly, are unorthodox, ambitious, arrogant, but usually good-hearted professionals who want to bring truth to an ignorant audience and force some measure of accountability on indifferent governments. Last episode we covered revolutions in Central America and discussed Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and a film directed by Roger Spottiswoode called Under Fire (1983).
Today we are going East and breaking down two more movies that came out in the early 1980s that feature journalists and revolution. We have Australian director Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and the unforgettable docudrama The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffe, which came out in 1984. The Year of Living Dangerously is based on a novel, but it recreates Indonesia’s descent into revolution and genocide in the mid-1960s very well. And The Killing Fields centers on the real-life ordeal of Dith Pran, Cambodian journalist and interpreter for New York Times journalist Sydney Schamberg. The film shows us the horrors of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 through 1979.
As we noted in episode four, Viva La Revolucion!, journalism is used as a tool by which moviemakers can bring the white, Western gaze to bear on the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order. We see that in The Year of Living Dangerously, although there are scant few Americans on screen, and of course, The Killing Fields is the result of the American colossus unleashed in Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s.
In this episode, we’ll be revisiting 2 lies we covered last time that often underpin historical narratives – that journalists are heroic idealists and that what they write can change the course of history. We’re not asserting that this is always untrue. But in films, and in history books, journalists exposing truths are usually portrayed as selfless, rather than professionally driven. And, more importantly, the impact of the revelations they sometimes provide, can be overstated. After all, history doesn’t record the 1000 times a journalist publishes and nothing changes. We only remember the rare time, like Watergate, when their investigations actually do result in some sort of action.
The third lie is specific to these episodes and it’s more a sin of omission than of action. We talked last time about how complex stories of global geopolitics get simplified to fit into 2 hours of coherent storytelling and that curious journalists trying to make sense of it all are used as the stand in for the audience. But what also often gets lost in the simplifying process is the long-term impact of Western imperialism, centuries of it. Particularly in the case of stories about revolution or counter-revolution.
When the story just opens with the revolution, the reasons for it are treated as forces of nature, or just black or brown people behaving emotionally and destructively. The legacies of imperial exploitation and colonial oppression – in other words, the real causes of most revolts and uprisings – are left unaddressed or, at worst, even unmentioned.
We named our episode after a quote by Kumar, a character in The Year of Living Dangerously, who summed up this frustration with imperial attitudes ruining Indonesia. “Westerners don’t have answers anymore.” And a key reason why we’ve chosen both these films is their admirable attempts to properly imbed the root causes into the story, and the ways in which they still manage to decenter the lives and motivations of the actual revolutionaries.
As always, let’s begin by recapping our films. And you know what? These movies are almost 40 years old so get over your spoiler alerts . . .
Let’s begin with a film by one of my favorite directors, The Year of Living Dangerously. Peter Weir is certainly no stranger to taking on historical topics using a critical lens. Weir was crucial to the Australian New Wave movement and directed the epic historical drama Gallipoli a year before The Year of Living Dangerously. His other celebrated historical film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).
A less appreciated film, but critically acclaimed is The Way Back (2010). It’s based on the memoir of a Polish POW who escaped the Soviet Gulag and walked 4,000 miles home. Weir has an impressive filmography, including Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show. The Year of Living Dangerously was written by Weir and David Williamson. The screenplay adapts the novel by Christopher Koch.
The cast is superb, starting with two of the most beautiful people to ever appear on screen – Sigourney Weaver as British embassy official Jill Bryant and Mel Gibson as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton. But the most impressive performance belongs to Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a photographer and local contact for Hamilton. Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but we both think the role was more than supporting.
The rest of the cast is great as well. Michael Murphy is a positively loathsome American journalist, Bembel Roco is Kumar, an Indonesian working for the Australian Broadcasting Service and a secret communist party member, and Bill Kerr is Colonel Henderson, the British military attache.
The Year of Living Dangerously begins with the arrival of Guy Hamilton in Jakarta in June 1965 amid increasing tensions between the longtime nationalist leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, a growing Communist opposition, and a conservative, mostly Muslim military. Guy joins a jaded and cliquish journalist community, but he’s a neophyte who needs the help of Billy Kwan, the Chinese-Australian in house expert on all things Indonesian. Kwan is also the self-appointed moral conscience of the mostly vapid and drunken group of Western journalists competing for any scrap of news or access to the regime, or its opponents. But Billy sees something in Guy and helps him get a few good breaks.
This is a great clip for revealing Billy’s perspective on journalism as something more than reporting and Guy’s rather indifferent Western mentality.
Billy loves the people he reports on, and really knows them. Guy is trained to, as he says, “not get involved.”
Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant, who is clearly British intelligence, but poses as the aid to the military attache, Colonel Henderson – the most British of the British old guard colonialists. Billy is an elaborate matchmaker, guiding his two favorite people together, although Jill’s time in Indonesia is coming to an end. Guy and Jill do hook up and its explosive, as you might expect, but Guy is still an ambitious journalist willing to do anything for a scoop.
The big break comes when Jill informs Guy that the Chinese are arming the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, which is sure to spark a bloody rebellion. Jill told Guy to save his life, but he intends to break the story and ruin Jill in the process. Billy and June are both heartbroken and cut him off, leaving Guy to fall in with the worst of the worst – the American journalist Pete Curtis. Kumar, Guy’s driver and assistant sticks with him too, but to open his eyes to government oppression, starvation, and crushing poverty.
Billy, who cares deeply about the people of Jakarta and has never been able to separate his job from his soul, suffers a breakdown when a child he cared for dies from starvation. Outraged, Billy turns on Sukarno, who he once admired as an anti-colonial figure, and hangs a sign outside Guy’s hotel room reading “Sukarno feed your people.” For this simple act, Billy is thrown off the balcony by police. Guy stumbles upon the scene and he and Jill reconcile over their shared sorrow.
Let’s play a clip of Billy confronting Pete Curtis and a British journalist moments before he takes the fatal step of openly opposing Sukarno.
You can sense Billy’s moral outrage at his profession, the profiting off of human misery. And did you catch the reporter’s contempt for the Indonesians?
Meanwhile, Indonesia collapses as Sukarno is ousted and the military takes over, executing thousands of suspected communists. Guy throws himself into the middle of the chaos and is badly beaten, limping off to Billy’s bungalow. Guy realizes the only thing he wants is Jill, not a story, so he has Kumar drive him to the airport before it closes. Guy is forced to make the choice – keep his recordings or board the plane with Jill. Leaving his bags at inspection, Guy barely makes it, embracing Jill on the tarmac. Tellingly, Kumar is left to live with the consequences of the bloody civil war to come.
The Killing Fields came out a few years later (1984) and I think you agree, deserved its critical success, including seven Oscar nominations and three wins for editing, cinematography and most notably – Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor. The Killing Fields won 8 BAFTA awards, including Best Film. The film was directed by British director Roland Joffe, who also directed The Mission, The Scarlet Letter, and Fat Man and Little Boy, a film starring Paul Newman about the Manhattan Project. Bruce Robinson adapted this true story for the screen.
The cast is wonderful, especially Haing Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian translator and journalist who endured nearly four years of Hell in a Khmer Rouge camp. Ngor was a doctor and this was his first acting role. He was cast because he lived this experience, too, surviving three camps by virtue of his medical expertise. Like Pran, Ngor escaped and made his way to a Red Cross refugee camp. Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer prize winning journalist for the New York Times who relies on Dith Pran for access to the stories that put his name on the front page. While Waterston and Ngor are the focus, there is a great supporting cast. John Malkovich is photojournalist Al Rockoff, also a real person; Julian Sands plays British journalist Jon Swain; Craig T. Nelson, Coach!, plays an American military advisor to perfection; and Spalding Gray – the terrific writer, actor, just all around talent – is the US Consul in Cambodia.
The Killing Fields begins in May 1973, a few years after Richard Nixon unofficially expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia, destabilizing the country and enabling the communist insurgent group Khmer Rouge to mount a successful campaign in the countryside. Sydney Schanberg arrives in Phnom Penh and immediately demonstrates his tendency to be an impatient prima donna, snapping at his immensely talented interpreter and journalist in his own right – Dith Pran.
Pran takes Sydney to see the bloody aftermath of a B-52 bombing in a nearby town, breaking the embargo put in place by the American military attache. We immediately see how US dissembling and indifference to the fate of Cambodia is fueling the tragedy to come. We also see that Sydney, kind of like Guy Hamilton, is driven by ego and a very jaded view of his profession.
Pran and Sydney begin to sense the escalating danger posed by the Khmer Rouge, witnessing executions of rebels, which seems to be a constant in the four journalist-centric films we’ve covered these last two episodes. The film jumps ahead to 1975 when the Khmer Rouge are right outside the capital and embassies are evacuating. At this moment it is clear Pran and his family are in danger, and while Sydney secures safe passage for his family, Pran is devoted to both his profession and to Sydney personally.
It has to be said Sydney seems to guilt Pran into staying as well since they are on the brink of another big headline. Soon after that decision Pran and a few Western journalists are captured by Khmer Rouge and face certain execution. Only Pran’s fast thinking saves them and everyone retreats to the French embassy, the last one still open. It’s funny, you see even the poor Soviets are manhandled by the Khmer Rouge as they join their Western colleagues.
The scenes inside the embassy compound are harrowing because everyone knows Pran is a dead man as soon as they leave. The Khmer Rouge demand all Cambodians be handed over, and the French ambassador complies. Pran’s friends try to forge a passport, but the deception fails and we see Pran disappear in the mass of Cambodians marched out of the capitol into an uncertain fate in the countryside.
We flash forward a few months where Sydney is back in New York, desperately searching for Pran and caring for his family in San Francisco. Pran is in Hell, enduring the full effect of the Khmer Rouge’s insane dystopian vision called “Year Zero.” All intellectuals, urbanites, anyone with a hint of Westernization are executed or worked to death. Sometimes, just having insufficiently rough hands from labor results in execution. Your fate is decided by a preteen since the young are pure.
To get at Pran’s internal life during this period, the screenwriter has him composing letters to Sidney in his head. Here we hear him describing who he must be in order to survive.
Pran pretends to be a simple peasant, but he knows this can’t last forever so he escapes. In a truly horrible scene, Pran stumbles across the killing fields – acres of human skeletons. This is a small fraction of the 2 million murdered in just a few years of Khmer rule.
Cut back to New York where Sydney is reaping the benefits of his and Pran’s work, winning the Pulitzer for his coverage. Sydney is clearly haunted by guilt and regret, but uses his speech to castigate American foreign policy in the region. You get a sense his moral outrage is partly fueled by intense personal guilt for pressuring Pran to stay and do the work responsible for this award.
Al Rockoff is there to remind him they could have gotten Pran out sooner. Meanwhile, Pran is captured and sent to another camp, this time run by a man who senses he is something more than a peasant. Pran is not punished, however, because the commander is worried the coming war with Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge’s tendency to purge its own endangers his son. He hands his son over to Pran and directs him to the Thai border. The young boy is killed by a landmine, but Pran makes it to the border and news of his escape reaches Sydney. The film ends with the two reunited in October 1979. Sydney tearfully asks Pran if he forgives him. Always beyond decent, Pran said there’s nothing to forgive.
So, lets revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and review some of the historical context.
The first lie is about the persistent, and often pernicious myth of heroic journalism. I think The Year of Living Dangerously is pretty good about exploding that myth. Guy Hamilton is never heroic as a journalist, just finally true to himself by getting on a plane with Sigourney Weaver. The rest of the press corps in the film, aside from Billy, is degenerate and worthless. The Killing Fields is honest about demystifying Sydney Schanberg, who is talented and empathetic (in his own Western way), but still vain and ambitious. Pran is pretty heroic, but not because he’s a journalist.
The second lie is that the Western readership cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions. We get no sense of this in The Year of Living Dangerously. We heard Billy Kwan’s idealistic vision of what journalism can do to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but Guy wanted scoops to build a career. And Australia may have been complicit in Indonesia to a degree, but nothing Guy reports will change events on the ground. Indonesia is just another domino to fall and that’s how it gets reported.
The Killing Fields is different. Good reporting exposed not only the “secret war” in Cambodia and the criminally stupid policies that gave us Vietnam a few years before that, but obviously Watergate too. Sydney Schanberg is living through the Golden Age of journalism and while he is part of it, deservedly, we see how the sausage is made. It sometimes means leaning so hard on your local talent, like Pran, that they fall over and become casualties in the quest for relevance (and nice awards).
The third lie, or theme as we agreed to describe it, is about imperialism and revolutions, specifically in this Asian context. Here is where we have to dig deeper into the historical context. If you’re like me, I had to do a little background reading on Indonesia in the 1960s to get the full picture behind the collapse of the Sukarno regime and the bloody civil war to come. Sukarno was initially a hero to Indonesia, fighting Dutch colonialism and then Japanese occupation before emerging as the first president of Indonesia. Initially an advocate for democracy, Sukarno became increasingly autocratic and crafted a policy in 1959 called Guided Democracy to suppress instability and simmering ethnic and religious conflicts.
Sukarno pushed Indonesia to the left, providing cover for the PKI and aligning the nation with the Soviet Union and China. Worse, as the film shows, basic needs were not being met and reactionary forces – the military and the Islamists – saw an opportunity to remove Sukarno and liquidate the PKI in one fell swoop. This is the background of the film, which culminates in the 30th September Movement when generals mounted a coup. It failed to remove Sukarno at first, but by 1967 the generals were in charge and the PKI was massacred. The new leader, Suharto, was a dictator for the right, remaining in power until 1998.
The Killing Fields is probably more familiar, but I think most of the coverage about Cambodia concerns the US role in enabling the Khmer Rouge in a gamble to win a more favorable outcome in Vietnam. What I like about The Killing Fields is, for once, we actually get some sense of who the Khmer Rouge were, what they believed, and how horrific life was under their short but genocidal rein. It actually made me ever angrier about US foreign policy because we made it happen! They filled a void we created instituted the most total of total revolutions we can possibly imagine.
The film attempts to give us some background to what brought the Khmer Rouge to power in the first place – the US’ invasion of Cambodia along the border of South Vietnam and indiscriminate bombing of supposed Viet Cong staging points inside Cambodia. Schamberg is safely ensconced in his Manhattan apartment in 1978 watching footage on what had to be one of the first VCRs evern. He grimaces as Nixon, in what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, offers vague commitments to aid “our Asian democratic friends.” The speech is from April 30, 1970. Here Nixon announces incursions into Cambodia:
It’s also worth noting this speech sparked nationwide protests and the Kent State massacre just 5 days later.
The Killing Fields gives us this insight through Dith Pran’s ordeal. Angka, or the party, wanted to imitate China’s Great Leap Forward, which was also bloody and oppressive, but faster. Also, the Khmer Rouge wanted racial purity, which meant targeting those with Vietnamese or Chinese backgrounds. Depopulating the cities and reducing the country to an agrarian utopia is graphically portrayed on screen. The Cambodian Genocide left 2 million dead, nearly a quarter of the population. As we see in the film’s closing moments, only a Vietnamese invasion ends the Khmer Rouge and establishes a “normal” communist government.
So, both events at the center of our films this episode are linked to imperial legacies and we think the journalists populating The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously reflect this legacy as well. Billy Kwan is adept at forcing the pool of western reporters to confront this fact, which is why he is so heartbroken when Guy doesn’t live up to his expectations. Billy saw Guy as a kindred spirit, but the lure of being the detached voyeur overcame his humanitarian impulse, at least at first.
