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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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When I was considerably younger I was lucky enough to live in Hull, which was blessed with a range of cinema-going options: there were a couple of multiplexes, plus a sort-of art house cinema, and also a rather nice old three-screener which specialised in showing films that had finished their initial release but weren’t out on VHS yet (yes, it was that long ago). I remember going along the day I finished my final university exams and seeing Leon, Interview with the Vampire, and Stargate back-to-back, all for under £5. Bliss it was in that dawn, and so on.

These days a broadly comparable service is provided by the Silver Screen strand at the sweetshop, which likewise shows films from a couple of months ago that people may have missed. The prices have gone up a bit, but at least there are free biscuits available now. The films on offer are generally only ones which are judged to be of interest to your senior citizen (just another chance to patronise older people, if you ask me), but it’s better than nothing, and this week’s offering was Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

This is another one of those fairly timely films dealing with the thorny subject of race relations in the USA, but with this being the divisive issue that it is, the film-makers have decided to take a more historical perspective. The angle adopted on this occasion is the role of African-American women in the space programme in the early 1960s.

One of those facts that often gets reiterated is that NASA put a man on the Moon using less computing power than you could find in most digital watches (a tiny fraction of that in a modern smartphone, I expect). The film indicates that NASA didn’t acquire its first computing machine until 1962 (an engaging historical revelation is that when the van-sized unit arrived, it was too big to fit through the doors of the room allocated to it) – prior to this point, the only ‘computers’ employed by the agency were mathematicians tasked with working out any calculations required. A sizeable contingent of the human computers at NASA’s Langley, Virginia facility were women of colour, and the film tells the story of three of them.

Most prominent is the tale of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson is a widowed single mother and former mathematical prodigy (Beautiful Mind-esque geometric figures jump out of the wallpaper at her as a child) who ends up attached to the Space Task Group at NASA under the director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Here she has to contend not just with some fairly tricky sums (converting a parabolic orbit to an elliptic one – hmm, that’d be shoes and socks off time for most people, I expect), but also with the entrenched institutional racism and sexism of the culture in which she works. Subplots deal with two of her friends – Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer who has to get a court order in order to be able to study at an all-white high school (Virginia was still a segregated state at this point), while Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, forced to do a supervisor’s job without the accompanying title or salary and ceaselessly patronised by a white superior (Kirsten Dunst).

All this is going on against the backdrop of the early years of the Space Race, with the USA in danger of slipping behind their Soviet rivals. Can everybody put aside their various issues and grievances in order to make John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital spaceflight a reality?

I have to confess to not being especially excited about the prospect of seeing Hidden Figures when it initially came out a couple of months ago: I seem to recall I had the choice of seeing either this film or The Founder, and eventually opted for the latter on the grounds that it had the same period Americana setting, untold-story theme, and well-received performances, but also promised to be surprising and challenging in a way that Hidden Figures probably wouldn’t.

And, what can I say, but ‘nice one, me’: Hidden Figures is by no means a bad movie, being well-acted and decently put together, but there is very little about it that you wouldn’t be able to predict from seeing the trailer. There are some engaging historical details, to be sure, and parts of it are certainly shocking to a right-thinking modern viewer, but surprising? Not really.

From the opening scenes it’s fairly obvious that this is going to be about the parallel, life-affirming stories of women who refuse to be ground down, and use their natural talent and determination to overcome the dreadful obstacles history and society have conspired to place in their way. And there’s nothing wrong with telling that story, of course, nothing at all. But you can’t realistically be subversive or too challenging when you’re making a mainstream film about either the civil rights movement or the US space programme,  both significant elements of the American national mythology, and so Melfi is obliged to fall back on a sort of all-purpose sentimentality to engage the audience’s attention. I am afraid that I am highly resistant to this sort of thing, which may be explain why much of the film made little impact on me.

I mean, the early space programme itself is a fascinating topic, too little known these days, and the civil rights movement is likewise an important piece of recent history. However, this is presumably a film aimed at a female audience, and so in addition to both these things there’s quite a lot of slightly soapy material about the personal lives of the principle characters (Henson gets a chocolate-box romance subplot with a character played by Mahershala Ali, who at least gets to survive past the middle of the story for once).

People who worry about these things have raised the point that, for a historical movie, Hidden Figures takes some pretty spectacular liberties with what actually happened – the movie is set in 1961 and 1962, but some of the events it features actually took place in 1940s and 1950s, always assuming they aren’t completely fictional – the bit you may have seen in the trailer with Costner’s character (himself a complete fiction) smashing the segregated bathroom signs never happened, nor did all the preceding material with someone having to run half a mile every time they want to use the bathroom. Does it matter? Not really, if you accept that the message of the film is more important than the actual facts of history – I think my problem is that this willingness to amend events just makes it more clear that the audience is essentially there to either be preached at or complimented for having properly progressive attitudes: the historical story is just a delivery mechanism.

Given that this is the case, the climax of the film is really an shift of emphasis, as it concerns the problems that befell Glenn’s Freedom Seven flight. None of these concerned maths, or indeed civil rights, and so the moments of tension thus created do feel a bit contrived and arbitrary following everything that has gone before. On the other hand, they are based on historical fact: the film really does seem to take a sort of cafeteria approach to this.

You honestly can’t fault Hidden Figures for its intentions or its principles, but being beyond criticism on moral grounds doesn’t necessarily make a perfect or even particularly great movie. The performances are the best thing about it, although I must confess I was more pleased to see Costner and Dunst back on the screen than anything else. There are a plethora of great movies to be made about NASA in the 50s and 60s, I’m sure: this felt a little bit bogged down by the need to make its points slowly, carefully, and obviously. Crediting the audience with a bit more wit and intelligence would probably have resulted in a better film.

