Movie review: LBJ (2017)

Like Jackie, the storyline in LBJ radiates from the assassination of JFK. The movie looks backwards to when Lyndon Baines Johnson was at the height of his political power as the majority leader in the Senate, his race against JFK for the Democratic nomination, and the hours before JFK’s death.

Woody Harrelson does an excellent job portraying LBJ (or at least the stereotype of LBJ). I was a bit fixated on his makeup job as it seemed…a bit odd. Harrelson played LBJ as the rather crude figure that he cut and who desperately wanted others to like him even as he seemed to go out of his way to be unlikeable. (At one point, one of his loyal minions mutters in reaction to his actions something to the effect that no wonder people don’t like him.)

Johnson’s power in the Senate is legendary and the movie shows this. He is always scheming and conniving, twisting arms for votes, or seeking compromise to maintain or nurture relationships. In one instance after he agreed to give a lucrative contract to a company in Georgia in order to court Senator Russell, someone balked at the idea of giving the contract to a company with such racist practices.

But Johnson gained a concession from Russell: the company would hire African-Americans as engineers. Johnson explained that it is “better to have him [Russell] inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”—his version of “hold your friends close and your enemies closer”.

But the movie also shows a rather neutered Johnson as vice president to Kennedy. He is cut out of discussions and relegated to posts where he could not be effective. His political skills were wasted as vice president.

Why did Johnson agree to be vice president? That didn’t seem clear to me. Johnson was a calculating man, but I doubt that he could predict his rise to the presidency through the assassination of JFK.

Johnson seems to become himself, a leader who knows instinctively what to do, after an aide announces the death of JFK. He takes to the new role naturally. He calls former presidents and VIPs in government, seeking to gather as much knowledge as possible, to build coalitions, and to cement relationships. He is now back in his element.

But then we see his self-doubt. What is his presidency to be about? JKF’s men clearly want Kennedy’s legacy to be fulfilled. In what is probably the least satisfying bit of the movie, LBJ, a life-long southern Democrat (= anti-civil rights) makes a sharp turn to the left and embraces what will become his New Deal legislation.

Why did he make such a radical ideological left-turn? The movie suggests a comment from Lady Bird during self-doubt that he suffered early in his presidency. What would he be known for? He could claim execution of Kennedy’s vision.

I do not understand this as his reason for taking up the liberal mantle. By doing so, he betrayed his fellow southerners. Was it part of a calculation for getting elected in his own right? If so, then he indeed played the long game.

He ended up giving us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. Liberal reform from the most unlikely of sources: a Texan Democrat when the southern Democrats were a racist bunch.

But then how could such a political pro so badly miscalculate his Vietnam strategy? LBJ seems to be a contradiction. A southern Democrat but supporter of civil rights. A man who so desperately wanted to be liked but insulted those around him in words and deed. LBJ doesn’t answer these questions but shows you the stereotypes (true or not) of the man. A political animal hated by many.


Movie review: Loving Vincent (2017)

Loving Vincent is a visual treat. The film covers the year after Vincent van Gogh’s death with flashbacks to van Gogh’s final days in Auvers.

Loving Vincent is not a normal documentary. It is an animation painted by 100 artists. The story takes place in van Gogh type paintings. In fact, you will recognize scene after scene as the story unfolds: Starry Night, The Bedroom of Arles, Café Terrance at Night, The Yellow House, The Night Café, Wheatfield with Crows, and many more. To watch Loving Vincent is to watch van Gogh’s paintings scroll by. (He produced 800 paintings during his lifetime.) In contrast, flashbacks appear as black and white pen sketches rather than as brushstrokes in the van Gogh style.

In the main story, postman Joseph Rouline sends his son Armand to deliver a letter to Theo, van Gogh’s brother with whom Vincent was close. The letter was returned to sender. Armand leaves for Paris but quickly discovers the reason for the letter’s return: Theo died not long after Vincent passed away.

Armand is eager to find someone to give the letter to. He tracks down the man who supplied Vincent with his paints, but Pere Tanguy is not willing to take the letter. Instead, he directs Armand to the doctor in Auvers that treated Vincent.