And Sidney does care, but he is imperious with Pran, seeing him and all Cambodians as vehicles for “the story”.
I think we have to find out what the real Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg thought about The Killing Fields. The film came out only 5 years after Pran’s escape and both were still working for the New York Times. Here they are speaking with Bobbie Wygant in 1984. The first clip is Schanberg acknowledging what we’ve noted already – he doesn’t come off great.
I like what he said about on screen people overwhelm events and in life events overwhelm people.
Dith Pran relates how difficult it was for his children to see the film. Remember, they were very little when evacuated.
At this point we should probably tell you that we recorded this episode in two separate sessions. Normally we don’t, but when we originally recorded in late July 2021 no one outside of the intelligence community could have anticipated how quickly the corrupt and fragile regime in Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban.
We were treated to harrowing stories of desperate Afghanis with ties to US forces, and of course thousands of women and girls fearful for their lives and futures in a Taliban state attempting to flee the country. I’m sure many of us saw or circulated the photos comparing the last chopper in Saigon from April 1975 and the chopper in Kabul, also hovering over the US embassy. It seems things have come full circle.
As I watched this story unfold over hours, I thought about the scene in the Killing Fields with the Westerners holed up in the French embassy trying to help Dith Pran evade capture. How many Afghanis were in this position? Also, did we learn anything? Without debating the proper use of force after 2001 vs. the wholly disastrous and criminal invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the imperial conceit behind both seems clear. Propping up weak, corrupt, and unpopular regimes with foreign money and aid is a losing proposition. Our two films chronicle two separate examples of this, one in 1965 and the other in 1975.
But, what about the early 1980s, when our two films were released? The Cold War was jumpstarted by Reagan’s election, as we know, and while this was certainly the context for the politics associated with our films from episode 4 – Salvador and Under Fire – we can see this new and dangerous Cold War episode play out in The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields.
Moreover, as we teased earlier, this period of the early 1980s is one of imperial nostalgia. Reagan and his fellow conservative partner in the UK, Margaret Thatcher, happily touted relationships with strong men and authoritarian governments willing to join them in the anti-communist crusade. Our two films are cautionary tales. They are made at the height of this period of unapologetic Cold War rhetoric, and show the terrible tragedies and injustices resulting from following this cynical policy.
We can point to a number of examples around the world in the 1980s of friendly dictators propped up by Western resources, but one close to the settings for our films this week is President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos is a lot like Suharto in Indonesia, ruling for decades with the benign consent of the West. Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986. He embraced what he called “constitutional authoritarianism” and ruled by martial law from 1972 to 1981, and was finally deposed only after his physical decline. He waged a terrible counter-insurgency against communists, but in reality anyone opposed to him, and finally went a little too far for the West by assassinating the opposition leader Beningo Aquino in 1983.
Reagan finally distanced himself from Marcos in 1984, but only because the optics were so bad (let’s not forget Imelda Marcos’ extravagant shoe collection!) Marcos finally left when the country mutinied in the so-called Edsa Revolution February 1986 after MArcos tried to steal the most recent election from Corazon Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader. And even then, the Marcoses were allowed to live in the lap of luxury in Hawaii. So much for consequences.
Let’s play a report from This Week with David Brinkley about this moment, because it sure reminded me of the fast-moving events depicted at the end of The YEar of Living Dangerously. And like that scenario, what happened to Marcos was a long-time coming.
Soon after this Reagan was welcoming Corazon Aquino to the Rose Garden like he wasn’t the guy who kept Marcos flush with US aid and tacit support. Ce la vie.
Remember, if Vietnam was a legacy of French imperialism and then American; and Indonesia was a legacy of Dutch imperialism, although the British characters in The Year of Living Dangerously stand in quite well; the Philippines is forever tied to American imperialism in the early 20th century. We fought a vicious war of our own in the country in the early 1900s and remained there through WWII and the entire Cold War. We still play nice with obvious lunatics like the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. China is still there, right? So, game on.
I think it is appropriate to end this section with President Biden’s remarks on the day things really fell apart in Kabul. They are instructive and demonstrate that, for all his administration’s faults in executing the withdrawal – and there were many -he at least seems to be breaking a cycle. I think it takes courage to just say – “no more”
Last episode we started a conversation on the culture of journalism, especially in ongoing crises like revolutions. Now that we’ve seen four movies made between 1981 and 86 about journalists in “Third World” revolutions, what can we say about how Hollywood portrays the men (almost always) who are dropped into these extraordinary events?
It’s worth emphasizing that we’re focused on these representations of journalists not because we just want to shit on journalists and point out that they’re human. It’s because Western democracies hold up the free press as proof of their righteousness, but only when it suits them. But governments, politicians, and the ubiquitous ‘pundits’ are happy to abandon this ideal the second the press is actually doing its job and their coverage becomes critical or inconvenient. And institutions of power work to undermine the press whenever they can through the grinding demands of the free market.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
In our first three episodes this season on revolutions and revolutionaries we took on the big one – the American Revolution. And boy, there are a lot of lies agreed upon to choose from, right? So we settled on the inevitable revolution, the inherent purity and wisdom of the Founding Fathers who, it was told, were the primary movers of events, and finally, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.
Episodes four and five are about a popular genre of film in the early 1980s that combine heroic journalism with “third world” revolutions, to use the parlance of the time. When we began scrolling through films to discuss we noticed that a bunch of these journalist movies came out during Ronald Reagan’s first term. As we’ll discuss later, this is both a reflection of his aggressive, militaristic foreign policy vis a vis the Third World and America’s willingness in the early 1980s to finally look back on the Vietnam War with a critical eye.
If you followed us in season one we did an episode about journalism and 9/11 called The Fourth Estate Under Siege. We showed how the fourth estate needed a bit of rebranding after getting beat up for dropping the ball on Iraq, often submitting to pressure from the Bush administration. In films like Spotlight, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Post, Hollywood icons like Steven Spielberg and George Clooney reassured us the press could be honorable watch dogs after all.
Here, moviemakers use journalism as a tool to explain complex politics in far off lands to a Western audience. Maybe audiences wouldn’t have seen them at all if these stories weren’t told through the eyes of white protagonists. But the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order are both made clear and over-simplified, as a result. In this episode we’re looking at two films about revolutions in Central America. In the next episode, we’ll travel to Asia for further variations on the theme.
Oliver Stone’s Salvador was released in 1986, the same year as Platoon if you can believe it. You may remember we talked about two less than stellar Stone films in season one – Alexander and World Trade Center – and we felt bad about that, so we thought it would be good to dive into some classic Stone. The other film is Under Fire, released in 1983 and directed by action genre specialist Roger Spottiswoode. Neither movie is spectacular, but they are both very revealing about the early 1980s zeitgeist surrounding these revolutions and romantic portraits of journalists. And they both contain strong performances by actors who have gone off the rails in the years since, or who never got their due and deserve to be noticed.
What are our lies agreed upon for this theme of “covering the revolution”?
The first lie might be that journalists are indeed heroic, driven by a quest for the truth.
A second lie – related to the first – is that the readership back home cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions.
There is a third set of lies specific to this episode on these Central American revolutions worth mentioning because it takes us back to our first topic this season – our very own revolution.
The United States was founded in revolution and so one of our myths about our country is that it supports the underdog around the world. After all, the United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, it stands to reason that it supports democratic movements over autocratic forces.
Turns out that isn’t the case…and that Oliver Stone is kinda pissed off about it.
Salvador is written and directed by Oliver Stone, although he shares authorship with the subject of the film – journalist Richard Boyle, whose crazy life and antics on screen seem more like just a day in the life of James Woods than a real life story, but amazingly enough, this is a true story. What do we say about James Woods? He’s kind of infamous now, a caricature, but he was always one of Stone’s favorite actors and he is … compelling to watch? He might even be great, but I can’t tell.
Jim Belushi plays a hapless San Francisco DJ named Dr. Rock, another real person, believe it or not, who gets taken along for the ride to El Salvador. The film is at times the craziest, scariest, most bizarre road trip ever. Other notable actors include the ubiquitous Michale Murphy, who shows up a lot in 80s political dramas, John Savage from The Deer Hunter, and the great Mexican actress Elpidia Carillo.
Salvador begins with a grainy black and white rendition of actual film footage and an explanation that the events take place between 1980 and 81. The footage is of the massacre of 50 or so demonstrators in January 1980, by the new military dictatorship that overthrew the junta that, in turn, had deposed the democratically elected, left-leaning government in 1979.
Between the editing and score, I got the sense Stone was evoking The Battle of Algiers, maybe the ultimate template for all films about about post-colonial revolutions. A note also says the characters are fictionalized. I hope for Boyle’s sake that applies to him too! We will do a more thorough job of breaking down the historical context of Salvador a little later. Right now we just want to give you the plot.
We are first introduced to a really down and out Richard Boyle, facing eviction, divorce, and few opportunities to ply his trade as a journalist specializing in wars, revolution, and genocide. He’s chaotic, insufferable, a terrible husband and father, completely irresponsible, but we get the sense he knows his business. With stints covering the IRA, Cambodia, Afghanistan, it seems El Salvador is next. Boyle grabs his sad sack buddy Dr. Rock and literally drive from San Francisco to Central America hoping to make himself relevant again.
As they get closer to San Salvador, the sense of unease and casual violence increases. Boyle had been there a year earlier, when things were much quieter. This time, though, the dynamic duo barely avoid getting arrested and shot along with the dozens of young students they see piled up along the road on their way to the capital. And when Boyle reconnects with an old flame, Maria, whose son greets Boyle with great familiarity, we find out her husband has been ‘disappeared’ by the regime.
Boyle tries to settle in to the country and the circumstances he left the year earlier but Boyle he can’t help but dig deeper into the powder keg, which is being propped up with US money because of renewed fears of a domino effect in Central America – Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador…next stop San Diego! Boyle reconnects with photo journalist John Cassady, played by John Savage, and stumbles across grisly scenes of mass execution and burial. John sort of foretells his own fate when he tells Boyle: “You got to get close to get the truth. You get too close you die.”
Boyle is everywhere – speaking to human rights groups, priests and nuns, left-wing union leaders and politicians, and most instructive for him and us the audience, a group of Reaganite military and diplomatic advisers in the embassy. Spinning crazy tales about Castro pouring arms into the region and sending tanks to the US border, these guys are ignoring the Carter appointed ambassador, played by Michael Murphy. This is Oliver Stone’s chance to document what by 1986 was common knowledge – the US funded and supported death squads in El Salvador under the guise of anti-communism.
Boyle begins to see the unholy alliance between US support and a right-wing political candidate nicknamed Mad Max, whose party is responsible for assassinating the outspoken Archbishop Oscar Romero, who of course was a real historical figure and a purveyor of liberation theology. We see Romero in action, bitterly criticizing the government violence and US inaction in his country.
The church really is an enemy of the corrupt military dictatorship here. As a result, nuns and missionary aid workers were also targeted and, in December 1980, 3 nuns from Western nations are brutally raped and murdered by pro-government forces. It really happened but it is depicted in a gratuitous and utterly unempathetic way.
While the ambassador is poised to pull the plug on US aid for El Salvador after these brutal murders, the pro-Reagan faction, which is now in power because it’s 1981, turn the faucets back on big time.
As things disintegrate and Boyle is increasingly targeted as a fly in the ointment, he exchanges information for a possible exit plan for Maria and her family. Invited to meet with the rebel leader Marti, Boyle passes along some photos to the embassy guys that prove meaningless. The dialogue in this scene is Stone at his best, Boyle’s no-nonsense condemnation of US policy:
Whatever mistakes we do down here, the alternative is 10 times worse.” How many times has that been uttered behind US embassies during the Cold War?
With the Carter appointee gone, US troops, who are there in secret, and weapons come flowing in and Boyle is desperate to escape with Maria. Poor John Cassady gets his iconic shot in a battle, but is killed himself. Boyle manages to smuggle Maria and her surviving son to the US, but their bus is boarded and Maria is discovered. It’s a different experience watching this in 2021 after the misery of the Trump years, casually ejecting the most vulnerable to a terrible fate. The film ends with a note explaining Boyle is still searching for Maria, who was reportedly in a Guatemalan refugee camp. And yes, thankfully, Dr. Rock made it back safely.
Under Fire came out in 1983. It’s directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who did a lot of popular action drama movies like 48 Hours, Shoot to Kill, and the Pierce Brosnan James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. It was written by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton. Shelton wrote a lot of sports movies, including the brilliant Bull Durham, as well as White Men Can’t Jump, and others. With a pedigree like that you can see that this movie is meant to be a “good story”, not a fiery political rant. Nevertheless, it is filmed much closer to the period of upheaval in Nicaragua that it depicts, and hinges on some pretty grim and cynical plot points. So the fact that it’s a first film for both Spotiswoode and Shelton, suggests that they might have been uncertain yet where their artistic voice would land.
The cast is a great example of who’s who in the early 1980s. You have Gene Hackman as Alex Grazier, a popular TV reporter with aspirations to be an anchor, Nick Nolte as Russell Price, a photojournalist who comes across as Boyle light, and the great Joanna Cassidy as Claire – typical for the time, her character isn’t even given a last name.
This love triangle is dropped right in the middle of Nicaragua in 1979 and a lot of the time the plot can’t decide if we are supposed to care more about their love lives or the collapse of the Somoza regime. There are some other great actors passing through, including Ed Harris as a creepy mercenary named Oates, Richard Masur, who was everywhere in the 80s, as a slimy political consultant working for Somoza, and the great French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, known for his work in such classics as Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist. Trintignant’s French insouciance is put to great use here as Marcel Jazy, a spy who does Somoza’s dirty work.
The film begins with an explanatory note about Somoza’s long and corrupt reign coming to an end, but our first action involving the trio of characters takes place in Chad. Like all the movies in our two episodes on journalism and revolution, reporters are sometimes as mercenary as crazy Ed Harris, constantly chasing action and tragedy to get the right picture, sound byte, click bait for lack of a better phrase. Alex, Russel and Claire are indifferent to where they are, its about being first.
Once they relocate to the next breaking war in Nicaragua, Claire has a great line, ““You’re going to love this war. Good guys, bad guys, and cheap shrimp.” Its the jaded worldview of Western reporters who can drop in and out of hot zones and never get too close to the misery.
As they travel across the country Russel and Claire do get a sense of the rebels, who strangely enough are never identified as Sandanistas and the mythical commander, someone named Rafael, kind of looks like Daniel Ortega but it’s not him. However, Somoza is a character in the film and is cartoonishly stupid and vain, played by Rene Enriquez, who people of a certain age will instantly recognize as Ray Calletano from Hill Street Blues. There’s a lot of violence, government killings, and you guessed it, Ed Harris killing anyone and everyone.
The most dramatic moment involves the murder of Alex at the hands of government troops, who then immediately blame the killing on leftist rebels. This is actually based on a real incident – the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Nicaraguan National Guard troops in June 1979. Like the film, the shooting was caught on film and marked the end of the Carter administration’s relationship with Somoza, whose regime fell just a month later.
At one point, Russel breaks his loosely held journalistic ethical codes and agrees to stage a photo of Rafael still alive in hopes of preventing further violence. He takes sides with the rebels by doing this. And so, at the end of film, Russel and Claire celebrate along with everyone else in Managua, as if they were part of the revolution. Meanwhile, Ed Harris, who shot dozens of leftists, is also enjoying the celebration, drinking a cube libre like nothing happened.
I love 80s trailers and the one for Under Fire doesn’t disappoint. Let’s play it and enjoy the deep voiced announcer.
