Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Movie review: The Death of Stalin (2017)

I was surprised by how true to events this dark comedy was. Granted not everything was historically accurate and probably the conversations didn’t happen exactly as depicted, but the broad historical strokes surrounding Stalin’s death were spot on.

This comedy includes a stellar cast playing the different members of the Central Committee. The Central Committee, the rigidness of Soviet ideology, and Stalinism are perfect for satire. The movie plays up the utter indecisiveness of the committee, the brutality of the Stalin era, and the stupid adherence to bureaucratic procedures.

The movie portrays people of the Stalin era as utterly terrified. (They probably were given Stalin’s reputation.) As a concert concludes, Stalin calls to demand that the recording be sent to him as quickly as possible. The only problem is that no recording was made. To prevent certain death, the sound booth operator orders the audience back in their seats and the concert played again. Half of the audience already left, so peasants are brought off the street to ensure that the acoustics (read: number of bodies) in the room are as close to the original concert as possible.

The recording makes it to Stalin who removes the record from the record sleeve only to discover an anti-Stalin note from the famous pianist included. He collapses from what later was deemed a cerebral hemorrhage. His brutality—which scares others into doing nothing—actually prevents him from being helped until hours and hours later.

The two guards outside his room hear him collapse but decide not to investigate—Stalin would have them killed if nothing was wrong. They continue to stand guard. In the morning, they let a servant in to serve him breakfast. She discovers Stalin on the floor. But he is still not helped.

The members of the Central Committee are called and arrive at the scene one by one. Beria is the first to arrive and mysterious ransacks the place to find and destroy presumably incriminating papers. After the Central Committee arrives, we see the first instance of paralysis from the bureaucracy that was Stalinism. They leave him lying on the floor in his own excrement as they try to determine what to do.

Should they get a doctor? Wouldn’t that get them killed if Stalin came to? Didn’t they round up and kill all of the good doctors in the country? Yes, but there are still bad doctors around. Well, wouldn’t Stalin kill them if he discovered that they called bad doctors to care for him? Well, if he dies, then he wouldn’t know they were bad doctors. And if he lived, then the doctors were good, right?

They set out to round up various doctors, herding them into a van and driving them to Stalin’s dacha. The doctors, scared to death, give their assessment. Would Stalin recover? No. Only he did. Briefly. And then he really died.

The absurdity continues with the Central Committee unable to make decisions. When they do, the decisions must all be unanimous.

And the conniving! The Central Committee was thick as thieves and just as backstabbing. Little clicks and cabals form, plotting and strategizing how to outmaneuver each other.

The movie takes the tragedy that is Stalin’s Russia and turns it into a farce. After Stalin’s death, all jump in their individual cars to leave the dacha, with each blocking each other’s way. Eventually, the car carrying Stalin’s body leaves first. Khrushchev laments that he ended up in the last car to leave.

Beria, the ever-cool power behind the throne, has his security forces replace the Army throughout the city. Men in uniforms hand their guns to other men in uniforms and change places. Later, Field Marshall Zhukov helps initiate a coup of sorts. Then we see the opposite happen; the Army returns and the security forces hand over their guns and change places.

Malenkov takes control as Stalin’s replacement but is so wishy-washy that he is easily controlled by the others. He is a bit unsure and constantly looking for reassurance from others.

It is decided that he will have his photo taken with the same little girl that Stalin did in a famous photo. The search is on to find the girl. (Never mind that the ensuing years since the photo with Stalin was taken—the little girl is no longer little.) They do eventually find the “girl” and decide that um, they need a little girl that looks like her, not the real her since she is grown up.

Stalin’s children appear but are controlled and manipulated by the members of the Central Committee. Beria and Khrushchev take turns sucking up to Svetlana, who is eventually banished to Vienna. Her brother, the drunken, uncontrollable Vasily, disrupts but is allowed to give a speech at the funeral.

Molotov does not appear to be the steely strong man that I imagine would have an incendiary device named after him. A mousy, soft-spoken man, he hatches a plot with Khrushchev and Kaganovich in the back of a car, but only agrees to follow through with it if all members of the Central Committee agree—because Stalin opposed factionalism. The next day, Khrushchev leads him to believe that everyone is on board and the coup proceeds.

The dialogue is witty but quick. You can easily miss the humor as it flies by. Pairs of Central Committee members connive together but closely watch the others that they also know are conniving. At one point, Khrushchev is running back through the woods where he was in consultation with another committee member. “How”, it is asked, “can you run and plot at the same time?”