Off to Auvers he goes wanting to be done with this whole adventure. Only what he finds in Auvers sucks him in. Suddenly he wants to understand Van Gogh’s last year of life and why he killed himself. Stories he hears from various people do not add up and in some cases contradict one other. Who is telling the truth? Who is covering up facts? What exactly happened? Did Vincent kill himself or was he shot by someone else?

The image developed of Vincent is of a genius. Unfortunately, he was raised by harsh, unloving parents who did not see, understand, or nurture his talents. Vincent didn’t take up the brush or an interest in painting until he was 28. By 37, he was dead of a gunshot wound. In between those times, he suffered from breakdowns and mental illness. His death is seen as an unfortunate conclusion to a life of depression, but Armand wonders if this is too convenient an explanation. Unintentional murder seems more likely to him.

Of course, we will never know. But Loving Vincent, through the eyes of Armand, introduces us to the circumstances of his final year of life. We meet the main characters in his life, hear their stories, and listen to Armand question what he has discovered.

The title is a nod to the close relationship between the two brothers, Vincent and Theo. They wrote to each other often. In the end, Armand sends the letter to Theo’s widow, who collected all letters between Vincent and Theo for publication. Vincent would sign his letters to Theo with “Your Loving Vincent”.

Whether one believes in the theory that Vincent was killed rather than committed suicide, Loving Vincent is well worth a watch. It a visual masterpiece, based on the artist’s own works. I came away with a better appreciation of his travails and the rich depth of his works. And I weep for what more he could have produced had he lived.

Movie review: The Armstrong Lie (2013)

Arrogant, angry, vindictive white men who lie and manipulate. There are far too many of those in the world.

Why did Lance Armstrong agree to do this documentary? Well, honestly the documentary started with his comeback in 2009 but evolved into a documentary about his lies.

Why did he agree to continue with the documentary when it turned into a movie about his deception on doping? I’m not sure except perhaps because of hubris. Perhaps due to the assumption that he could manipulate and control the story.

Lance won the Tour de France seven times each time he raced it from 1999 to 2005. During that entire time, he was dogged with doping allegations. He associated with a doctor who, in addition to advising on best practices for diet and training, was well-known as a doctor who helped athletes dope, either with performance-enhancing drugs or through performance-enhancing techniques (such as removing a pint of blood before a race and then reintroducing it during a race to boost the oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the body).

However, none of the umpteen tests given to him by different anti-doping organizations turned up evidence of doping. Well, actually, they did detect traces of banned substances from time to time but with a wink and a nod an explanation for them was given, such as steroid cream use leading to a positive test.

Ultimately, it was in everyone’s interest that the doping continue. Armstrong brought interest to racing. This interest brought in money for all of the sponsors and companies connected with bicycling. The doctors, the drugs, the apparatus for doping—money was everywhere.

And everyone doped. It was an open secret in the bicycling world. Because everyone doped, to be able to compete on a level playing field, you had to dope too. Or at least this was what everyone told themselves.

Eventually this would be one of the reasons that Lance gave when he finally confessed to doping in 2013. But before then, before his 2013 interview with Oprah, he vehemently denied the allegations. Armstrong, as the documentary portrays, focused on winning at any cost. If that meant destroying others, such as former team members, who testified against him, then so be it. He destroyed friendships, relationships, and lives.

To confess was an impossibility. As he mentioned in an interview, if he doped, he would lose everything—his racing victories and career, his sponsorships, the cancer survivor empire that he created. The lie had to continue.

He managed to evade it all and retire in 2005 at the top of his game and with a solid reputation. Then he decided in 2009 to come back. Why? Maybe hubris. Perhaps he thought that everyone bought the lie so completely that he was safe. He would come back and win the race “clean”, showing everyone that their allegations that he had won before only due to drugs were false.

Only he didn’t win. And possibly he didn’t do it clean. He struggled through most of the race, only winning on the last mountain, which he never performed well on before. His blood samples showed a spike in red blood cells between the time before this mountain climb and the end of it. That should not have been the case.

Then lawsuits and investigations started. Armstrong, who used lawsuits against his accusers, was suddenly the object himself. A judge found in favor of the federal government’s $100 million lawsuit. (Lance raced as a member of the US Postal Service team from 1998 to 2005. The federal government would like to recoup some costs from the fraud that Armstrong perpetrated.) He is banned from participating in any sports that involve an anti-doping committee.