You tell from the voiceover the film is an adventure/love story first.
So, let’s revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and dig deeper into the very specific historical context of these two films.
The first lie is about the hero-journalist, almost always a male with a drinking problem but a good soul beneath it all. Their work actually MEANS something, don’t you know.
The second lie is that the reporters’ audience, whether in print or TV, actually care and react, pressuring governments (who supposedly also care) to do the right thing because of investigative journalism.
The third is actually two lies about the Central American revolutions depicted in Salvador and Under Fire. Specifically, the US role in both causing them and making them worse.
The United States was founded in revolution and supports the underdog around the world
The United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, supports democratic movements over autocratic forces
Let’s take the last one first since the ins and outs of these revolutions are kind of confusing, even if you paid attention to them at the time.
The Reagan Administration came to Washington determined to combat communism—especially in Latin America. Reagan and his advisers focused in particular on El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Secretary of State Alexander Haig decided to make El Salvador a “test case” of his foreign policy, basically backing the right wing military junta in its brutal suppression of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Boyle in Salvador goes back and forth between them. Conflicts between the White House and the State Department and with the Congress, however, frustrated the Administration’s bold plans. While Haig fought for a significant increase in military assistance to El Salvador, Congress made certification of progress on human rights a quid pro quo. The two branches of government clashed regularly over assistance and certification. You see the beginning of this dynamic in Salvador, when it was still technically Carter’s foreign policy.
The setting for Under Fire is the Nicaraguan Revolution, which actually spanned decades. The rising opposition to Somoza in the 1960s and 70s was led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which finally ousted Somoza in a civil war beginning in the countryside in 1978 and culminating in capturing the capital in 1979. The Sandinistas immediately faced rebels of their own with the US backed Contras. Tens of thousands died as both the US and Soviet Union poured money into the region until 1990, when a truce ended the conflict. Daniel Ortega is still holding on to power and it seems he’s putting off some Somoza vibes of his own. Much like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, sadly the freedom fighter becomes the dictator.
In April of 1983, Ronald Reagan asked to speak to a joint session of Congress about Central America, specifically on El Salvador and Nicaragua, the settings for our films this week. It’s all about grand strategy here, and pay attention to his Nazi reference. Always lean on Nazis when you want to scare people into submission.
In the grand scheme of things in this global cold war, should you really care about death squads and dead leftist students or peasants or indigenous peoples? Reagan was hoping the answer was No. and you won’t here much rhetoric on safeguarding democracy in central america and there’s no scarier word in US foreign policy than “revolution.” When I listen to Reagan it’s clear Oliver Stone was used the US embassy goons in Salvador to embody these paranoid delusions at the heart of early Reagan era foreign policy.
We came across a 2011 panel discussion with Oliver Stone and James Woods revisiting Salvador at a Lincoln Center screening and that scene came up. It’s pretty interesting to get their take on it. Let’s listen
The whole program is pretty wild, as you might imagine with those two. The making of the movie was as crazy as what’s on screen. But, Stone says Salvador was when he found his voice in some ways, especially with that scene.
Now’s a good time to open things up and discuss what connects not just these two movies, but our films next week – The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields – and that is the culture of journalism in this late Cold War era. Richard Boyle and the gang of three in Under Fire are prototypical egotistical, difficult, single-minded reporters who take on the big, bad, corrupt US government and score moral victories. They got the story, showed some personal growth, and shed some of their angelic light on the plight of the sad foreign people usually ignored by the West. Yay journalists!
There are some great quotes in Under Fire that get to a more cynical look at this narrative. Russell Price is at one point sharing a cell with a priest, who asks him “what side are you on?” Russell insists “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.” By the end of the film that perspective is unsustainable. Alex is killed and Somoza’s goons are set loose on all reporters. When Claire breaks down after hearing about Alex’s death in a news story, a rebel nurse surrounded by dead bodies brings her down to Earth: “50,000 Nicaraguans died. And now one Yankee. Perhaps we should have killed an American journalist 50 years ago.”
One constant in these reporters-covering-revolutions films is the idea they are at heart, mercenaries. They don’t come in country caring about it. As crazy Ed Harris snipes to Russel, “I get paid the same way you do.” Even the rebels in Under Fire know what to expect from reporters and manipulate the same way Somoza does. A translator who is actually a rebel gets Alex, Claire and Russel to do the rebels’ bidding, telling them “It’s a good story. You’ll be more famous.”
When we take a hard look at lie 1 – the hero-journalist BS – it tells us a lot about what audiences believed about the fourth estate in the early 1980s. Now? I think the rose colored glasses are off and most of us would just like to have real journalism every now and then. No one needs to be heroic, just truthful. Maybe that’s where the heroism lies.
Lie 2 is harder to get at in these two films. Why does it matter? Did Richard Boyle change anything with his reporting, or John’s photograph that got him killed? What about our three lovers in Under Fire? They try to make a connection between Alex’s murder and Carter suspending aid to Somoza, and we noted the real story behind that earlier, but Reagan restored that aid times a thousand.
The way to address Lie 2 is to put the films into their historical moment. Because then we can see how little changes between Nicaragua and El Salvador, and how little changes between El Salvador and all of the illegal interventions (or intentional lack of intervention) that have happened since, guided purely by US interest, not ideals. Our films this week cover the beginnings of things – 1979 to 81 between the two – but we know things escalated as Reagan breathed new life into covert operations after about 15 years of dormancy. From mining the Managua harbor, funding death squads in El Salvador, to the piece de resistance – the Iran-Contra Affair.
Here’s a 30 year retrospective of the Iran Contra affair with ABC journalist Jon Martin. It’s a reminder of what was at stake and the linkage between these two countries.
What about the “locals” for lack of a better word? How do these films portray the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua? The reporter’s gaze is always white, male, privileged, and exploitative whether they mean to or not. These guys, and they are 90% guys, let’s be frank, use the locals, screw them, screw them over, and treat them like errant children.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
In our first two episodes of the season, we looked at 4 tv series, all about the Revolutionary War.
In this episode, we’re still going to look at the American revolution but in an entirely different genre – the musical. We’re also going to travel a bit further back in time to appreciate the historical context of the first of our musicals – 1776, which was the Tony award winner for best musical in 1969, and then a 1972 movie with almost the same cast.
Then we’re going to look at Hamilton, which was first staged off-Broadway in 2015. It’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, worked on it for years however, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography. And it’s release on the Disney+ streaming platform in 2020 is what brings it under the definition required to be included in our podcast.
Musicals (and straight plays, for that matter) distill and convey complex ideas and arguments through more abstract and metaphorical means. We are, after all, agreeing to suspend disbelief and allow ourselves to be transported from the confines of a stage and a proscenium arch, to wherever the story takes us. And, with a musical, we also are willing to have this happen through song.
The artistic license and use of metaphor can be potent, and also telling, because the broad brushstrokes playwrights depend upon give us a window into the assumptions of the time. With this in mind, there are 3 lies agreed upon that underpin both 1776 and Hamilton – even though they seem so different and were created so many years apart:
First of all, we return to the myth of the noble, selfless and wise founding fathers. But here, more than with our other episodes, we really want to talk about what the danger is of that historical lie.
Secondly, that America’s success was built on the ideals of elite whites, instead of the labor of poor blacks and whites.
And finally, that America can now just sit back and congratulate itself on a job well done.
Pauline Kael – “What could be worse than a folk operetta about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? The movie version.”
1776, the movie, was released in 1972 and it was not the boffo box office hit the play had been three years earlier when it won the Tony for Best Musical. The music and lyrics were written by Sherman Edwards, inspired by the book by Peter Stone. Both the play and the film were directed by Peter H. Hunt. On Broadway, as in Hollywood, the late 60s and early 70s saw weird juxtapositions of old and new guard. For example, Oliver! won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1969, but it was sandwiched between In the Heat of the Night in 1968 and Midnight Cowboy in 1970. And on Broadway, in 1969, 1776 beat out Hair for Best Musical.
The plot is simple: the Founding Fathers are at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which ran from May 8 to July 4, 1776.. It’s hot. Everyone is dithering because it seems like a big deal to separate from Britain. John Adams is impatient to get things done but is so disliked he can’t persuade anyone. So Thomas Jefferson is recruited to write a declaration that everyone can be enthusiastic about. He does. There has to be a compromise about slavery to get the Southern vote. There is. It gets signed. The end.
The play and the movie both arrived during the Nixon administration. The play arrived on Broadway a year after the violence of 1968 – fueled by the 2 assassinations of King and Kennedy in the US, and by the Tet Offensive and the US response in Vietnam. Virtually everything except 2 songs are played for laughs or sentimentality – those that aren’t are about slavery and the young dying in a war for a cause they don’t fully understand.
A play that pokes fun at the founding fathers might have seemed a bit cheeky and subversive in its day, but when we put it in the broader context of other movies and plays from the era that were commenting on the state of the nation – Hair, and In the Heat of the Night were a couple mentioned earlier – the low-stakes light-hearted ribbing of 1776 comes across more as complacency and self-satisfaction. Perhaps the 3 years between the play and the movie are why it succeeded on Broadway but not in the cinema. More people’s feelings about the country had become complicated in that short span of time.
It is interesting to read the reviews for the play, which was much beloved and lauded by the finest critics of the day, and then turn to the film reviews. And it’s like . . . what happens when you put a camera on the stage? This review in the Guardian is pretty harsh, but par for the course when you look at film critics’ responses:
“Most history flicks feature at least two of the following elements: swordfights, explosions, gladiators, spies, pirates, cowboys, Nazis, heaving bosoms, cavalry charges, sex, intrigue, murder, torture, ridiculously large guns, and Henry VIII. Work out how to get all of those into one movie, and your fortune is made. The Second Continental Congress, landmark of world history though it was, featured none of them. It was a group of men sitting in a stuffy room in Philadelphia, arguing over details of policy. For six years. Not only have the makers of this film bravely attempted to turn this into popular entertainment, they have made it three hours long. And a musical. Possibly, this whole thing was some sort of money-losing stunt, like in The Producers.”
And I love this gem from Peter Hunt’s Guardian review since I had the same take hearing the songs for the first time:
“Abigail Adams beseeches her own husband to return to Boston: “Just tell the Congress to declare independency/Then sign your name, get out of there and/Hurry home to me/Our children all have dysentery.” Magnificent.
In the verdict section, Hunt leaves it at: “Far too long and mostly terrible, but hilarious.”
To be fair, I am not a fan of musicals and sort of dreaded doing this episode, but Lia made me eat my vegetables and I have a newfound respect for the genre. I even can appreciate 1776, harsh reviews aside, as a fascinating cultural artifact from a period of upheaval and, until recently, an unprecedented crisis in governance. Reading more about the play and actors like Howard Da Silva, who plays Ben Franklin, kept me interested and ready to expand my horizons a little bit.
Hamilton, in stark contrast to 1776, had the opposite historical context. The musical as a genre was also very different since 1776 debuted. Hamilton wasn’t the first Miranda musical to succeed on Broadway. He wrote the music and lyrics for In the Heights, which ran from 2008 to 2011 and also won the Tony for Best Musical (and which is out this summer as a movie that we hope has a better fate than the musical to movie we’ve just discussed). The incorporation of contemporary music styles – hip-hop, salsa – was confounding to some reviewers at the time but was built into the plot and location – the predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC.
One of the most striking and disrupting things about Hamilton – which we’re so used to now that it’s worth reminding listeners about – is that a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers with a cast made up almost entirely of non-Caucasians had the potential to be an epic disaster or inadvertent comedic hit in exactly the same vein as Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.
But the play arrived in the last year of the Obama administration. This was a complicated time to be thinking about the principles that founded the nation and their legacies in contemporary America. A Black man was president, but there was a sharp increase in racist rhetoric and actions in reaction to that fact.
Democrats had won the White House 2 terms in a row with a Black president. But his policies were not particularly progressive, on immigration, on Guantanamo Bay, on a whole host of issues. And again – as we discussed before – Racist, deadly events like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI and Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the 9 in the Emmaneul AME Church by Dylann Roof, all suggested little had really changed.
Finally – as as we explained in Episode 1, the Tea Party movement was recasting revolutionary era iconography for its own purposes, much of it tinged with white supremacist ideology. And, of course, the election of Donald Trump was widely understood to be the legacy of those earlier conservative trends. This is why Hamilton became so popular. As well as being a brilliant book, score and lyrics, it was also both a celebration of American ideals and a critique of the nation that hadn’t lived up to them. This is why it was such big new that the newly elected Vice President attended the show, and that, from the stage, the cast felt it was appropriate to castigate him about the newly imposed Muslim ban.
We’ll also be discussing the limitations of the play in terms of dealing with the role of Blacks in colonial America. But we can’t forget just how cataclysmic this moment is in the history of the representation of the Founding Fathers.
It was not a small thing to suddenly have this explosion in the popular culture of a musical in which Black men played George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the revolutionaries expressed their aspirations and frustrations through hip-hop. Those choices, in many ways, conveyed the rejection of established power structures in the 1770s and 1780s more effectively than anything else we’ve looked at in these episodes, maybe more than any artistic depiction ever has.
Here we have the moment when George Washington first appears on stage – a black man in Washington’s customary blue and white uniform strides from downstage to upstage center, to the fanfare of the chorus.
And I can tell you as someone who saw the show early on, the thrill of that cognitive dissonance – who you expect to see and who you see instead – is incredible.
Let’s break down each one individually and dig deeper into how each chooses to portray the Founding Fathers. We might as well go chronologically, so let’s start with 1776.
Our first lie agreed upon, extending back to the first episode on TV series, is that the founding fathers were noble, selfless and wise. I think the impression we get from 1776 is that these guys were ripe for parody, albeit in an affectionate manner. John Adams was abrasive (we know this), Ben Franklin was rather full of himself and had a dirty mind (we know this, too), and George Washington (who is never on screen), is sort of a humorless downer who can only deliver bad news. But it’s probably Thomas Jefferson who gets demystified the most. Played by the hunky Ken Howard, Jefferson has to be dragged kicking and screaming to his desk in order to write the Declaration. The only way he can cure his writer’s block is to get laid, so Adams and Franklin send for Martha Jefferson, an impossibly young Blythe Danner, but not before praising his “sexual combustibility.”
So you get it, lots of human frailty on display a la Gilbert and Sullivan to go along with some deeper cuts aimed at American conservatism, both the ideology and our institutions, and Richard Nixon’s presidency, which encompasses both the Broadway and film versions of 1776. Speaking of Nixon, he had a personal stake in tempering what I guess he imagined was going to be a popular film. Peter Hunt relates the following nugget in his 2010 review of the DVD release:
In the song Cool, Cool, Considerate Men, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson and his chorus of pompadoured Brit-loving conservatives sing about how the poor majority can be conned into supporting the privileges of the extremely wealthy. “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” Dickinson snarls. It’s unexpectedly incisive, and one of the best moments of the movie (apart from the line about dysentery). It was so on point, in fact, that when this film was released in 1972, President Richard Nixon himself asked his friend Jack L Warner, the producer, to cut this song. Hunt notes it is restored for the DVD.
I find this remarkable, first for the continuity in American conservatism’s success with white working class voters. How often have political scientists noted the GOP’s often effective messaging that “you too can be rich if you turn your backs on labor and the old New Deal coalition . . .” Ronald Reagan certainly picked up this mantle from Nixon a decade later.
