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Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Normally the Easter weekend, long and relaxed as it is, is an opportunity for a major studio to put out one of their big blockbusters and hoover up a lot of the audience’s money. Last year it was Ready Player One, the year before that it was Fast and Furious 8. But this year? Nothing of that ilk, really: the odd promising genre movie, perhaps, but the looming juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame has everyone running scared: nobody wants their film to have an effective window of only about six days before the majority of audiences are lured elsewhere. As I often observe, this does provide possibilities for inventive counter-programming, which may be why the highest profile release in the UK at the moment is probably Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan.

As I say, this film arguably qualifies as counter-programming, as it has all the hallmarks of being primarily aimed at, shall we say, an audience of a somewhat more seasoned vintage. Your older cinemagoer, as a rule, is not that fussed about the doings of Captain America or Thanos, but they do like gently-paced films hearkening back to the days of yore, with reassuringly solid British production values when it comes to things like sets and costumes, good looking young people, and ideally a Genuine British National Treasure they are comfortably familiar with. No-one meets a violent on-camera death, if there are any amatory goings-on they are handled tastefully, for the most part, and everything wraps up in more or less the manner you would expect. I tend to refer to this subgenre of the British costume drama as hats-and-fags movies, as the setting of the mid-20th century is betokened by virtually no-one going bareheaded and always having a cigarette or two on the go.

Despite all of that, Red Joan opens in the present day – or something roughly akin to it, assuming we can agree that things haven’t changed too much since 2000, which is when the frame story of this movie opens. Harmless old granny Joan (Judi Dench) is getting on with her innocuous life, occasionally sighing over an old friend’s obituary in the papers, when Special Branch come round and arrest her. Judi Dench under arrest? Outrageous! What can this all be about?

Well, Dench is slapped into an interrogation suite and told she has been implicated in an espionage case in which atom bomb secrets were given to the KGB. The police demand that she tell them everything, which is probably a regrettable choice of words: without going into too much detail, Joan doesn’t start leaking to the Russkies until 1945, but the flashbacks comprising most of the film commence a good seven years before that. I suppose this is an acceptable convention allowing some context to be established for everything going on. Basically, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) arrives in Cambridge to study science, falls into the orbit of a pair of glamorous mittel-European refugees (Tom Hughes and Tereza Skrbova), goes to screenings of Battleship Potemkin, and is generally swayed to the ways of socialism. One of the Europeans becomes her best friend, the other becomes her first real boyfriend and tastefully defoliates her just before scooting off to Russia to join the Comintern.

Then the Second World War starts and Joan is recruited into the British end of the project to develop a working atom bomb. As this is still the 1940s, she is only allowed to be quietly brilliant, and has to spend most of her time typing, filing, and making the tea, but her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) is still much taken with her. Her old friends are well aware of her role in the project, of course, and soon begin to press her to help them: the western Allies are not sharing their research on the new weapon with the USSR, which is surely horribly unfair. For the good of everyone, is it not her duty to help maintain equality by giving the Russians the secret of the Bomb?

When you have a film which centres on the protagonist – a generally sympathetic character – doing something apparently unconscionable like betraying Blighty to Stalin, the thing you really have to do – your number one priority, no exceptions – is to take the viewer on a journey to the point where they understand just why the character behaves the way that they do. Red Joan is a movie which is not short on flaws, but one of the main ones is that it’s never really clear exactly what motivates Joan to make the key choices that she does. Is it a desire to preserve the balance of power? Is it out of a deep-seated attachment to justice? Is she so engaged with the cause of socialism, or is it just that she has a bit of a pash for the fellow who asks her? Is she even sure herself? Obfuscation reigns.

This may well be because, having been handed a lot of little-known and potentially fascinating material – the race to develop the atomic bomb, the Cambridge spy rings, the whole issue of links between left-leaning British intellectuals and Stalinist Russia – the film instead decides to concentrate primarily on Joan’s love life. There is the mysterious and enigmatic young foreigner, who is passionately drawn to her! There is her unhappily-married boss, who is also passionately drawn to her! It’s remarkable how alluring a young woman in a selection of berets and sensible knitwear can be (although, to be fair to her, Cookson is more than averagely pretty).