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Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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Excavating the inspirations for well-known SF TV shows and movies can lead you to some unexpected places: Star Trek is indebted, in fairly equal measure, to both the Hornblower books and Forbidden Planet, and therefore on to The Tempest; Doctor Who to the collected works of HG Wells; The Invaders (by way of The Fugitive) to Les Miserables. I was still a little surprised to discover that V (a well-remembered if slightly schlocky 1980s tale of man-eating aliens staging a takeover of the USA) was in fact inspired by a 1935 satire by the Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis, entitled It Can’t Happen Here.

It Can’t Happen Here has apparently enjoyed a significant sales spike in the last few months, presumably because many people believe that, on the contrary, It Can Happen Here, and indeed, It Is Actually Happening Here Right Now… here being the United States, of course. There are, needless to say, no aliens, man-eating or otherwise, in Sinclair Lewis’ book, which owes its current moment in the spotlight to the fact it depicts the rise to power of an authoritarian demagogue and the creation of a totalitarian police state within the US itself.

The main character is Doremus Jessup, a fairly bien-pensant Liberal newspaper editor from Vermont. Jessup has a comfortable life with his family, is initially more amused than disturbed by the rise in popularity of Senator Buzz Windrip – along with his like-minded friends, he dismisses the concerns of those who see Windrip as an American Hitler or Mussolini (I will just mention again that the book was written in 1935), cheerfully asserting that ‘It can’t happen here!’ – one of the book’s pearls of wisdom being that the first step to making sure such a takeover possible is to assert that it isn’t.

But of course it can, and does; Windrip is elected president and imposes his populist manifesto on the country – state ownership of industry, a raft of anti-feminist, anti-semitic, and just plain racist measures, the emasculation of Congress, and so on. Criticism of what becomes known as the Corpo regime by the press meets with a brutal response, with critics and other undesirables banished to the concentration camps which spring up across the country. Jessup finds himself increasingly falling foul of the local Corpo apparatchiks and their thuggery, appalled by the disappearances and book-burnings and endemic corruption, until he joins the resistance to Windrip himself…

You do not, I suspect, need to be a cultural commentator of particular insight to work out just why It Can’t Happen Here is enjoying such popularity at the moment: one current edition has as the cover crit ‘Eerily prescient’, just adding to the general consensus that Sinclair Lewis was somehow predicting the arrival of Donald Trump as US President. (To British readers, there is even a pleasing semantic consonance linking ‘Windrip’ – the name of the book’s Trump-analogue – to ‘break wind’ and then on to ‘Trump’ (which is slightly archaic British slang for a flatulent eruption).) Anyone turning up to the book expecting a close satire on the Insane Clown President’s rise and doings will, obviously, be disappointed. The book was written a decade before Trump was even born, after all, and the author’s concerns were on other things, most obviously the then-new Nazi regime in Germany.

Parallels between the book’s Corpo America and Nazi Germany are numerous – the Corpos position themselves as being the only party prepared to defend America from communism, and their rise is partly facilitated by the paramilitary wing of the organisation, the Minute Men or MM (vide the SS). There is anti-Semitism, book-burning, concentration camps, warmongering. The shady characters surrounding Windrip do recall Goebbels, Goering, and other senior Nazis. On the other hand, Windrip himself is Hitlerish only in his peculiar oratorical abilities – the rest of the time he is a clownish, none-too-bright figure, as much like Ronald Reagan as Donald Trump.

And some of the resonances in the book are eerie and a little unsettling – the US declares war on Mexico before the end of the book, for one thing. Windrip is pretty much only a narcissistic figurehead in the sway of a rather more sinister, ideological figure, Sarason, and some might say that this pretty much describes the dynamic between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Watchers of Bannon’s own documentary output have suggested that he is, essentially, an ideological warmonger, and it’s disturbing to hear sentiments coming from characters in the book which recall ones which real-life thinkers have been known to offer, especially on the topic of militarism and war as something to be welcomed inasmuch as it boosts a nation’s moral fibre.

So the book sort of does tell us things about the Trump regime, but only inasmuch as it is about, and a warning against, how democracy can be subverted and totalitarian rule take its place. One wonders if some of the observers on the Left who have seized upon It Can’t Happen Here as a warning from history are subconsciously holding their breath in anticipation of the moment when Trump wheels out the jackbooted stormtroopers and really gets busy with the brutal oppression of all opponents. Is that going to happen? I don’t know. Less than a hundred days into the ICP’s term of office, there are signs of the wheels coming off the juggernaut (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

Is there, then, much more to It Can’t Happen Here than an odd little book which circumstances happen to have made unexpectedly topical once again? Well, as with many cultural artefacts of significant age, there are things about the book which have become strikingly odd – impenetrable cultural and historical references, curious choices of literary style, a narrative voice which is at different times both laborious and sentimental. Many of the characters are not drawn with great depth – although the protagonist, Jessup, is an exception, and not quite the paragon of all virtues you might have expected – and the story is frequently manipulative. Then again, that’s possibly the point; it is certainly readable and resonant enough to be fairly rewarding even today, even if it isn’t quite the chilling prediction of the present day you might be led to believe. If does turn out to be on the money, of course, 1930s literature will be the last thing on anyone’s mind, so it might be better to read it soon, just to be on the safe side.

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