Behind all the frivolity and sexual innuendo of 1776 is the reality of a war tearing the country apart. Imagine the state of the country in 1969 through 1972 when the film was released. We might miss some of the references today, but I bet audiences then were hypersensitive to any allusion to the Vietnam war and free speech, no matter how dressed up they were in colonial garb. For example, the delegates are very aware of how putting their demands on paper is treason, defined by the crown, a move Dickinson is wary of and John Adams believes is absolutely necessary. In other words, free speech and protest is threatened by a criminal executive authority. Moderates want to back down, rebels want to double down.
The fighting in Massachusetts is a world away from steamy Philadelphia. It’s a musical after all, but it does intrude periodically. When one delegate raises the very pressing question, “How can a country of two million stand up to a great empire?” it is hard not to think of Vietnam vs. the United States. But the most poignant reference to the war, and just the concept of war in general, is the memorable song “Momma, Look Sharp.,” which ends Act I. The Courier (Stephen Nathan) sings about his two closest friends shot and killed on the same day at Lexington. He describes the final thoughts of one of those dying young men as his mother searches for his body. It is the only indication that the price of freedom is high. Who wouldn’t imagine the tens of thousands of young men dying in Vietnam, calling for their mothers?
1776 isn’t about castigating the Founding Fathers, maybe just some good-natured ribbing about their imperfections. But, it can be read as a possibly overly subtle critique of recent American presidents, none of whom you could claim was “noble, selfless, or wise.”
Our second lie agreed upon, that America’s success was built on the ideals of whites, instead of the labor of blacks, is not really challenged by 1776, as you can imagine, but there is an exception. Slavery becomes the pivotal issue of Act 2, when the text of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration is being nitpicked almost to death. Adams tells Franklin, as he opposes South Carolina’s demand that Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause be stricken from the Declaration, “Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.”
Edward Rutledge from South Carolina, played by the Broadway titan John Cullum (who is really only know to most people as the restaurant owner Holling Vincoeur in Northern Exposure) has a big, almost operatic aria (“Molasses to Rum”) that brings the house down. In it he doesn’t so much defend his colony of South Carolina and the other Southern colonies for wanting to preserve slavery, as he accuses the North of rank hypocrisy, because its New York and Boston merchants also prosper mightily from slavery, through the Triangle Trade transporting slaves from Africa and Caribbean rum to the North.
Again, we can imagine the subtext of this being fairly obvious to audiences, in an era when anger about the neglect of black communities in the North was finally spawning violent revolts.
Lin-Manuel Miranda said about Hamilton – “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” I like this quote because I think it captures the whole idea behind Lies Agreed Upon. Each film or series (or musical) we discuss is a story about a historical period told from a contemporary perspective. We just talked about how 1776 is a reflection of the Nixon era, so what about Hamilton?
When we get to Hamilton, which debuted in 2015, the musical as an art form evolved considerably from something like 1776. [Lia can do more here] But what didn’t change so much was the tendency to treat the Founding Fathers as noble, wise, and selfless. Certainly, academic historians took their shots, and Americans were far more jaded about the mythology underlying this Republic, but the Founding Fathers largely survived revisionism. What is so interesting about Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insistence that Alexander Hamilton enjoy the same treatment as the gang of three – Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. If they get mythologized, why can’t he?
We are not historians of the early republic, but we appreciate those that are and have thought very deeply about the implications this blockbuster has on their little corner of the historical profession. The first dilemma facing historians invested in Miranda’s work centers on this question: Is the inspirational benefit of this cultural phenomenon, Hamilton, the musical, worth looking past its historical inaccuracies and missteps? I think we get excited and nervous whenever pop culture takes on topics we know so much about because we are afraid they’ll get it wrong, or perpetuate the worst myths we spent careers trying to correct.
We want to highlight a great book that gets to the heart of the issues we are touching on in this episode. Historians Renee Romano of Oberlin College and Claire Bond Potter of the New School in New York capture this debate in their new volume Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past, a collection of 15 essays by scholars on the historical, artistic and educational impact of the musical. We will link to their book on our website.
In one essay, the City University of New York’s David Waldstreicher and the University of Missouri’s Jeffrey Pasley argue that Hamilton continues the trend really popular in the 1990s and early 2000s called “Founder’s Chic” Biographers like David McCullough and Robert Chernow, who wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired Miranda, wrote character-driven, nationalist and “relatable” histories of the Founding Fathers. Interestingly, part of the move in this direction stemmed from what people saw as dangerous and hyperpartisan politics in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you want to restore faith in the Republic, in other words, go back to the biographies of the founding fathers.
Hamilton represents the union of a trained historian’s labor and a brilliant talent like a Lin-Manuel Miranda. We should mention a third figure here, director Thomas Kail. Let’s get a sense of how this team worked together on Hamilton:
In one sense, we are both like – why can’t someone do this with our books? But, as great as it is to see something like Hamilton put history on center stage, so to speak, it comes at a cost. Are audiences getting the full story?
When it comes to our second lie – America’s success was built on the ideals of whites, instead of the labor of blacks – Hamilton has a mixed record. Again, let’s turn to some experts writing in Historians on Hamilton.
William Hogeland criticizes both Chernow and Miranda for portraying Hamilton as an abolitionist who favored the immediate, voluntary emancipation of all slaves. Hamilton was admittedly more progressive than others when it came to slavery, but Hogeland notes it’s likely that he and his family owned household slaves. Chernow and Miranda are downplaying this. Let’s at least acknowledge the cognitive dissonance typical of the time. Hogeland writes that the biography and show give “the false impression that Hamilton was special among the founding fathers in part because he was a staunch abolitionist,” continuing that “satisfaction and accessibility pose serious risks to historical realism.”
Of course, one of the best things about Hamilton is the “race blind” casting. Black and Latino actors fill about 90% of the roles, and all of the Founding Fathers. We can celebrate this and recognize that representation matters in popular culture.
**I’d like to talk more about this here. I think the historical critiques downplay the impact of it by just calling it ‘race blind’ casting. This wasn’t, actually. It was intentionally subversive, very specifically NOT white casting.
However, some scholars point out the ironic tension between the musical’s diverse cast and what they see as an overly whitewashed script. Northwestern University‘s Leslie Harris writes in Historians on Hamilton that there were slaves in colonial New York and none of them are portrayed in Hamilton. There was also a free black community in the city where African-Americans did serious work toward abolition. To her, excluding these narratives from the show is a missed opportunity. “Does the hip-hop soundscape of Hamilton effectively drown out the violence and trauma – and sounds – of slavery that people who looked like the actors in the play might actually have experienced at the time of the nation’s birth?” she writes.
When Hamilton began its run on Disneyplus in 2020 the landscape on race had actually changed dramatically since 2015. The casting wasn’t enough, apparently. Let’s listen to an overview of this debate:
What Miranda, Chernow and Kail has done is truly remarkable and deserves our respect. It is historical fiction grounded in real archival research, and it’s popular! How can that be bad? But let’s use the phenomenon to interrogate the past, demythologize instead of reify, which Hamilton gives us the space to do. Even Miranda welcomes this.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
In the first episode of our second season on revolutions and rebellions, we began by looking at 2 miniseries about the American Revolution – HBO’s John Adams, and the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty. Today, we’re going to stay in the American Revolution but look at 2 tv shows that took a different approach – focusing far less on the famous array of Founding Fathers and, instead, highlighting the experiences of more average people forced to negotiate fast-moving and complex events. They are TURN: Washington’s Spies and The Book of Negroes
The three lies agreed upon from Episode 1 are represented in both series, but we really want to emphasize how TURN and The Book of Negroes bring the stories of ordinary people to life, but in very different ways. When the Founding Fathers do make the occasional appearance on screen it works to reveal the contributions of those who are the invisible movers of events – farmers TURNed spies, for example, or slaves caught in the middle of a dispute that had no discernible impact on their plight.
What are the lies agreed upon concerning the American Revolution:
First of all, that the Revolution was simple and quick and had an obvious outcome.
Second, that the Founding Fathers were the only important actors in the Revolution
And third, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.
TURN demystifies the revolution. It tears families and communities apart and forces good men and women to do awful things. But, in the end wasn’t it worth it? That seems to be the message when all the dust has settled. The Book of Negroes couldn’t care less about the American Revolution as a momentous political event. It was bad news for slaves in North America. Full stop. So, yes, these series show us that the Founding Fathers were not the only important actors in the revolution, but not all of the actors were invested in the outcome.
Like we always do, let’s first recap our series.
TURN: Washington’s Spies ran for four seasons on AMC between 2014 and 2017. It’s based on the excellent book by Alexander Rose entitled Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, published in 2006. Rose was born in the US, but raised in Australia and Britain, where he completed his doctorate at Cambridge University. He also worked in Canada as a journalist. I think this transatlantic perspective explains why TURN is so effective – it doesn’t vilify the British nor valorize the colonists, or patriots, or proto-Americans, whatever you want to call them. Nothing is ever black and white in any revolution and this one was no exception.
The plot of TURN revolves around a farmer from Setauket, New York and his childhood friends as they try to survive the American Revolutionary War. The group of friends become the Culper spy ring that was so crucial to George Washington’s success throughout the war.
The series mostly adheres to the book, although the characters’ relationships and certain biographical details are changed to heighten the dramatic effect and create enough human interest subplots to last 4 seasons. To this point, the principal cast members are young and attractive… and talented. Abraham Woodhull, our simple country farmer, is played by Jamie Bell, who first came to everyone’s notice as Billy Elliot, the tap-dancing kid from County Durham. The rest of the spy ring -who very much existed in real life – are played by Seth Numrich, Daniel Henshall, and Heather Lind and all of them are great.
The key characters in setauket but outside the spy ring are Abe’s wife, played by Meagan Warner, and his loyalist father Judge Richard Woodhull, played by the great Kevin R. McNally – one of those actors you’ve seen in a dozen things without knowing his name. Judge Woodhull initially welcomes the arrival of the most notorious “love to hate” character – British Captain Simcoe, played by Samuel Roukin, and Major Edward Hewlitt played by Burn Gorman, who will look familiar to viewers as a regular from every Masterpiece Theatre or Brit Box series of the past 20 years.
Farther afield – bear with us, the extensive main cast is indicative that it’s a rewardingly complicated show that took 4 seasons to tell the story of the revolution – we have JJ Feild as Major John Andre, the British head spy, and Angus McFayden regularly stealing the show as Robert Rogers, the stone cold killer Queens Ranger who is ostensibly a Loyalist but runs afoul of George III. On the other side, Ian Kahn is a severe and humorless George Washington, while Owain Yeoman plays a particularly nuanced Benedict Arnold – nuanced in the motivation and depth of his self-interest and sense of victimhood. Finally, the fabulously named Ksenia Solo plays Peggy Litton, also a real person who was definitely the Loyalist wife of Benedict Arnold, was definitely an agent of the British in her own right, and may have even recruited Arnold.
The series also complicates the idea of good guys and bad guys by having slaves and freedmen passing vital information on both sides of the conflict, especially Abigail, played by Idara Victor. And Aldis Hodge plays Jordan, a slave who finds freedom in the Queen’s Rangers, reclaiming his African identity as Akinbode.
TURN was filmed on location in Virginia, Williamsburg and Richmond primarily, mostly because the area looks and feels “colonial.” It is actually a beautiful show to watch for cinematography alone, but the hook for audiences is seeing the revolution “from below,” a band of amateurs with divided loyalties and conflicting responsibilities navigating a dangerous environment.
The 4 seasons take us from 1776 after the British have managed to occupy New York City. And it ends when the war ends, and adds a coda that helps us to see that there isn’t a neat summation to everything. We’re told that Woodhull’s son dies in the war of 1812. The commitment to the revolution and the new nation is multi-generational in TURN. They are all invested in the outcome.
The Book of Negroes is a 2015 miniseries that, tellingly, was co-produced by BET and the CBC – in other words, representing two populations often sidelined in narratives of the Revolution – Black people and British Loyalists. It was adapted from an award-winning novel by Lawrence Hill, a biracial Canadian author who writes fiction and nonfiction, including a 2001 memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. The Book of Negroes is fiction and the protagonist, Aminata Diallo, is a composite, but the story is firmly grounded in substantial historical research. Director Clement Virgo adapted the book for the small screen.
The actual Book of Negroes is the historical document of recorded names and descriptions of 3,000 slaves, the so-called Black Loyalists – who had escaped to the British lines during the American Revolution, were freed, and were to be evacuated by the British by ship to Nova Scotia.
The story begins in 1761, when eleven-year-old Aminata Diallo is abducted and taken captive from her village in West Africa by the Dutch East India Company. She meets another boy from her region, Chekura, who is working for the slavers but he too was sold into slavery. Aminata and Chekura endure the horrific middle passage and are sold into slavery in South Carolina.
It stars the excellent Aunjanue Ellis as the adult Aminata. She’s so compelling and really carries the series. Lyric Bent plays the adult Chekura, who becomes Aminata’s husband, after they are able to reunite. Shailyn Pierre-Dixon also deserves mention as the young Aminata, as does Siyabonga Xaba as the young Chekura – I hope they both have long careers.
Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a subtle performance as Samuel Fraunces, of Fraunces Tavern fame. In real life, his nickname was Black Sam and there has been research into whether that was because he was mixed race. It seems to be established now that he was not, but it’s a great way of challenging the accepted history and showing how the colonies were more racially complex than they are usually depicted.
It has a strong cast, including Sandra Caldwell and Cara Ricketts as Aminata’s closest friends at different stages in her life, and Louis Gossett Jr. as Daddy Moses, an elder of the Freed Black community in Nova Scotia. Finally, Ben Chaplin plays the British officer overseeing the migration of freed blacks to Loyalist Canada, and Alan Hawco plays Solomon Lindo, a sympathetic indigo inspector, who buys Aminata from the plantation where she had been since a child. Aminanta is taught to read and write and eventually is taken by Lindo to New York, where she escapes to British lines as they control the city.
With the American Revolutionary War coming to an end and New York preparing to change hands, Aminanta is recruited by British naval officer Sir John Clarkson to help register names of Black Loyalists in The Book of Negroes. Separated from her husband again, and this is a constant plotpoint in the series, Aminata encounters more hardship in Nova Scotia. The climate is harsh and tensions flare between the white and black communities over the scarcity of work, breaking out in the Shelburne Riots in 1784. Aminata successfully petitions British abolitionists, who organize passage from Nova Scotia to the new colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1792 for nearly 1,300 former slaves. With this voyage, Aminata reTURNs to the continent of her homeland, but the community of Freetown is merely an oasis in a region controlled by the slave trade.
The series ends with Aminata traveling to London in the early 1800s to work with abolitionists, including her old friend John Clarkson. She writes a memoir and lobbies Parliament, effectively giving voice to the horrors of the slave trade and helps pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Aminata is also reunited with her long lost daughter, giving the series a happy ending.
The Book of Negroes does not have the production value of shows like TURN or John Adams, nor does it pretend to care about the American Revolution other than as the backdrop for Aminata’s Forrest Gumpesque expansive life story, but it is worth exploring precisely because it refuses to pay homage to the Revolution and is concerned principally with the experiences of both the enslaved and Free Blacks.
Aunjanue Ellis won the Canadian Screen Award for best actress in a miniseries. Lyriq Bent also won the award for best actor. Aside from the acting awards, The Book of Negroes cleaned up in all the Canadian venues as well as many NAACP Image Awards.
So what are the lies agreed upon we’re looking at this week? Well, we want to pick up the ones we looked at last week and examine how TURN and The Book of Negroes explore them from new angles.