The decision to go with the romantic tosh would be less objectionable if it was better written romantic tosh – but the script for Red Joan is turgid and poorly constructed, with too much to-ing and fro-ing between heated moments in the 1940s and Judi Dench sitting with her head in her hands in the sequences set in 2000. Obviously the film wants Dench on screen as much as possible, but she really doesn’t get material that’s worthy of her – lots of general purpose being-distraught and some painfully hackneyed stuff with her son, who spends much of the film complaining that she never told him she was a KGB spy.

The film even cops out of a proper sense of closure, ending instead with a set of captions revealing the film is based (seemingly rather loosely) on the story of Melita Norwood, a communist sympathiser who was a highly-valued KGB asset for 35 years, yet never prosecuted by the authorities on account of her advanced age when she was exposed. Presumably the decision was made to make a work of fiction rather than a biographical drama about Norwood herself, on the grounds it wouldn’t be shackled by the facts of the case and could be more exciting and engaging. Which is fine in theory, but this film squanders the potential of its real-world source material and also the potential of the fact it is primarily fictitious. The moral decisions at the centre of the story are never really brought to life, and the human relationships never convince either. The result is a film which is pleasant to look at but inescapably dull.

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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And the Oscar for Least-Flattering Poster Depicting the Subject of a Documentary goes to… Betsy West and Julie Cohen for RBG! (Crowd goes wild.) If they make one movie about you under your real name, it’s normally a sign that you’ve arrived; if they do two, you really are becoming a significant figure in the world. So what are we to make of the fact that this is one of three films to feature the American lawyer and judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg to appear in British cinemas in a matter of weeks? (Soon to arrive is the conventional biopic On the Basis of Sex, with Felicity Jones as Ginsberg, while she also has a slightly weird cameo as a minifigure in Lego Movie 2 – probably more a comment on the weirdness of some recent Lego sets than anything else.) Certainly she is well-known enough for the ticketeer not to be too confused when I got a bit confused on the way in to this movie and ended up asking for tickets to The BFG.

I would suggest that there is no shame attached to not actually knowing who Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, certainly if you live outside the United States. The film sort of takes it for granted, naturally: for the last quarter-century or so, Ginsberg has sat on the Supreme Court of the USA. We don’t really have an equivalent body over here; the American Supreme Court is technically a legal body, but its decisions carry enormous political weight – it has been argued that of all the damage done decisions made by Trump, the most significant and enduring could be that he may get to nominate three or more extremely conservative judges to the Supreme Court, shifting the centre of gravity in contentious cases for a generation or more (Supreme Court Justice can be a job for life, if that’s how you want to roll).

There’s a thin line between a nicely upbeat, celebratory film portrait of someone, and an actual work of hagiography – with RBG it is often a near thing, but it basically ends up the former. After a brief montage establishing the importance of Ginsberg as a public figure, the film follows the usual route and goes back to look at her birth, circumstances while growing up, education, and so on. Ginsberg is well-known these days as a tiny, birdlike old lady, and one of the film’s revelations is that she was indeed something of a looker in her youth – Felicity Jones is actually a pretty good match for the justice as a young woman.

Ginsberg owes much of her celebrity to her role in fighting for gender equality in the American legal system – her grand-daughter (also a lawyer) observes that her own class at Harvard Law School was the first in history to have an equal balance of the genders: when RBG started there, she was one of nine women in a class of well over five hundred. Several of the cases are examined in detail, before the film moves on to cover the justice’s time on the appeals court and then finally as a Supreme Court Justice. This has been marked by Ginsberg’s rise as something of an iconic pop-culture figure, especially with the ‘Notorious RBG’ meme of recent years. 

Whatever you think of Ginsberg’s politics – and the film does make it clear that she is a divisive figure – there is something genuinely quite endearing about someone who has achieved this kind of status late in life (Ginsberg is 86 this year) having quite so much obvious fun with it. We are shown a speech in which Ginsberg says, absolutely straight-faced, that she feels the parallels with the Notorious B.I.G. are entirely appropriate ‘as we have such a lot in common’. She gets to participate in an opera, an art-form she is passionate about; the film-makers also show her some of Kate McKinnon’s typically off-the-leash impersonations of her on Saturday Night Live – Ginsberg finds them amusing but not remotely accurate, which if you ask me is pretty much the point.