When Khrushchev, Kaganovich, and Molotov are the in the back of a car plotting a coup, the premise was so absurd and surreal. At one point, Kaganovich exclaims, “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.”

The Death of Stalin is not your run-of-the-mill comedy. It is dark, it is satire—one might even call it historical comedy, akin to historical fiction. Bits are true, other things happened differently, probably still other events are completely fabricated. It is a dark comedic look at the death of Stalin when everything changed and at the same time nothing really did.

The main characters in the USSR changed but the stage and story stayed the same. As if to belabor this point, the movie closes with a shot of Brezhnev seated behind Khrushchev, Brezhnev who would eventually push Khrushchev out of power and replace him as leader of the Soviet Union. History repeats, or at least rhymes.

Movie review: Divide and Conquer (2018)

It was with some trepidation that I watched Divide and Conquer. Not due to the quality. (The documentary was outstanding.) But more the subject matter. I was a bit ignorant of Roger Ailes, but I knew enough to know that I would rather not know him more.

The documentary is a fascinating look at his history, both personally and professionally. Interviews with childhood friends and professional colleagues reveal what made him tick. I’ll cut to the chase—though none of this will be surprising—he lived in a world consumed by fear and anger. And paranoia. (His office was built to protect him from bullets and other attacks. I immediately thought of Scott Pruitt from the Trump administration.)

What a sad life to be controlled by fear and anger. Even sadder is that he infected the country with these emotions through the immense control he wielded.

He rose to positions of power with The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. After honing his media and manipulation skills there, he moved on to be a self-proclaimed media advisor to Nixon. Arguably, Ailes was the man responsible for getting Nixon elected by controlling and spinning his look on TV.

He continued to work as a political and executive coach for numerous campaigns across the country. Many of the power brokers in Washington, DC owe their political careers to him, including Mitch McConnell. (McConnell is not portrayed as the brightest bulb in this documentary.) Ailes helped the Bush, Reagan, and Trump campaigns.

In the 1990s, he seemingly moved from political coaching to news. He started America’s Talking, a talk show that was presumably a news show. A few years later, NBC sold the show to Gates, thereby creating MSNBC. Ailes was furious. He ultimately got his revenge by creating Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s backing.

Divide and Conquer then focuses on the power, control, and manipulation that occurred at Fox News. Ailes surrounded himself with men like him. Murdoch protected him, Ailes protected the men he hired. The common thread surrounding them was the blatant abuse of power, sexual harassment of women, and promoting women or giving them jobs in return for sexual favors. It turns out, birds of a feather do flock together.

Various women are interviewed about the sexual improprieties that were rampant at Fox News and committed by Ailes. Some were paid off and silenced through settlements. Former workers at Fox News came forward with allegations. Finally, after decades, the dam broke. Women came forward, including a model (Marsha Callahan) from decades earlier who recounts in the documentary what happened to her, how she had to speak up when women were coming forward, and how her son was proud of her for speaking up and supporting other women. The #MeToo movement in action.

Several women were almost employees but denied employment after they did not welcome Ailes’ advances or agree to his transactional propositions for sex with him and other high-level men in the organization. One woman (Kellie Boyle) recounts that after she did not agree to sleep with Ailes in return for doing business with him, she was blacklisted around town; no one would meet with her or hire her. Her career was ruined. Ailes had that sort of power.

(Side note: It was painful to hear words coming from these women’s mouths that reflected the passive role society teaches women to play. Boyle mentioned that when Ailes propositioned her, she tried to get out of the situation without turning him down right there. Why? She didn’t want to risk offending him. Risk offending him, I thought? What about him just offending you? But I recognized this societal training. Women are taught not to offend and to appear accommodating. I do hope that his indoctrination of women is ending with the current generation of girls. It does no service to girls to teach them to be polite and accommodating, especially when their physical, emotional, or psychological safety is concerned. End of soapbox.)

Ailes was your typical bully, seen clearly when he moved to a small town in New York and preceded to try to bulldoze the town council and influence the elections by flooding them with Republican candidates. He strangely bought the town’s newspaper in 2009. (Well, maybe not so strangely. According to the documentary, Ailes seemed to be in a sad competition with Murdoch. Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. Ailes bought the Putnam County Courier and Putnam County News & Recorder.)