We discussed how the Founding Fathers are always given central stage as the average person gets sidelined. And how the Revolution is wrongly understood today as having been a quick and simple little conflict. And that there were really obvious good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. Both these shows challenge all those assumptions.
And partly that’s because of when they’re made and where they come from. So as always, we’ll provide some reminders of what was going on when the original books were written and by whom. And then when the TV shows were made and by whom.
Alexander Rose wroteTURN in 2006, during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can imagine that he – a trained historian – saw in the Revolutionary Era in general, and in the Culper Ring story in particular, as a way to explore the complicated motivations of people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Here we have Rose describing that himself:
Rose would have been researching and writing his book at a moment in world history where “complicated” didn’t do it justice – 2006.
And by the time the book was being adapted into a series, six years into Obama’s presidency in 2014, the potential viewing public was a bit more … world-weary…cynical…realistic. Pick your term. In any event, a show about a protracted war, with shifting loyalties, and both honorable and monstrous people on both sides, even the best of whom find themselves doing things at the end of the war they couldn’t have imagined themselves doing when it started…well, that was something the producers, writers, directors, and the network obviously thought viewers were ready for.
And this is why TURN, far more than John Adams, is notable for its efforts to debunk Lie #3 – that somehow every patriot was noble and courageous and every Brit was evil and cowardly.
The Book of Negroes came to the screen one year after TURN’s first season aired. The motivation of BET would certainly have been simply the centering of Blacks in a story about early America (sort of like a certain Project it’s illegal to even teach in certain states today). But the CBC would have been motivated, at least in part, to create this production as an effort to lessen the whiteness of the traditional narrative about Canada’s early formation. This is because 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.
Lia can provide more Canadian translation for this show – it’s important to explain that, because Canada is next to the US and the story of race in America has always been such a horrific one, Canadians have traditionally been very self-righteous and self-satisfied about racial issues.
But this has changed in recent years, as various immigrant populations have demanded white Canadians look more critically at their culture and history. And the crimes and neglect perpetrated against indigenous population since Europeans first arrived have gained much more public attention, in part due to a Truth and Reconciliation process modeled after the one in South Africa.
And stateside, as we have spoken about before, events and circumstances in the mid-20-teens would have encouraged BET to sign on as co-producers for The Book of Negroes. As we’ve spoken about before, the Obama administration was both an era of great visibility and representation for Blacks, and also the start of the current cultural shift about violence against Blacks made possible by cell phone video.
This has also coincided with a new awareness of the commercial box office potential of stories where Black people are centered rather than peripheral – everything from the Oprah, Tyler Perry and (to a lesser extent) Lee Daniels empires, to grittier films by Black writers and directors like Fruitvale Station, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting. In all cases, though, the key is these are productions that resist telling black stories through the white gaze (like the recent, and atrocious, Green Book.)
Let’s remind ourselves of the Lies Agreed Upon. 1. The Revolution was inevitable, harrowing at points, but somehow fated in the stars. 2. The Founding Fathers were the principal movers of events. And 3. The revolutionaries were ideological freedom fighters and the British were cruel, corrupt occupiers.
We want to spend a few more moments breaking how The Book of Negroes in particular treats the revolution, because it is unique.
In TURN the prospects for a successful revolution that achieves broad support from the population seem distant. And the only Founding Father of consequence in the series is George Washington, and he’s kind of a mope. He makes mistakes, is vain, and treats his underlings – free and enslaved -poorly. And there are terrible people on both sides of the conflict and quite a few noble figures in the British ranks.
The Book of Negroes is a different creature from the other productions we discuss as part of a 3 episode bloc on the American Revolution. It reminds me of Roots in a way – an expansive life story of some fictional characters living through extraordinary times. Two of the six episodes occur during the revolution and it is worth talking about how the series takes on America’s cherished myths and icons about its own revolution.
In episode three Aminata is in 1775 New York City, which we know from TURN is a British stronghold and next to Boston, the major flashpoint for revolutionary activity. Aminata is indifferent to what she sees as the empty rhetoric behind the menacing white rebels.
Similarly, when the Declaration of Independence is being read in Samuel Fraunces’ tavern, Aminata cynically responds, “”What rights do they want that they don’t already have?” Fraunces, played by Cuba Gooding Jr, is an unapologetic supporter and admirer of George Washington. He urges Aminata to get excited about his impending victory. She rolls her eyes, stating simply: “The same Washington who owns slaves?”
Fortunes change for the colonies’ slave population when the British governor of Virginia issued the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 freeing slaves who flee their masters and serve the crown. In The Book of Negroes, Chekura joins a Loyalist regiment. Aminata is scared since she is constantly losing him anyway, but he correctly argues that if the rebels win they could be slaves for another fifty years. Of course, it’s more like 86 years. When Yorktown happens, Aminata wanders the celebratory streets of the city like a zombie, more fearful of her fate than ever.
The point is that the American Revolution is a scary proposition for the enslaved and Free Blacks alike. This is not to say British North America was any better for Aminata, but she could hardly embrace the rhetoric of freedom when it was so clear that for her, things could only get worse. In this sense Aminata and Abigail in TURN are similar. But, at least TURN implies one day this revolution will be for everyone. In The Book of Negroes, once Aminata escapes New York she never looks back. It’s just another unpleasant chapter in an already harrowing life.
The character Aminata is a compelling literary heroine, actress Aunjanue Ellis says in this roundtable about the series. She is a modern woman for this era, a revolutionary in more ways than one.
It’s a little disorienting at first. All of the enslaved people have fully developed personalities and stories. And, of course, back stories in Guinea where we see the complexity of the societies that Europeans only worked on the edges of.
The fluidity of society was also disorienting. The ways that enslaved people managed to work the system and come and go – with risk, but still – was another way that we see a society that didn’t focus on white society, certainly not politics and arguments between the Americans and the British.
I thought Cuba Gooding Jr was great. Samuel Frances’ nickname was Black Sam. So recently, there’s been a lot of interest in the idea that he was a man of color. It seems the documentary evidence – at least right now – points to him being white but I like the way Hall ran with that idea. What would it mean if the host of the famed Tavern so closely tied to the Founding Fathers were black?
When the Revolution was underway, the way that Sam and Mina talked about their rationales for backing each side really illustrated the events through the lens of their priorities.
Let’s review how The Book of Negroes complicates our Lies Agreed Upon. First, the series doesn’t care about whether the revolution was inevitable or not. It was just there. Second, the Founding Fathers are distant, irrelevant, and when they show up in person, like Washington, underwhelming and hypocritical. The third lie is most interesting because, if anything, the British are the good guys in this story. Sir John Clarkson and other officers are trying to protect Black Loyalists while the rabid rebels, and of course Washington himself, want to keep their property for the duration. This is not a representation of revolution familiar to most Americans, but that’s why it’s worth our time today.
Last week we talked about filial piety and the revolution in John Adams and Sons of Liberty. TURN is a great example of using a personal relationship vital to the story as a metaphor for the larger issue of the frayed connection between colonizer and colonized. Abe Woodhull disappoints his father Judge Richard Woodull continuously, even after he does the right thing by marrying his dead brother’s fiancee.
In the earliest episodes, we see Abe chafing against the rules of colonial life and hierarchy and obligation. But his father simply can’t imagine another world. And in a testament to how the show complicates, there are British officers who aren’t evil or domineering, They represent the reality – that the British and the colonists were supposedly one and the same.
We can hear the complete inability to understand where the other is coming from. This really challenges what most Americans are taught – that the ideals of the revolution were…well, self-evident. And so it was easy to know what side to be on. And there was an obvious and inevitable outcome.
Yes, the focus on spying allows the viewer to see what we historians are always focused on – the contingent nature of history. And the (actually quite funny) obsession that Washington has about New York, while everyone else -and I mean everyone – is shouting YORKTOWN!!! at him, is another strand of the plot that gets at this.
TURN is exciting, well-written and acted. You care for these people and that includes the British ones as well. It is also an excellent espionage thriller.
The Book of Negroes is well worth your while, although I bet the book is even better. The point is, for most American audiences the story of enslaved people caught up in a war that only imperilled their safety and freedom is unknown. This series is a necessary corrective to the near silence of these voices in classrooms and pop culture.
Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
If you’re just joining us now, we encourage you to go back and listen to Season 1, where we explored how mainstream film and TV processed 9/11. Particularly as we get closer to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this September, we think you’ll find it interesting to revisit the impact that event had on popular culture in the years since it happened.
This season, we’re taking up a general theme as our organizing principle instead of a single event. Rebels and rebellions, revolutionaries and revolts, insurrectionists and traitors, freedom fighters and patriots. All of these are terms that have come up a lot over the past year, particularly since January 6th, 2021. Many of those who stormed the Capitol claimed the American Revolution as inspiration for their actions. The infamous Lauren Boebert, congresswoman from Colorado, tweeted “1776” the morning of the 6th. But many others have asserted that the founding fathers would deplore the current, violent disregard for the Constitution.
In reality, the behavior on January 6th was far less violent and disruptive than the actions of the Revolution-era rebels. But school textbooks, popular biographies, and standard political rhetoric have all done a pretty good job of draining the violence out of the events of the 1770s and distancing the founding fathers from what’s left. This has complicated Americans’ attitude towards the American Revolution, and to revolutions and rebellions in general, and also our feelings about the freedom fighters – or insurrectionists, traitors – or heroes, who fight them.
So, this season, we’re going to take a long look at how Hollywood responded to contemporary events in the 20th and 21st centuries by retelling the stories of rebels and revolutionaries, and the rebellions and revolutions they were part of.
Along the way, we’ll also be exploring what gets called a revolution, and who gets counted as a revolutionary. Spoiler alert – sometimes those labels are compliments and sometimes they’re accusations.
It’s probably worth reiterating what the name of our podcast signifies how we approach our topics. Napoleon hated that he wasn’t going to be in control of his historical legacy because he ended up on the losing side at Waterloo and was powerless to shape the narrative. So, he declared that it didn’t really matter because history was simply a set of lies agreed upon over time.
We started this podcast because we’re always interested in how versions of history get used by writers, producers, and directors to comment on contemporary events. Sometimes, Hollywood wants to challenge the established narrative. Other times, it uses a familiar story to disguise a discussion of something else. But more often than not, Hollywood simply wants to lean on familiar tales that make their work easier. We figure there are a lot of people out there who are both cinephiles and history buffs, and, like us, you would love to learn about the often volatile relationship between history and Hollywood. That’s where we come in.
(By the way, we tend to use the term ‘Hollywood’ as a short hand for ‘mainstream TV and film’. It doesn’t need to be American in origin. The borders are very fluid these days. Multiple international production companies can be involved in a single movie or tv series. But generally speaking, we are focused on stuff that’s hoping to reach a broad and general audience, no matter what country it seems to come from.)
To start off this new season, we thought it would be a good idea to look at the revolution our listeners think they’re most familiar with – the American Revolution. Later in the season, we’ll expand our scope to look at events elsewhere in the world and, in particular, how rebels and insurgents took the West at their word – as champions of democracy and enemies to oppressors – only to find that wasn’t the case.
We’ll also expand the definition of revolution to include social revolutions, and see how – over time – those revolutionaries have had their edges softened and their biographies modified so that they become less confrontational and more palatable. Finally, we’ll talk about cinematic depictions of failed rebellions and doomed freedom fighters. So let’s get started.
There are surprisingly few films and TV series set in or around the American Revolution. It’s actually kind of strange, once you go looking, to realize how few there are. One of the reasons why The Patriot probably immediately comes into our listeners minds is because there aren’t many more.
But there are lots of books. Over the next 2 episodes, we’re going to look at 4 tv series total, 3 of which are adaptation of books. The series are HBO’s John Adams, AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, and a joint Canadian Broadcasting Company and BET production called The Book of Negroes.
Our clever name for this episode is The Adams Family. We compare and contrast John Adams and Sons of Liberty, which focuses on his cousin Sam Adams. John Adams is adapted from one of those ‘books you get your father-in-law for his birthday” – a Pulitzer-prize winner written by David McCullough, who it’s worth noting is not a trained historian. Sons of Liberty, in stark contrast, is not reflective of any historical research whatsoever. This is not to say the characters and events aren’t real, but it’s safe to say these Founding Fathers are like none you’ve encountered before.
As an aside – there is also a graphic novel series with that name that’s set in the Revolutionary era. Its heroes are 2 young runaway slaves who get superpowers. We haven’t read them yet but they sound like they’d be a blast. And totally ripe for cinematic adaptation. We’d definitely watch that series!
Ok – so what are the lies agreed upon relating to the American Revolution?
First of all, that the Revolution was simple and quick and had an obvious outcome.
Second, that the Founding Fathers were the only important actors in the Revolution
And third, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.
We pair up John Adams and Sons of Liberty because they work together to uphold each of these lies despite being very different stylistically, and even ideologically.
As we always do in this podcast, we’ll first recap the productions we discuss for those unfamiliar with them. And we won’t worry about spoilers too much. After all, I think we all know how the revolution turned out.
HBO’s seven episode miniseries John Adams ran in early 2008, coinciding with Barack Obama’s first year in office, and is a pretty faithful adaptation of David McCullough’s mammoth biography. The series was directed by British director Tom Hooper, who works in all genres, and adapted by Kirk Ellis. Tom Hanks was a producer, following up his successful (and excellent) WWII series on HBO – Band of Brothers.
The cast is stellar, as you might expect from a prestige project like this, and they really cleaned house during awards seasons. Paul Giammatti is Adams and Laura Linney is Abigail. Their letters form the basis of the scripts, and you can tell.
Other notable performances include David Morse as George Washington, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, Tom Wilkinson is Benjamin Franklin (Why are Brits always playing the Founding Fathers!!??) I also like Danny Huston as Sam Adams. You’ll notice Justin Theroux as John Hancock and Rufus Sewell as a pretty sketchy Alexander Hamilton, John Adams’ nemesis. I think Zeljiko Ivanek deserves a mention as John Dickinson, the most articulate opponent of Adams and the pro-independence faction in the Continental Congress. Great character actor.
John Adams covers about 50 years of his life, and by extension, the first 50 years of the so-called “American experiment.” Because it traces the biography of this particular Founding Father, the action of the Revolution – the complicated community loyalties, the risks to body and property, the broader economic hardships, and the straight up violence – is both relegated to the earlier episodes and is also most often happening elsewhere, rather than where Adams is. Most of it was filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, and Hungary passes for all the European stops on Adams sojourn abroad.
The other show we’ll be discussing, Sons of Liberty, couldn’t be more different, although this History Channel production was also filmed in Eastern Europe and again stars many British actors as the revolutionaries. But this time, they’re young and gorgeous and fit and the events look much more like the film version of a video game than the film version of a David McCollough biography.
In this depiction of the revolution, Sam Adams is the central character. Played by Ben Barnes, who may be familiar to listeners as Prince Caspian from two of the Narnia movies or as Logan in Westworld, about 20 years has been shaved off Sam Adams’ real age, in order to allow him to do parkour across the rooftops of colonial Boston.
The rest of the cast includes Henry Thomas as Sam’s older and more staid cousin, John Adams, although in real life he was the younger one by more than a decade! And Jason O’Mara is a classic, noble version of Washington – a man of few words and great deeds. Dean Norris, of all people – yes, Hank from Breaking Bad – plays Ben Franklin.
But the real stand out is Rafe Spall, talented son of Timothy Spall, as John Hancock. He’s a much less important character in the other tv shows and films about the revolution that we’re discussing, and Hancock’s central role here is key to the quite different focus of this 3-part, 6 hour miniseries.