It’s all cheery, inspirational stuff, as it was clearly intended to be – however, we have seen so many great documentaries in recent years that it takes something a bit special to really stand out as a piece of film-making, and RBG is not actually that movie. It follows the route-one formula pretty much throughout, and while it does open with voice-overs of various critics decrying her as an un-patriotic menace to American society, almost the most serious criticism that anyone makes in the body of the film is that Ginsberg is an awful cook.

Almost, but not quite: it touches on an incident in 2016, when Ginsberg was openly critical of Donald Trump during the last presidential election campaign. Various minor imps and under-demons from the right-wing media duly pop up to protest that this was grossly inappropriate coming from someone in Ginsberg’s position, and she did indeed apologise for making the intervention.

It seems like this may have had an influence on the making of this film, for while Ginsberg is frequently lauded within it as a principled voice for the progressive consensus and a defender of hard-won rights, an iconic dissenter, the documentary is curiously coy about what it is she is actually dissenting or defending against. There is no explicit criticism of Trump or any members of his circus. It’s taken for granted that the viewer is familiar with the resurgence of the American right, and also that they are probably opposed to it.

The film really needs more dissenting voices in order to feel balanced and reveal just why Ginsberg is the crucially necessary figure she still remains today. As it is, RBG is engaging and informative about someone who has clearly led an extraordinary life of public service, but it’s still an embedded part of the culture wars in America rather than any kind of objective record of them. As such, whether it’s worth watching is really a question of your own personal politics, or at least your willingness to have them challenged. This film is most likely just preaching to the choir, but it still does so with charm and energy.

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One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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Normally I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my attempts at fiction on the internet at large, but given all the terribly interesting political developments currently going on, I couldn’t help but feel it appropriate to share a couple of brief extracts from my very-much-not forthcoming (if there’s any sanity left in the world) dystopian satire Nigel’s Kingdom, which I knocked out for NaNoWriMo at the end of 2016.

(From Chapter 12. The story so far: The oppressive European Federation, aka the Union of 27, has decreed that its vassal state the UK must abandon the pound and adopt the Federal Eurocredit. Bright young progressive BBC executive Rose has been assigned to prepare the ground for this unpopular move, and has just learned one of her first assignments is to meet the Foreign Secretary… ) 

‘Wow,’ Rose said, impressed almost despite herself. Like most people of her set, she knew she ought to instinctively dislike Alex Bronson, for he was self-evidently a smug, self-serving, lecherous, unprincipled borderline sociopath concerned only with his own advancement, but he was such a character! You couldn’t help but laugh and warm to him. That was his unique political gift, his ability to get people onside, even though his antics in service of his own career had earned him many enemies. It was not surprising Bronson had been brought in to help the Eurocredit project in some capacity.

They arrived outside impressive double doors in a corridor where virtually every square inch of wall was covered with distinguished old paintings. It had a certain musty beauty to it, Rose thought, but it was so old-fashioned and traditional, and the 18th and 19th century politicians showed such a lack of diversity it made her very uncomfortable to look at them. An aide was waiting for them and smiled. ‘The Foreign Secretary will see you now,’ he said.

Rose and Omar went into the room, which was high and airy, and had a leather-topped table surrounded by chairs at its centre. There was no sign of anyone else in the room, and there was only one other door, a small and modest looking one. Odd little clunks and thuds drifted out from behind it.

Omar looked at Rose uncertainly and went over to the door and opened it. Blinking characteristically, beneath the famous hair which resembled a freeze frame of a detonated haystack, Alex Bronson emerged from what appeared to be a stationery cupboard.

‘Ah. Hello,’ he said, peering back and forth between them. ‘No light switch in there. No light, either… well, stands to reason, I suppose. Ho ho.’

‘What were you doing in the cupboard, Foreign Secretary?’ Omar asked.

‘Trying to get out,’ Bronson said with a hopeful smirk. ‘No, actually I was looking for the bogs. Ended up in the cupboard. Oh well – errare humanum est, that’s what I always say.’