In the end, Murdoch didn’t stand by him when the noose tightened around Ailes about the sexual harassment allegations. His career ended with him being locked out of Fox News. Ironically, he was taken down for sex improprieties—Fox News made its name on the sexual improprieties of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He died a year later from a fall in his house.

Unfortunately, his legacy didn’t die with him. We are stuck dealing with the aftermath of the world that he created. A world of fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. A world of divide and conquer. We are stuck with the political creatures that he created over the last four or five decades. The social and political turmoil in the US has his fingerprints all over them. Divide and Conquer will help you recognize his fingerprints.

Movie review: The Favourite (2018)

Not exactly a pick-me-up, The Favourite does makes one’s life seem not so bad. The royalty and elite in early 18th century England were a bit…immoral. The intrigue, backstabbing, and disregard for human life as portrayed seems extreme.

The movie focuses on two women close to Queen Anne—Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough) and Abigail Masham. The two women are cousins but Abigail lived a rough life. She fell from a position in elite society when her father sold her to pay for gambling debts, but then by chance, she ends up delivering a message to court and crossing paths with her cousin Sarah, who is the queen’s confidante (and, if one believes, lover).

A conniving and powerful woman, Sarah sort of takes Abigail under her wing. This isn’t all altruism and family loyalty. Abigail enters the ranks of employment at court as a scullery maid but is quickly pulled from this lowly spot when she helped heal the queen.

The queen is in poor health, suffering from grout among other things. After Abigail realizes that the queen is in pain from sore on her legs, she borrows a horse to go into the forests in search of herbs. Then she has the audacity to place the herb poultice on the queen’s legs as the queen sleeps.

Sarah orders that Abigail be whipped for her audacity, but after the queen’s favorable reaction to the poultice, Sarah orders that Abigail be made her own servant instead.

Abigail quickly learns from the intrigue surrounding her. She ingratiates herself with the queen and seeks to drive a wedge between the queen and Sarah. Eventually, Sarah is banished and Abigail takes her place at the queen’s side.

The broad strokes of the story are historical, but I am too ignorant of the details of early 18th century English court to comment on the details. Positions and fortunes at court shifted quickly depending on the whims of the queen and others’ conniving. Excess was everywhere…from the overeating by the queen to the duck races that the political and social elite engaged in.

The Favourite is a well-made movie that offers a glimpse into the court and personal life of Queen Anne. But the point of the movie? I am not sure. Perhaps that the life of the English court (and 18th century England in general) was so capricious. These times were definitely not the good old days.

Movie review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Confession. I didn’t really hear about Hedy Lamarr until around 2012. I knew the name. Enough to recognize it when a coworker at a semiconductor company posted a brief bio and tribute to her in one of the conference rooms. And then I encountered her more as I moved in women in technology circles.

So it is understandable—but totally different from most people—that I knew Hedy Lamarr as an inventor first and as an actress second. I came to the documentary Bombshell from this perspective. I learned more about the history surrounding her invention but I learned a lot about her life and acting career.

Hedy was known for inventing frequency hopping in the early 1940s as her contribution to the war effort. How to prevent the enemy from intercepting radio frequencies? Frequency hopping.

The Navy discounted her patent and buried it. She was told to contribute to the war effort by selling war bonds, not inventing technology. Inventing technology was man’s work. Her technology was quietly adopted though she didn’t know of it in time to contest any royalties from her patent. In time, her contribution led to future technological advances such as GPS, Bluetooth, secure wi-fi, and military applications.

The movie starts from her life in Vienna, through all of the twists and turns during the war, her acting career, and her seclusion. The movie is a lesson in discrimination and resolve. Hedy wanted to be taken serious for her intellectual contributions but that was just not possible in American society of the time (and maybe today too). The last several decades of her life, she retreated to live in seclusion. One of her sons was her advocate and spokesperson in the world. (She literally called him during a talk he was giving to accept an award on her behalf.)

Her wasted talent was a shame. Married numerous times, she seemed to vacillate between being an independent woman and one curtailed by societal norms. She tried to play the role of happy wife and mother.

Bombshell is illuminating. You will certainly come away with an idea of who Hedy was and her contribution to technology. But you will also come away with the sad realization that anyone who does not fit the model of what society thinks a person should be is rejected—whether it is Hedy Lamarr or Alan Turing. Their contributions are largely ignored or discounted until after we lose them.