The series starts in 1765 and concludes with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Neither of us are historians who specialize in this period, but we’re pretty sure that the entire revolution wasn’t Sam Adams’ personal project. Nevertheless, there are aspects of this series we want to discuss because, in some ways, it portrays the motivations of historical actors more realistically than other shows have.
So again, let’s remind ourselves of the Lies Agreed Upon we’ll be addressing in this episode and what was going on when these shows were conceived.
When I teach both the French Revolution and the American Revolution, my students always express surprise at how long they both lasted and how much stuff happens between the well-established “momentous events” we tend to focus on in textbooks. I also teach the American Revolution from the British perspective, which generally blows students’ minds. And, I point out that it was less a revolution than a case of ‘under new management’ – as most of the power structures, privileges, and forms of oppression remained as far as the average poor white, freed black, and slave were concerned.
By characterizing the revolution as quick and simple with an inevitable outcome (lie #1) and conducted primarily by the Founding Fathers in the form of a glorified debating society (lie #2), both popular culture and basic elementary and secondary school civics textbooks have encouraged Americans to imagine it was wholly motivated by idealism and noble intent, and carried out by always moral and righteous patriots (lie #3). John Adams ticks all those boxes.
If you recall from Season One, we are interested in how historical events are used by the creators of entertainment to talk about or react to contemporary events. It’s hard not to imagine that Tom Hanks and HBO were motivated to use the Founding Fathers to critique the outgoing Bush administration – one that was widely seen as immoral (starting wars based on knowingly false information, sanctioning rendition, torture, and imprisonment without trial). A David McCollough biography is really made to order for that sort of thing.
In 2007, we were in year 6 of a war in Afghanistan and year 4 of a war in Iraq. Iraq was supposed to be quick and easy. The US would be greeted as liberators and educate the poor Iraqis about the inherent superiority of democracy, private property, and “limited government.” We can see in John Adams – the miniseries not the person – a similarly oversimplified imagining of what is involved in regime change. The series cannot adequately portray the sacrifices of revolutionaries, the ones we know and the ones we don’t, or just how many people wanted nothing to do with it.
In fact, it’s interesting to note that even in the 2000s when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, undermining any hopes about spreading the American experiment abroad, this easy peasy representation of the American Revolution wasn’t recognized as problematic. Reviews of John Adams rarely mention it. So lies #1 and #2 – that revolution was quick and easy, and mainly fueled by the Founding Fathers’ persuasive philosophical arguments – were well-served.
It’s probably hard to remember that in the 1990s the GOP started to have a zero tolerance policy when it came to tax increases. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform made signing a no tax increase pledge a requirement for Republican candidates at both the state and national level. And then the Koch Brothers, Norquist, and other AFR alumni weaponized this platform against their fellow Republicans and Democrats alike. They provided the funding and the organizational know-how for the supposedly ‘grassroots’ Tea Party movement.
Obviously the Tea Party is directed against the Obama presidency – his presence was horrifying to many on the Right for obvious and ugly reasons. The loosely organized coalition of interests, some radical and racist, others just Newt Gingrich “Contract with America” in new clothes, all tried to claim some deep connection to the Founding Fathers. Here’s former Republican Congressman Joe DioGuardi being interviewed in 2010 about the Tea Party and its roots in the idealized early Republic.
He sounds kind of reasonable here, blaming both parties in a sense, but his argument that only rank amateurs can represent the people as “the founding fathers intended” is so presumptive, and typical of Tea Party rhetoric at the time.
The “Don’t Tread on Me” iconography of the Revolution was showing up at rallies and town halls even before the ‘official’ creation of the Tea Party in 2009. The makers of John Adams were probably interested in reclaiming or correcting this narrative, and reclaiming this iconography, which we see in the episodes connected to the Revolution.
The 6 hour miniseries Sons of Liberty appeared on the History Channel. Much of the History Channel’s programming tends towards the conservative – a small c conservative that at times overlaps with a more overtly political agenda. And, just by paying attention to the kinds of commercials that air on the History Channel, you can tell they definitely have an older viewership. With this in mind, Sons of Liberty is an interesting take on all three lies, which is why we’ve included it here.
The show was in production around 2013 and 2014. It’s worth reminding listeners about the global revolutionary context of that time. It was a few years after the early promise of the Arab Spring died and was replaced by the slow motion genocide in Syria and an equivocating Obama admistration doing nothing about it. Moreover, the Republican Congress launched numerous interminable Benghazi investigations focused on then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. What should have been a moment focused on the idealism of mostly young people in the Middle East and North Africa – much like our buff heroes in Sons of Liberty trying to overthrow oppressors – devolved into stories about how self-serving politicians manipulate fast-moving events for their own cynical purposes … as does Sons of Liberty
While Sons of Liberty was being filmed, in 2014, a series of events – foreign and domestic – further reinforced the sense that idealism was not only passe but almost laughably naive, and self-interest was the natural way of things. The ongoing corruption and descent into chaos in the nominally socialist Venezuela, and Putin’s brazen invasion and occupation of Crimea, with few repercussions, fed a pro-America, totally un-self-critical wave of news coverage that was reinforced and championed across the media spectrum.
In this confused and contradictory political climate, it shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, that the longstanding subjects of American civic worship, the Sons of Liberty, got a complete makeover. In this series, they are motivated by financial self-interest and democracy is replaced by capitalism as the organizing ideal for these ‘patriots’ – a fact that seems to go unnoticed by the writers, directors, and reviewers of the series, which is both telling, and scary.
Listen here as the show’s producer expresses his total lack of familiarity with the rudimentary history of the revolutionary era. I think this explains why the overt celebration of capitalism is what truly comes out on screen.
Ugh. It’s so hard to listen to that total disregard for historical knowledge. Anyone can be a historian! It only takes a couple of hours, kids, and you too can discover stuff no one has ever known before! I’m glad they discovered google.
So now that we’ve offered up a basic recap, of both the shows and the historical context, let’s get into some details that jumped out at us.
One theme shared by both series is filial piety – fathers and sons. In the 18th century sons did their father’s bidding, chose the same career, etc . . . The father was literally king of his castle. This dynamic extends all they way up to mother country and colony, the Crown and his subjects.
It was unheard of for colonists to challenge the Crown, and if they did, they should expect a swift punishment. Colonists should be grateful, loyal, obedient, and accept their status in the empire. But the Americans didn’t, they hoped and expected to be seen as British citizens, not treated as errant school children.
I think each show is really good at linking father-son tensions in their plots to this larger, sometimes unspoken issue of the Revolution – why don’t you love me, Daddy? The Crown’s coldness is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for most of the founding fathers.
Consider this scene in Sons of Liberty. Benjamin Franklin is once again getting dressed down by Parliament for colonial insubordination. The word “sons” is important here.
Notice how the Prime Minister calls the colonists “childish and immature”, “beaten into submission.” Parenting 101 for this era, no doubt. But we can also detect the lessons learned from the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – you’ll create terrorists by trying to crush them.
The series John Adams is an often plodding biography that details faults as well as his brilliance. For one, he was not the best father, or maybe he was pretty typical of the era. He bullied his son John Quincy into law and politics and disowned Charles while he was actually president. Charles dies penniless in a Philadelphia flophouse.
When John Adams meets King George III in his position as US ambassador to Britain we feel the same sort of disapproval from the king. Adams assures the king they are still family in some ways, just all grown up, not that this pleases father. In this clip you hear a very reasonable sounding King George complimenting Adams for his honesty and devotion to his new nation.
Notice how George couldn’t resist mentioning the young US’ “want for a monarchy” – in other words, Oh, you silly boy. You think you’re a grown up but you have no idea. You’ll pay for your youthful hubris. Of course, Adams was run out of England soon after this because the press trashed him. He was never meant to be a diplomat.
And the global pecking order – with the French incapable of imagining that what’s going on in the colonies is really of any significance – they’re such rubes, after all!! – is redolent of America’s lazy confidence about its superpower status.
And part of that lazy confidence is the way that the story of the Revolution is so often framed as a story about selfless idealists. In many depictions, like in John Adams, the struggle becomes so drained of violence that it almost seems the founding fathers just debated the country into existence. In contrast, however, Sons of Liberty is refreshingly frank about the fact that self-interest and profits motivated many.
To get at the difference, listen to this brief conversation that takes place between Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin in Paris, from John Adams lounging in the beautiful gardens of a chateau in France while debating the formation of their future government. We have the pragmatic Adams versus the idealistic Jefferson essentially lay out the competing philosophies that have, in one way or another, defined American politics since. It comes down to how much faith you have in humanity
In Sons of Liberty, the narrative is surprisingly and maybe even refreshingly honest about the motivations – capitalism, lower taxes, straight out avarice at times. The key to tracing this evolution is the character of John Hancock, who starts out as a corrupt businessman with British protection. As things heat up in Boston, his advantages slip away and he begins to see the light.
Sons of Liberty gives us the libertarian strain of the American philosophy, no doubt. But it’s also much closer to the truth. Many of the patriots of Boston were smugglers. The wealthy of Boston (and NYC and Philly) were less inclined to protest too much against British laws because they were more motivated by the bottom line than ideals. And, while you see the reality of British soldiers being forced upon the civilian population, you don’t see the colonial settlers further inland who disregarded laws prohibiting Western settlement, and then demanded that same British military protect them and their farms, from both the First Nations people and (potentially) the French.
What’s disturbing, though, is that capitalism is treated as a political system – democracy and capitalism are conflated. So ‘freedom’ is reduced simply to ‘the freedom to make money’. The rejection of arbitrary rule by a monarch, a discussion of the contrast of a Constitutional government, etc. is missing.
So in John Adams, the blood is drained out and we’re left with nothing but abstract ideals and talking heads. In Sons of Liberty, the idealism is drained out and we’re left with nothing but self-interest and adventure seeking.
The revolution was not inevitable and neither is it secure. John Adams leaves us with the old adage that every generation is responsible for safeguarding the fragile Republic. “The Revolution Never Ends.” Imagine what a series on the American Revolution would look like after the last four years?
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. In this first season of our podcast, we’ve explored the many ways that 9/11 influenced writers, directors and producers and how they used history to discuss and process that day and its legacy.
In our final episode we are doing something a little different. Our focus has been on how historical events are portrayed on screen after 9/11 – from Antiquity to 9/11 itself. But we all know the cultural impact of 9/11 went far deeper and extends to every genre and medium of representation. Holocaust scholars speak of a “before” and an “after” when it comes to culture, religion, politics, and philosophy. In a memorable and much cited passage in Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), Theodor Adorno, the eminent German philosopher and founder of the so-called Frankfurt School, wrote: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What he was really saying is that you can’t return to traditional modes of representation without taking into account the Holocaust. More to the point, it is impossible to avoid.
America’s 21st century began with a trauma, an event that acts a similar “before and after” milestone. As we’ve discussed these past six episodes, Hollywood used history to reflect how the world changed and offer interpretations about 9/11’s causes and legacies. It took five years to address directly the trauma itself, World Trade Center and United 93 for example. But SciFi, and horror for that matter (often the distinction is purely academic), was processing our trauma and representing it unapologetically almost immediately after 9/11. This episode is more of a free-wheeling discussion about movies and tv shows that used the otherworldly to communicate our fear, anxiety, and let’s face it – fascination with the aesthetics of destruction. SciFi has always been political, from War of the Worlds the book, written in 1898, toWar of the Worlds the movie (2005 version). And it’s not just 9/11 Sci Fi takes on, but all that came after. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the national security state, torture and detention, insurgency and counterinsurgency, and fear of the “Other.”
There’s an entire body of academic literature on Sci Fi’s relationship to traumatic events like the Holocaust or 9/11 we won’t bore you with, but I will promote my own book for a second because it did lead me to this topic for Lies Agreed Upon. I wrote Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television after teaching Holocaust history and cinema courses for many years. I noticed how frequently these genres mined the imagery from both real history and the cinematic Holocaust to represent trauma, horror, grief, apocalyptic ideologies, and the perrenial fear of the return of the repressed. Nazism may be defeated, but how many films and video games tell us otherwise? While researching for the book I noticed more recent examples of this phenomenon of using the Holocaust as fodder for SciFi and horror used 9/11 just as freely, often conflating and muddling the imagery and messaging of both traumas. The Holocaust was the THE STANDARD for representing horror in the modern world – why wouldn’t it be? But after 9/11 there was a new aesthetic standard and they live together very comfortably in some of the shows and movies you love.
What’s really striking is how so many people referenced movies like Independence Day and it’s spectacular destruction of American landmarks just hours after the attack. There simply was no earthly comparison to what we experienced. And we all know terrorism is supposed to be cinematic. Here’s what film critic Neal Gabler wrote a few days after 9/11:
“In a sense, this was the terrorists’ own real-life disaster movie – bigger than ‘Independence Day’ or ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Armageddon’, and in the bizarre competition among terrorists, bigger even than Timothy J. McVeigh’s own real life horror film in Oklahoma City, heretofore the standard. You have to believe at some level it was their rebuff to Hollywood as well as their triumph over it – they could out-Hollywood Hollywood.”
I was in the intelligence community right after 9/11 and one of the big initiatives was for agencies to reach out to Hollywood writers and novelists for ideas on what could be coming next. In other words, actual intelligence experts needed the most far out scenarios laid out for them by people whose job was to imagine the destruction of our society. These Red Team analyses actually made their way to lowly analysts like myself and it became my job to determine if a dastardly terrorist might also be reading Tom Clancy or mimicking something they saw on 24.
But it’s Sci Fi that luxuriates in mass destruction without real consequences. The great Susan Sontag wrote “The Imagination of Disaster” in 1965 to comment on the spate of Sci Fi films dominating the landscape during the atomic age. She believed the whole genre, which became enormously popular after World War II, downplayed the crises plaguing the world, like nuclear destruction, and thereby normalized “what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” She continues, “Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent.” She calls Sci Fi the “purest form of spectacle.” After 9/11, Sontag’s essay suddenly started making the rounds again because suddenly the unthinkable became our reality and SciFi wasted no time, as she says, becoming complicit with the abhorrent.
What are some common themes of post-9/11 SciFi? See this article by Annalee Newitz, which informs some of our thoughts below.
The first, and it’s obviously not new but took on greater significance is that New York must be destroyed. We already talked about how Independence Day leveled our landmarks, the Empire State Building in this case, but soon the tri-state area was ravaged again in War of the Worlds (2005), I AmLegend (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the first season of Heroes (2006-07). We can go on and on.
A second theme, fairly new and obviously the result of a post-Patriot Act society, is that the Surveillance State is watching you. Think ofMinority Report(2002) another Spielberg, and A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Third, the terrorists are everywhere. Its also ok to dehumanize the enemy and kill them without guilt or remorse. They are beyond Other. It’s not a stretch to see the real terrorists, or anyone who looks like them, as target just enemies to exterminate. Remember the classic miniseries V from the 80s? The reboot in 2009 featured aliens who were organized in underground cells like terrorists. We’ll talk about Battlestar Galactica, which pretty much defines the 9/11 SciFi epic and its debates about terrorism. There’s even terrorists in Star Trek: Enterprise and HarryPotter. They’re everywhere.
Fourth, the national security state is plotting the end of the World. The new slate of agencies charged with ensuring the nebulous and menacing concept “homeland security” quickly turned sinister in our feverish imaginations. In the series Jericho government agencies nuked parts of the US to start a coup. Also, 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the new zombie classic28 DaysLater, where authorities can’t resist trying to control the virus that took out our closest ally in a month. In the 50s the military and government delivers us from monsters, after 9/11 they are usually unleashing them upon us and covering their asses in the process.