Omar and Rose both blinked as an acrid smell wafted out of the cupboard after the Foreign Secretary, who seemed completely oblivious to it. He shambled over to the table and lugged out one of the chairs, and Rose couldn’t help smiling. What a card he was! How charmingly human!

‘Now than,’ Bronson said, as they joined him around the table. ‘You’re the wallah from BBC news, aren’t you?’ Omar looked slightly pained by his choice of words but managed to nod. ‘And you are…?’ He looked inquisitively at Rose, and she thought she could detect a glitter of interest in the Foreign Secretarial eyes.

‘I’m Rose Lewis, Foreign Secretary,’ she said. ‘Also on the Eurocredit introduction taskforce.’

‘Aha. Smashing. Smashing,’ said Bronson. ‘Looking forward to working with you. Both of you,’ he added quickly, glancing at Omar.

‘Thanks for giving us your time, sir,’ Omar said. ‘We know you must be busy.’

‘Actually, there’s a lot less to this Foreign Office lark than you might think,’ Bronson mused, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. ‘Mainly just sitting around the office and fairly regular foreign beanos. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some proper work for a change – that’s what the PM’s asked me to do, anyway.’

Word around the BBC was that the Foreign Office civil servants had been sending pleading emails to April Trace for many months, begging her to find some way of keeping Bronson occupied so their staff no longer needed to constantly monitor him and could go back to doing some actual proper diplomacy, but that was just the sort of funny story that made up the Foreign Secretary’s large and amusing hinterland, like the one about him getting stuck on the end of a bungee cord, or having a series of affairs with colleagues, or conspiring with friends to have journalists beaten up. Rose let an indulgent smile play around her mouth. He really wasn’t the sort of person one should like, but she couldn’t help herself.

(Later, from Chapter 17: hapless shoe-loving Prime Minister April Trace is in her command bunker monitoring reports of the reappearance of the dreaded arch-patriot and nemesis of the Federation, Nigel Brittain, and discussing this with the Union of 27’s representatives…) 

She was interrupted by the conference room doors clanking open and the entrance of Alex Bronson and Toby Blaine. Bronson was clearly disgruntled and she guessed that Blaine had insisted on sharing the ministerial ride over from the judicial sports centre. This was no time for their petty grievances.

‘Sorry we’re a bit late, April,’ Bronson said cheerily. ‘Stuck in a jam on the Embankment. Tempus fugit, and all that.’

‘Ah,’ the Prime Minister said. She looked at Blaine. ‘I trust Alex kept you entertained, Mr Blaine? A selection of his latest limericks, no doubt?’

Blaine’s face came close to losing its perma-smile as he nodded back to the PM. ‘Still, we’re here now,’ he said with brittle pleasantness. ‘What’s the situation?’

‘A suddenly upwelling of seditious activity, sparked by the resurfacing of this man Brittain,’ one of the Office of Political Correctness agents said, before April Trace could finish opening her mouth. She clicked the luminous perspex heel of her left shoe against the floor and pursed her lips. They weren’t even attempting to maintain the illusion that she was in charge any more.

‘Excuse me, we have a connection with a police command unit in the Thames Valley,’ one of the operators piped up. ‘They’ve got the two Standards Enforcement agents who were there when this all started happening.’

Sure enough, the two hollow-eyed, traumatised looking men appeared on the screen, still in their vests.

‘Report,’ said the lead OPC agent.

‘We were on patrol in Aylesbury town centre, in accordance with standard operating procedure,’ said one of them.

‘Seek out signs of non-metrication and subdue and humiliate with maximum prejudice,’ said the other.

‘And then he was there. Shouting and insulting and… and making people listen to him,’ said the enforcer plaintively. ‘Then all them were shouting at us. He took a crowd and turned it into an angry mob.’

‘Aylesbury town centre,’ said Alex Bronson, sagely. Beside him, Toby Blaine nodded automatically.

‘We had to run or they’d have torn us apart,’ the agent concluded his report. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! The man has some dark power, some rhetorical genius, like nothing our training prepared us for. I don’t know -‘

‘That’s enough. Keep your head,’ said the OPC man viciously. He nodded to the operator who ended the transmission. Behind them the doors opened, presaging the entry of the tea and refreshments trolley. There were standards to be maintained, after all.

‘What kind of demographic does this man Nigel Brittain appeal to?’ asked the OPC agent, seeming genuinely baffled.

‘English people,’ said the Prime Minister, coldly.

‘That’s not helpful, Mrs Trace.’

‘All right, a specific section of society, those predisposed towards this kind of extreme reaction. Many, including my predecessor, were inclined to dismiss them as -‘

‘Nuts!’ Alex Bronson’s eyes lit up and he descended on the refreshments trolley, happily grabbing for the pistachios.

‘Foreign Secretary, please. As I said, the knee-jerk reaction is simply to say they are -‘

‘Oooh, fruitcakes!’ Toby Blaine joined Bronson at the refreshments, and started carving himself a generous slice.

April Trace sighed. ‘I mean, you might think they’re just -‘

‘One slice short of a full Swiss Roll, I see,’ Bronson sighed, looking at the woman manning the trolley, who mumbled her apologies.

‘Gentlemen, we are dealing with a crisis,’ said the OPC man, even more frostily than before.

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ muttered the Foreign Secretary, wiping crumbs from his waistcoat absently. April Trace noticed that Toby Blaine was surreptitiously eyeing up a cream horn, even so.

‘So what’s to be done?’ one of the OPC men said, slightly unexpectedly.

‘We need to know what Nigel Brittain is planning to do,’ Blaine said.

‘We need to stop him from doing it,’ Bronson nodded.

‘Oh, really!’ April Trace rolled her eyes. ‘We know what he’s planning – he’s going to come here and try to wreck everything, just like last time – when he nearly succeeded, if you hadn’t forgotten!’

‘That cannot be allowed to happen again,’ one of the OPC men hissed. They really were the Federation incarnate, April Trace thought.

(As I say, it was 2016. The rest of it will most likely never see the light of day. No need to thank me.)

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As I write, the story of the Trump administration is one without a definite ending. It is therefore surely rather precipitate for anyone to be writing its history. And yet, at first glance, this is perhaps what Michael Wolff seems to be trying to do with his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy bits of which have been all over the news media for weeks and which I have finally got around to reading.

I find myself in a slightly odd position here, not least because I am viewing the ongoing Trumpclasm as (thank God) a foreigner, but also because anyone likely to be remotely interested in Fire and Fury will not only already know the key claims made within, but also the details of how the book came about. That said, of course, the extent to which we can all agree on anything about Fire and Fury is extremely limited, something to which we shall return.

Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility that this small corner of t’Internet is all that remains to inform and illuminate future generations (in which case: hail, posterity! I bring you greetings from the past and can only imagine the strange world you must inhabit – for instance, did Star Trek ever recover? So much to wonder about), so I suppose a little background information would not go amiss.

The transition period following the rather unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the first few months of his administration were documented by the writer and journalist Michael Wolff, who (he claimed) had more or less free access to the incoming regime. Wolff’s many hours of interviews with key players, not to mention hanging about the White House taking notes, are the basis of Fire and Fury.

Like I say, all the really explosive stuff in Fire and Fury hit the media at the start of the year – suggestions that Donald Trump is mentally incapable, or at least not up to the standards required of the job; that he spends long evenings alone in his bedroom eating cheeseburgers and looking at an array of TV screens, before making rambling, self-pitying phone calls to casual acquaintances; that his wife was reduced to tears of despair by the news he had won the election in the first place.

Certainly, the first big revelation in the book is one which kind of got lost, compared to all the others: the suggestion is that Trump did not expect to win, and indeed never expected to win – his presidential run was essentially a massive exercise in self-aggrandisement, designed to make him the most famous man in the world, which fame he would later use in the launching of his own TV network. Actually becoming president was never part of the plan.

But, of course, become president he did, and with Trump installed in the White House Fire and Fury provides a whistle-stop recap of all the peculiar things that have happened since then – the ‘alternative facts’ squabble, the tweeting, the sacking of the director of the FBI, allegations of collusion with Russia, the strange, rambling speeches, the other sackings, the strange personnel choices, the legislative ineptitude – and, if Wolff is to be believed, an almost inconceivable level of political in-fighting within the administration itself.