There are many more, and horror is a related genre with some obvious post-9/11 signatures. Kevin Wetmore s’ book on subject is worth quoting:
“One key difference between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 horror is that the former frequently allows for hope and the latter just as frequently does not.
After 911, nihilism, despair, random violence and death, combined with tropes and images generated by the terrorist attacks began to assume a greater prominence in horror cinema.”
Torture porn also became popular – Saw, Hostel, any of the movies where Americans abroad are duped and tortured for being stupid, naive, or just plaine rude. In post-9/11 horror there’s often times no reason for the horror, like in The Strangers. Just random, cruel violence. How much of this was an attitude shift after 9/11 or the result of our own actions in places like Abu Ghraib or the dozen black sites around the globe is an open question. Are we feeling pain or alluding to our own guilt for causing so much of it?
What are some examples of the 9/11 aesthetic in Sci Fi. And do films that appropriate the terrible images of the day comment on the political and ideological fallout?
War of the Worlds (2005), directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. The script is written by Josh Freedman and David Koepp. It stars Tom Cruise, a young and from what you can already see here a very talented Dakota Fanning, a memorable appearance by Tim Robbins, and a great actor I like, Justin Chatwin. He was in a few seasons of Shameless on Showtime. But, it’s mostly the Cruise and Fanning show as father and daughter make the perilous journey from Bayonne New Jersey to Boston, dodging the fearsome tripods and vampiric alien creatures bent on literally sucking humanity dry. Along the way, human beings prove they can be just as monstrous as the aliens, a trope we all recognize in SciFi.
Spielberg, who released Munich around the same time, another film with very explicit references to 9/11 and the war on terror, wanted audiences to know his new sci fi movie was heavily influenced by 9/11:
“It seemed like the time was right for me as a filmmaker to let the audience experience an alien that is a little less pleasant than E.T. Today, in the shadow of 9/11, I think the film has found a place in society.”
He also said that his film was ‘about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them’
The film’s references to September 11 are both visual, the most striking and sometimes really disturbing elements, and within the plot, which is of course very familiar but resonates in a specific way in 2005. War and terror are a way of life.
Let’s run down a list of how War of the Worlds does this:
The aliens don’t show up in flying saucers like most alien invasions, they are already here, buried underground and waiting to strike like a well-organized terrorist cell.
The kids’ only frame of reference for what’s happening is terrorism. Fanning shrieks, “is it the terrorists?” Robbie too assumes this, but Ray, who saw the tripod rise and obliterate everything, tells him they’re from somewhere else.
Like 9/11, everyone has to recalibrate their frames of reference.
The most vivid destruction occurs in northern New Jersey. Spielberg did not want to tear apart Manhattan out of respect it seems, but these communities in NJ were greatly affected by 9/11. As we’ve seen in other films, this is where many of the people who died, the commuters, came from.
The plane crash, with a fiery 747 engine literally in the living room where the TV would be is a nice touch, and scary. We are meant to think a tripod is coming, but worse, it’s a plane.
Robbie, Cruise’s son, has a very specific paper assignment to work on during this weekend with his estranged father. The French Occupation of Algeria. Combine that with the extended scenes in rural New England and the conclusion and Boston and there is a prominent revolution and resistance theme going on here. . We see this in many other Sci Fi examples, from Battlestar Galactica to the series Falling Skies, another story of alien invasion in and around New England.
This is most dramatically portrayed by the strange Tim Robbins character, another survivor hiding in the basement of an old farmhouse. He’s frantic and unstable, trying to enlist Ray in a crazy dream of insurgency. “They defeated the greatest power in the world in a couple of days.” Robbins wants to be like the Iraqi insurgents, picking off the vastly superior enemy one by one. As if it wasn’t obvious enough, Robbins tells Ray, “Occupations always fail. History’s taught us that a thousand times.”
Here’s Ray and Robbins having it out after watching the tripods feed on human beings, prompting Ray to kill Robbins, but not before he paints his picture of an underground army waiting to topple the alien overlords.
Smaller moments, like the blood bank saying “we already have more than we need.” Everyone, including me, seemed to think giving blood was the best way to help after 9/11 and all it did was burden the hospitals and blood banks. This is a nod to that.
Cloverfield (2008), directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard. It’s part of the Bad Robot, JJ Abrams universe and you might remember the novel advertising campaign which capitalized on the viral trailer idea. The mystery behind Cloverfield, which was just a government codename, had everyone buzzing. This 88 minute movie comprised totally of simulated “found footage” has no real stars, although I recognized Lizzy Caplan from Masters of Sex and TJ Miller from Silicon Valley. The star is the titular character, a Godzilla-like monster that shows up out of nowhere and tears Manhattan apart. Cloverfield tears the head off of the Statue of Liberty and demolishes the Brooklyn Bridge
There are some stunning scenes that mimic now iconic 9/11 footage. Straggling zombie NEw Yorkers in shock, covered in dust, papers falling from the sky. The Empire State Building collapses just like Tower 1. A lot of people were offended by Cloverfield for cynically appropriating these moments. Not everyone, however. Jessica Wakeman at the HuffingtonPost, only 17 on 9/11 had this to say:
“The first 45 minutes of Cloverfield is the closest I think I can get to showing someone else what 9/11 was like for me on an emotional level. Cloverfield nails what that morning felt like: the confusion at first, and then fear overwhelms and all you can think about is the possibility of dying and needing to escape by getting out-out-out but where can you go because the subways and trains aren’t running? It gets what it looks like and feels like to believe there’s 8 planes in the air, that the president ordered any non-grounded aircraft to be shot down, they could be shot down above your city and kill you, and what if there’s a ground attack? It depicts what it’s like to be convinced that that day is the day you are going to die. You are 17 years old and you are going to die on a sunny Tuesday morning in the middle of New York City.”
Falling Skies (2011-2016) on TNT, starring Noah Wyle. This is another alien invasion story not unlike War of the Worlds, but this time the occupation sticks and humanity gets to form the resistance army Tim Robbins spoke about. The five seasons follow the human resistance army as they organize and win back humanity’s freedom.
Aside from 9/11 like imagery of destruction, the theme of resistance and insurgency is foregrounded here. The American Revolution is all over Falling Skies and Noah Wyle is a military history professor who uses those lessons to wage war against a vastly superior enemy. He counsels his band of citizen soldiers to remember the Minutemen, partisans throughout history, but not obvious examples like Vietnam or anything suggesting American weakness. Steffen Hantke wrote a great article about Falling Skies as a reflection of Tea Party ideology, a fantasy where citizen militias reise up and destroy the alien occupiers of urban environments. Anti-Obama Sci Fi
In Falling Skies and the USA series Colony, humans are like the Fedayeen fighters in Iraq, attaching machine guns to pick up trucks, planting IEDs at the side of the road. They wear ratty clothes, live hand to mouth, and speak of destroying the foreign invaders and purifying civilization.
Here’s Wyle addressing his battle hardened militia, urging them to be brutal.
What do we make of so many post-9/11 Sci Fi films and series about resistance? None seem self-aware enough to note that by 2003 it is the US that is showing up uninvited and destroying cities and infrastructure, provoking the creation of armed resistance. HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds to critique British imperialism, to highlight how regarding other cultures like they were insects was inhumane. What if it happens to us one day? This lesson seems lost on us.
Battlestar Galactica (2003-2008)
The Sci-Fi Channel’s reimagination of the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series (1978-79) in the early 2000s earned critical praise and a passionate fan base by addressing critical issues of the day, specifically terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.BSG blends elements of the classic space opera with timely commentary on racism, religious intolerance and extremism, and humanity’s fraught relationship with technology. “The Cylons were created by man,” the series’ opening text reads, “They were created to make life easier on the twelve colonies. And then the day came when the Cylons decided to kill their masters.
After a long and bloody struggle an armistice was declared. The Cylons left for another world to call their own.” The armistice abruptly ends when the Cylons infiltrate the colonies’ defense network and launch a coordinated nuclear attack on every human settlement and military installation, leaving only the antiquated Battlestar Galactica and a collection of random ships stranded in space. The 2003 miniseries introduces the characters and their complicated personal relationships with each other during intense and unrelenting stress and trauma. Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), quietly hoping to end his career with Galactica’s decommissioning ceremony on the day of the attack, is thrust into the position of saving what’s left of the human race while overseeing a cantankerous crew filled with drunks and insubordinate pilots, including his estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber). Moreover, Adama must defer to the lowly Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the sole survivor in the cabinet and therefore newly inaugurated President of the Colonies. The two reluctant leaders navigate the hazards of civil-military relations during an unprecedented emergency.
The Cylons, no longer just a clunky race of metal Centurions with roving red eyes and metallic voices, are led by intricate “skin jobs” who appear human, practice monotheism (the humans are polytheists), and rule by consensus. For the next several years the two races will try to destroy each other while seeking the fabled home of the Thirteenth Tribe of Kobol – the planet Earth.
Coming just two years after 9/11, BSG is clearly influenced by the event and the wars that soon followed. The Cylon attack is a 9/11, complete with infiltrators, total surprise, and a government leadership scattered and unclear how to respond. In the first episode, Bill Adama gives a heartfelt speech that is ostensibly about his own guilt for his son’s death in pilot training, but it really winds up being the overall theme of the series:
Many of the films we covered this season ask some of the same questions – why are we the good guys? There are other obvious signs, like the wall of the missing, the blighted urban landscape of New Caprica, the stand-in for New York, and just persistent feelings of dread and anxiety about when and where the next attack will be. Once the Cylons are revealed to be humanoids the colonists descend into paranoia and what might be called speciesism.
BSG’s most controversial storyline concerns the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, a failing colony populated by fleet members exhausted by the failed search for Earth. Critics noted references to the American occupation of Iraq, including a violent insurgency and ruthless counterinsurgency, terrorist attacks, the use of torture, and a puppet government. In other words, the Americans are the Cylons and the Iraqis are the “good guys.” Ronald Moore responded to the outcry:
A lot of people have asked me if the Cylon occupation was our way of addressing the situation in Iraq, but it really wasn’t . . . . There are obvious parallels, but the truth is when we talked about the episodes in the writers’ room we talked more about Vichy France, Vietnam, the West Bank, and various other occupations; we even talked about what happened when the Romans were occupying Gaul.
I can see the wink and the nod here, because, make no mistake, the parallels were explicit and incredibly timely.
We talked about Sci Fi that evoked the imagery of 9/11 and Sci Fi obsessed with resistance and revolution. What about the emotional and psychological fallout? The loss, the grief, the shock, the anger, the sense that nothing could ever be the same. One show we both love does all of this very well. HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-2017), based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, was adapted for HBO by Perotta and Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost and Watchmen among others.
The Leftovers presents a universe in which God is dead. One October 14 in the twenty-first century 140 million people world-wide suddenly disappeared – babies, the elderly, the pope, Gary Busey, four out of the five cast members of Perfect Strangers (1986-93), even fetuses in the womb. The shock, horror and trauma of what became known as the Sudden Departure left no one untouched, sending survivors into their own spiral of guilt, self-incrimination, anger, hedonism, and feckless search for answers. Some believe it was the Rapture, while others, especially the faithful, argue the opposite.
As Sophie Gilbert notes in The Atlantic, “the question that Perotta and Lindelof seem to be occupying themselves with isn’t how it happened so much as what happens next? How does humanity respond to a universe in which everything is meaningless?” Initially set in a fictional New York suburb called Mapelton, The Leftovers revolves around the family of police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman who lost her husband and both children in the Sudden Departure. Nora’s brother Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is a pastor who spends his days revealing the sordid pasts of those who departed to disprove the notion the event was the Rapture.
Garvey’s family is still on Earth, but they are lost to him. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who lost a pregnancy in the Sudden Departure, joins a cult called The Guilty Remnant (GR) founded by Laurie’s former psychiatric patient Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) follows a mystic named Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) who supposedly takes people’s pain away with a simple embrace. Garvey’s teen-age daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) lives at home with Kevin, but she’s as cold and distant as the departed. Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn), resides in an insane asylum and pushes Jr. to stop pretending nothing happened and embrace his yet undetermined role in the mystery of the Sudden Departure. Seasons two and three center on Kevin’s path of self-discovery and his relationship with Nora amid the continuing mystery of the Sudden Departure.
Tom Perotta wrote the novel to explore the post-9/11 universe. The Sudden Departure was 9/11 and everything that happens afterwards relates back to this inexplicable trauma. The series expands the universe of the novel, but the themes are preserved. What are some of the obvious nods to 9/11?
First, the date. October 14, the name of the pilot episode, is the date of the Sudden Departure and every season hinges on this anniversary. It’s what everyone talks about.
There is a newly created Department of Sudden Departure akin to DHS, chasing its own tail and never really accomplishing its stated missions. Law enforcement is empowered to take out any and all threats, cults, whomever. The new laws after October 14 were a Patriot Act on steroids.
The series revolves around empty memorials – parades, statues of babies floating up to the sky, the sort of occasions we did not think were so empty after 9/11 because we knew what happened and why. That’s not the case in the Leftovers.
Season one takes place in a suburban NY town like that affected most by 9/11 commuters no longer there. Season one is closest to the novel, so it makes sense.
The Leftovers is about coming to grips with unimaginable grief and processing trauma, and ultimately realizing sometimes you can’t. This is why I chose The Leftovers to write about in my book on Holocaust representation, specifically how Holocaust survivors are portrayed in film. It’s a perfect example of the “before” and “after” idea. The characters in The Leftovers are all just trying to exist.
Two representative clips about this desperate search for salvation from grief.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. In this first season of our podcast, we’ve explored the many ways that 9/11 influenced writers, directors and producers and how they used history to discuss and process that day and its legacy.
Last week we discussed films about the day itself, September 11, 2001. In this episode we ask how Hollywood reckoned with both its causes and its effects. United 93 and World Trade Center portrayed our lack of preparedness for a disaster the size and scope of 9/11. But why did it happen in the first place? How could we miss it when he have the largest and richest military and intelligence agencies in the world? And what were we justified in doing to bring a reckoning down on the heads of our enemies?
Moments after the planes hit, dozens of CIA and FBI officials had their worst fears confirmed. They each knew separate pieces of the story, but enduring and vicious turf wars over counter-terrorism prevented any meaningful cooperation. Aside from the incredibly detailed 9/11 Commission Final Report, released in 2004, excellent journalists told this part of the story. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 came out in 2006. It won the Pulitzer Prize in fact. And yet, no film studio or TV network wanted to take it up. It took 17 years and a relative upstart streaming service, Hulu, to finally adapt The Looming Tower for a miniseries. This is our first topic.
Part two of The Reckoning confronts the choices we made in a cloud of fear and shame after 9/11. Dick Cheney casually let it be known that there would be no “tying the hands of our intelligence community” and famously urged the country to welcome a turn to the “dark side” in an unprecedented war on terror.Within months of 9/11, while the CIA was winning praise for dismantling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the agency pursued a course of action that would lead to one of its greatest moral and ethical failures – the detention and interrogation program. More specifically, the CIA embraced so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques that not only violated our own laws and professed values, but simply did not work.
We discuss two films with decidedly different takes on the CIA after 9/11 – Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Scott Burns’s 2019 The Report. Bigelow’s exciting depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden valorizes individual CIA officers while, perhaps unintentionally, leaving the audience with the impression that torture provided critical information leading to the 2011 raid on bin Laden. The Report is a methodical reconstruction of the investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, culminating in the 2014 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s unsparing report detailing a decade of CIA abuses. As you’ll see, these films go together well. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty was so effective in implanting a false narrative in the minds of moviegoers that the Senate investigators of The Report felt the need to challenge it directly and correct the record.
So, what are our Lies Agreed Upon?
First there was the lie that we were somehow ‘surprised’ by the attacks. It was an ‘ambush’ a ‘knife in the back’, or whatever Toby Keith lyric you prefer.
The second lie seems to contradict this, but these lies are along a continuum. For those who DID pay attention to the 9/11 report, what was then required was a new lie that could erase that shame. The new lie was that, while our intelligence agencies had indeed been unprepared, bumbling, and more focused on their bureaucratic rivals than the threats in front of them, suddenly, after 9/11 they turned into a lean, hyper-disciplined force for justice and retribution. They brought the war to Al-Qaeda and the CIA finished the job in 2011, bagging bin Laden in heroic fashion. Why does this myth persist? Both Hollywood and a very effective PR campaign composed of Bush AND Obama veterans are the reason why.
And this lie is in turn connected to our final lie – that torture is effective and justified because it gets results. Thanks to the same combination of bipartisan government officials, CIA employees, and Hollywood, America kept trying to rewrite the historical narrative on torture even as it was still being used, just renamed as “enhanced interrogation” – and this goes on. It might be unseemly and maybe not as effective as we were told, but ultimately a forgivable offense.
As always, we begin with a recap. For the first time, we’re going to be talking about a miniseries – the excellent 10-episode Hulu production. Created by Dan Futterman, an actor and director, Alex Gibney, known for some edgy documentaries about Enron and Scientology for example, and Lawrence Wright, who wrote the award-winning book, the Looming Tower takes inside the CIA and FBI and their fraught relationship between 1998 and September 11, 2001. It stars Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Wrenn Schmidt, Bill Camp, and many other fine actors you’ll likely recognize on some of your favorite quality TV shows.
Looming Tower is a docu-drama and every notable character is based on, or a composite, of real people, including the Al-Qaeda operatives who, refreshingly, are actually given backstories, motivation, and rich internal lives. But the heart of the story pits the FBI’s Counterterrorism office led by John O’Neill, played by Daniels, and the CIA’s Alec Station, the small analytical unit dedicated to Al-Qaeda. This was led by a controversial figure named Michael Scheuer, who currently posts Q-Anon nonsense on his blog. His name is changed to Martin Schmidt and played by Sarsgaard. Schmidt’s unit is comprised exclusively of young women analysts, one of whom, Diane Marsh, is his wife in real life. Marsh, by the way, is a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, which we’ll be discussing later.
These offices despise each other and it is deeply personal. O’Neill calls Alec Station “The Manson Family” and Schmidt and Marsh dismiss the two FBI agents embedded with them as “The Retarded Twins.” Both units are on Al-Qaeda’s trail, but their real war is with each other.
Let’s play this clip introducing the series. It features the three creators, Jeff Daniels, and Tahar Rahim.
If you can identify protagonists in The Looming Tower they are John O’Neill and his young, Muslim protege Ali Soufan – who was one of just eight Arab speakers in the FBI at the time. Soufan also plays a crucial role in The Report – which we will be talking about later – as a fierce opponent of the CIA’s torture program. Soufan and O’Neill approach Al-Qaeda as criminals to be investigated, arrested, and tried in a US court. Alec Station views them as terrorists to be neutralized, no matter the cost or collateral damage. Both perspectives have merit, but the point of the series is to dramatize how this personal and professional animus prevented crucial intelligence sharing that ultimately led to the hijackers slipping into the country unnoticed. We know this because the series also recreates the relevant testimony given before the 9/11 Commission from Soufan, Schmidt (or Scheuer), Richard Clarke, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and Condoleezza Rice among others.
Looming Tower builds around crucial moments between 1998 and 2001 – the August 1998 African embassy bombings, which was the declaration of war by Al-Qaeda, the failed millenium plot in 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in August 2000, and 9/11. The closer we get to the “flashing red light” the worse the national security bureaucracy performs.
Lawrence Wright, who is a staff writer at the New Yorker, covers an even longer period of time in his book, but even though the miniseries starts later in the narrative, it’s still striking how much goes on before 9/11. The meticulous gumshoe work reinforces that, at the end of the day, terrorists are indeed just another form of criminal, to be wiretapped, followed, interrogated and apprehended. Cheney and others tried to make them out as some modern day bogeymen, warranting a new level of ruthless response.
Over the years of investigation and multiple episodes of The Looming Tower, we get to know our characters in ways not possible in the feature length Zero Dark Thirty and Report. In particular, Jeff Daniels is great as the smart, resourceful, but deeply flawed FBI agent John O’Neill, who juggles multiple women, spends himself into debt, and refuses to play nice with his increasingly annoyed superiors. Facing dismissal and clearly on the losing side of the war with Alec Station, O’Neill takes a lucrative job as director for security at the World Trade Center just before the attack. This sad irony plays out in the final episode as we watch characters react in all the ways we come to expect from each of them, because we’ve gotten to know them intimately – regret, rage, shame, self-preservation, and in the case of some, contrition.
The most famous articulation of contrition, perhaps, came from National Security Advisor Richard Clarke. Let’s end with the actual testimony by Richard Clarke, which is recreated in the Looming Tower. In fact they are the series closing words.
It can’t be overstated how electrifying this testimony was at the time. The entire governmental response to 9/11 had been so mendacious up to this moment, that when Clarke testified, it was declared by many media critics as the most riveting day of television ever.
Now, let’s flash forward to the action-packed and cathartic revenge tale that is Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by Kathyrn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the same team that brought you the Academy Award Winning The Hurt Locker in 2008, Zero Dark Thirty methodically reconstructs the hunt for Bin Laden and the successful raid killing him inside his Pakistani compound in May 2011. Originally titled “Kill Bin Laden,” the film was still in production when news broke about the raid, allowing Bigelow to change tack and recreate Seal Team Six’s mission. Zero Dark Thirty stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini in one of his last roles as CIA director Leon Panetta, and a number of other great character actors rounding out the cast.
The film begins with the anguished recordings of 9/11 victims calling their families from the World Trade Center before abruptly shifting to a burly Jason Clarke brutalizing an Al-Qaeda detainee at a CIA black site. The association between 9/11 tragedy and the righteous anger responsible for enhanced interrogation could not be more clear. The marathon sessions with the detainee supposedly leads to a kernel of information that will prove vital to Maya’s relentless hunt for Bin Laden, although it is revealed this information was in the CIA’s possession all along. The Report is more explicit about making this point.
Let’s play a clip of Jason Clarke’s character torturing a member of the Saudi Group, a money man supposedly instrumental in the hunt. Maya is a bystander here. It’s brutal:
“This is what defeat looks like.” We are meant to wince at this scene, but like Maya, who is visibly uncomfortable, we want to hear his answers because the film has set us to believe that they matter.
At the center of it all is our guide through nearly a decade of counterrorism strategy – Maya – a character with only one dimension to her, the single-minded determination to find and kill Bin Laden. She has no life outside of this mission, no loved ones, no personal history, no rich, interior life. Neither do any other characters exhibit complexity beyond the furtherance of the hunt. Consequently, there is no interrogating the question of why killing Bin Laden matters. The film is thrilling and we reflexively root for Maya as the only woman in the room. Here she is in a room as her superiors, all men, hem and haw over whether to commit to raiding the Abbottabad compound. Leon Pannetta, played by Gandolfini, is sounding out opinions:
I love that line. “We’re all smart.” The dramatic conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow at her best. We are embedded with Seal Team Six as they sneak into Pakistan, recover from one helicopter crash, shoot and kill guards and family members inside the compound, and ultimately return with the body of #1 himself. The film ends with a note of pathos and ambiguity as Maya’s final act is to identify the body, almost as if she’s the nearest kin. When its over, what is left for Maya? We don’t know because we don’t know her. Boarding an empty plane reserved just for Maya, the pilot asks her where she wants to go. All she can do is break down. Bigelow is asking all Americans in 2012, what’s next?
The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, specifically the notion that torture led to the intelligence breakthrough responsible for the successful raid, was rolled into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into the detainee program. Senators opposed to the program were appalled by the film and the perception it created in viewers. That investigation is the subject of the 2019 film The Report. Written and directed by Scott Burns, The Report stars Adam Driver as lead investigator Daniel Jones and Annette Benning as committee leader Senator Dianne Feinstein. It also stars John Hamm, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, and Cory Stoll, Mathew Rhys, and Ted Levine.
The film begins in 2003 with the young and idealistic Jones applying for a job in Feinstein’s office, but he is encouraged to get national security experience. In 2007, now working for FBI counterterrorism, Jones begins working for the intelligence committee and leads an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes in 2009. This snowballs into what will be a more expansive investigation into the entire history of the detention and interrogation program – the black sites, torture, at least one death, and failure to inform Congress over many years. Jones is the primary author of the 2013 final report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and the film is as much about how insanely difficult it was to release the report as it is about its content.
Jones is a lot like Maya, single-minded, inclined to clash with authority, and devoted to what he believes is right. They seem to face similar roadblocks when it comes to their respective missions, political equations and aversion to risk. Here’s a clip of Jones briefing Feinstein about the death of detainee Gul Rachman after repeated waterboardings in 2002.
Jones becomes a CIA target by being so good at his job and circumventing their deliberate efforts to sabotage the report. Then CIA director John Brennan, played wonderfully by Ted Levine, is proof that this is not a Bush=Bad, Obama=Good narrative. The CIA takes care of its own regardless of who’s in charge and the Obama administration had no interest in tarring the CIA after they killed Bin Laden and, as Feinstein’s chief of state tells Jones, “they just won the president re-election.”
The ridiculous incompetence on display is very important. Often, in films, institutions are portrayed as failing despite an almost uncanny and thrilling competency that audiences love to watch. In The Report, we’re witness to one of the most bizarre subplots of the entire story, the elevation of a couple of dubiously credentialed psychologists who play the security community like long-con grifters. Douglass Hodge, as always, is great, Dr. James Mitchell, who claimed expertise in how to make detainees comply and talk, methods that are now repudiated.
Years go by and Jones diligently continues to uncover what happened. We feel Jones’ frustration and understand why he comes so tantalizingly close to releasing the report to the press, but ultimately pulls back from being the next Edward Snowden.
He is rewarded when Dianne Feinstein and Senator John McCain, who of course was tortured for years in captivity, release the entire report just before the Senate leadership changed hands in 2014. The film ends with the real floor speech by McCain as Jones, like Maya, wonders what to do next:
You’ll notice that with all of the titles we’re discussing today, there’s a lot of slippage between the dramatizations on the screen, the ‘characters’ played by actors, and the real life events and people that all of it is drawing from. In many ways, this episode isn’t so much about how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. It’s also about how Hollywood versions of events tell the public how to think about our past and, therefore, who we are today.
What’s interesting about these productions is how much (or how little) time passed between the events they depict and their release dates. The Looming Tower takes place in 1998 through 2001, but Hulu releases it in 2017. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that it took a lean and hungry upstart like Hulu to take a chance on a 10-hour production that forced viewers to critically reexamine our first lie today – that we were so shocked that 9/11 happened.
By coincidence, American audiences were provided almost immediately with a fairly high quality depiction of the moment of American fist-pumping victory. if Kathryn Bigelow didn’t already have the hunt for Bin Laden film in production, we would very likely have been subjected to an even less critical and more jingoistic version of events made by someone else. The film picks up months after 9/11 but it’s forward facing – not interested in how 9/11 happened but, rather, what will be done about it – not on the institutional level, or the policy level, but on the level of revenge masquerading as national security.
The Report also begins the same time as Zero Dark Thirty but ends a few years after Bigelow’s film reinvigorated the torture debate. And it asked what should be done about what was done. And yet, even though it was very relevant as one of the major architects of the detainee program, Gina Haspel, had recently been made director of the CIA, and Donald Trump made it clear as both a candidate and president that torture was awesome, The Report barely made a ripple. Perhaps the audience for it was too concerned by outrages being perpetrated at home by the current administration to expend much energy on outrages committed abroad and whitewashing conducted at home by past administrations. The long shadow of 9/11 most certainly extends to Trump’s America, but by 2019 there were so many other things to be disgusted by.
Zero Dark Thirty fed our second and third lies: The systemic and moral failures of the intelligence community laid bare by the 9/11 commission and dramatized in The Looming Tower were solved and redeemed. The daring and dramatically successful raid on bin Laden’s compound, the perfect marriage of intelligence work and special forces execution, is proof. Any excesses along the way can be forgiven because the end result is so satisfying. The Report tried to refute both those lies. Few wanted to listen.
And who could be surprised? The rebuilding of the intelligence community’s reputation in fact began during the 9/11 commission. Let’s listen to CIA director George Tenet testify before the commission in April 2004.
He’s not only saying “we did most things right,” he’s basically asking for more money to get the rest of it right. Popular culture did a lot of heavy lifting as well, and not in the sort of productions we cover on Lies Agreed Upon, but the Jack Bauers of the screen. The avenging elite warrior-spy hybrids that made the job sexy again. Torture? It works every time. The TV show, 24, actually began in 2000 and was already considered “the best new show of the season.” But it exploded in popularity after 9/11, and became must-see revenge torture porn for many Americans.
Here’s Jack barging into the president’s quarters and torturing the chief of staff under the approving eye of the secret service. Why, because, “I’m Jack Bauer.” And by the way, finding this clip was revealing because every comment on Youtube exudes glorious patriotic fervor for torture. This pop culture icon has replaced reality for some people.
While not as over the top, many critics accused Zero Dark Thirty of doing the same thing. Jason Clarke’s character had a lot of Jack Bauer swagger to him.
This is the complicated pop culture legacy of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Zero Dark Thirty made a lot of people feel better about torture – the real world for it – by implying torture led to the biggest prize of all – Osama Bin Laden. But we can’t lay it all at the feet of Bigelow. Scores of TV shows and movies since 9/11 have portrayed torture as the method of real men, real patriots, and those who protest against torture’s immorality, or even just ineffectiveness, are characterized as weak and anti-American. We’re expected to somehow forgiven those responsible because they had our best interests at heart, and this then makes it easier to forgive ourselves for tolerating all manner of executive overreach in the name of national security.
Rather than try to describe the layers of controversy generated by the film, which happened to coincide with the final stage of the Senate investigation at the heart the 2019 film The Report, let’s play an interview with the screenwriter Mark Boal and journalist Mark Bowden, whose book The Finish, details the same events. The interviewer is ABC News Global Affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz:
There’s so much to unpack here, starting with one of the issues that helped launch this podcast – the uneasy relationship between truth and fiction. What is Hollywood’s responsibility for “getting it right”? From what you heard, the Senate committee, specifically Feinstein and McCain, thinks the obligation is very real. On the other side, Leon Panetta is tickled pink by any positive depiction of the CIA. He laughs off any embellishments to the story behind the raid because they only make the CIA look intrepid and competent. But it’s Mark Bowden there at the end who I think summarizes our lie agreed upon – The US embraced “stern, very cruel methods in the beginning” that ultimately contributed to this victory. Americans are really good at cognitive dissonance, and we simultaneously think torture is not good policy, and maybe a plurality of us think it is wrong, but we also believe it was forgivable in the wake of 9/11 and wish it was effective., that was just ..like it is in the movies.