It’s not so much The West Wing as a cross between I Claudius and The Addams Family, a bizarre narrative populated with a coterie of grotesques – right-wing guru Steve Bannon, who for some reason seems to think that being known as ‘the brains behind Donald Trump’ is somehow a positive thing; Trump’s androidal daughter and her husband, apparently referred to as Jarvanka; the hapless press secretary Sean Spicer; the alarming Kellyanne Conway; Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramuchi… it kind of makes sense that all of these people would congregate together, as you can’t really imagine any of them finding a role in a more conventional administration.

Not that they appear to have got on, of course: the Bannonites, the Jarvankans, and the few mainstream Republicans involved all battling for control of the legislative process, not to mention the ear of the president. Wolff returns again and again to Trump’s apparent flaws – his tiny attention span, his inability to recognise his own lack of expertise, his refusal to grasp the principle of cause and effect, his almost pitiable need to be liked, and the vulnerability to flattery that comes with it. The biggest problem of the Trump presidency, Wolff suggests, is that it has Donald Trump at its heart: ‘a moron’, in the alleged words of one senior cabinet member.

It should be an alarming, or at least deeply depressing account of an epic historic misfire in the democratic process, and I suppose it is to Wolff’s credit that the book reads more like an absurd black comedy than anything else. He is unstinting in his evisceration of many of the key players, and forensic in his analysis of Trump’s many media fumbles. It almost goes without saying that if even a small fraction of this book is factually accurate, then the USA is in very serious trouble: not just because Trump is president, but because he was able to get elected in the first place.

And yet it seems to me that Fire and Fury is symptomatic of a wider problem. There’s not a lot of wriggle room here: either the book is, broadly speaking, truthful, in which case the leader of the free world is an incompetent narcissist overseeing a compromised administration notable for its ineptness and nepotism, or it is an absurd hatchet-job of blatant untruths, executed by a member of a biased liberal media determined to destroy a threat to it. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other.

And this, I think, is the main problem with the United States today – it’s not a very united set of United States. While it is notable that even people who support Trump hardly do so in an unqualified manner – there’s always a hint of ‘Yes, but…’ when they defend the latest presidential fiasco, and the general tenor of Trump’s Twitter pronouncements is certainly in keeping with Wolff’s depiction of him, the fact remains that people seem very reluctant to agree on anything beyond the most basic facts. Either you believe what you see in the media or you believe in the Trumpian ‘fake news’ conspiracy theory; there’s not much in the way of middle ground.

By being quite so gleeful in its savaging and Trump and those around him, Fire and Fury makes it rather too easy for anyone disagreeing with its central thesis to dismiss it as just another crude hatchet job. Wolff certainly seems a bit too keen to deliver a zinging phrase, even if it comes at the expense of conventional journalistic style – ‘Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt’. This near-tabloidese is largely the idiom in which the book is written, and is hardly likely to make anyone inclined to dismiss it as trash reconsider. No doubt Wolff would suggest that Trump supporters would dismiss the book no matter what, but that’s just another way of acknowledging the great divide.

The book arguably has other flaws – Wolff seems mesmerised by Bannon and all his works, and as a result arguably overlooks some other key figures – Mike Pence barely gets a mention – but this seems to me to be the key one. You have to ask yourself what this book is trying to achieve and just why it’s coming out now. One answer to the latter question is the distinct sense that the Trump presidency might implode at any moment, one way or the other, but another might be that it’s an attempt to sway how the administration is perceived and thus influence the 2020 election. As I say, the simple tone of the book makes this highly unlikely, which means that Fire and Fury is essentially just comfort reading for anyone distressed and appalled by Trump’s presence in the White House: don’t worry, Wolff often seems to be saying, he really is even more stupid and ridiculous than we all thought. Pretty cold comfort, I would say, even if it’s true, and I don’t see that mocking the darkness is much better than cursing it – though how one would go about lighting a candle right now, I’ve no idea. As I say, Fire and Fury is much more part of the problem than any solution to it.

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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