The Armstrong Lie is a strong documentary made with the full cooperation of Lance. Interviews with Lance and video of his racing fill the documentary. The documentary also contains interviews with others around Lance—former teammates, his convicted Italian doping doctor, team directors, and cycling industry people. The mythology of Armstrong as a cancer survivor who came back to dominant a sport was one that the public and others bought into. Even the producer of the documentary admits getting swept up into the story and struggling to maintain objectivity.

The lie is hard to take. The cycling enthusiasts and cancer survivors wanted to believe for so long that anything is possible. Eventually with the lawsuits, in 2013 Lance was forced to confess to the lies. But he didn’t fully admit to everything. He wouldn’t comment on a former teammate’s and wife’s recollection about a conversation in a hospital room during his battle with cancer—a conversation where Lance admitted to the doctor the list of performance-enhancing drugs he took. That conversation took place in 1996.

The story covered in the documentary is well-known. The documentary provides a good cohesive view of Armstrong’s career and lie with all of the gory details. What emerges is an image of an arrogant, angry, vindictive white man who lied and manipulated. There are far too many of those men in the world.

Movie review: Jackie (2016)

Jackie was not quite what I expected. But then again, I didn’t pay attention to descriptions about the movie, only that the movie received good reviews. The movie is about Jacqueline Kennedy. I thought that was all I needed to know.

The movie actually focuses on a brief time period in Jackie’s life: the immediate aftermath following the assassination of JFK. The movie includes dramatizations of her 1961 tour of the White House, but on the whole the movie confines itself to the assassination and the few weeks following it.

The vehicle for the telling of this time period in Jackie’s life is an interview conducted at a home in Massachusetts. The interview takes place a week after the assassination. (The interview actually happened, conducted by Theodore H. White for Life magazine.) It is from this interview that the myth of the Kennedy White House as Camelot arose.

The view of Jackie is a complex one. She seems manipulative, especially during the interview, freely relating feelings and experiences to White but not allowing him to write about them. We feel that we are witnesses to a story that she will not allow to be told.

Jackie also seems completely out of her depth. She was only 34 when the president was killed. When she gave a special tour of the White House for a film crew, she is a shy, seemingly unworldly thirty-two-year-old. She appears easy to control and manipulate by political players.

What she went through was unbelievable. The movie shows her surrounded by people, presidential aides, military men, and family. Yet the feeling is that she is swimming in unfriendly, if not shark-infested, waters.

She is determined that her husband not be forgotten. She learns of how Lincoln’s funeral was done and decides to follow suit. They will all walk from the Capitol, where the body will lie in state, to the church. Secret Service, not to mention heads of state, are a bit jumpy about this arrangement. She relents but then decides to follow through with her original plans. Political manipulation of her be damned!

She goes against the family wishes too about the location of the final resting place. She picks out the spot in Arlington Cemetery, claiming that the family burial plot is no place for a president. She even has the bodies of their two pre-deceased infant children exhumed and reburied next to the president.

She is a complicated woman. Naïve, easy to manipulate. And yet determined and unbending in what she thought was the best final act of the president. The fear is that he will not be remembered. She asks about Garfield and McKinley, two other presidents who were assassinated and no one remembers. Lincoln? Yes, he is remembered for winning the Civil War and freeing the slaves. What will Kennedy be remembered for? For solving the Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis that he created, Bobby Kennedy angrily muses.

The movie shows her close relationship with Bobby and with her assistant. She seems bereft of other relationships, navigating the emotional, logistical, and political landscape after the president’s death on her own. She meets often with a priest to grapple with what is happening in her life, confessing her desire to be dead. She drinks heavily and downs pills to cope, which she does in elegant Jackie style. To be a Kennedy, to be Jackie seems to mean always being collected and composed. In reality, she is a widow suddenly dislodged from the pinnacle of power as the First Lady to be relegated to a future that she cannot imagine. She leaves the White House for an acquaintance’s home.

Jackie is a downer of a movie. In some ways, the movie is about Jackie but in other ways it is not. Her husband, even in death, takes center stage. The movie is defined by his death and funeral. We only get to see Jackie through the prism of those experiences.

Movie review: Lion (2016)

The people who warned me about Lion were right. You will cry during it.

Lion is based on a true story about an Indian boy, Saroo, who becomes lost and ends up being raised by adopted parents in Tasmania. The first half of the movie covers his life in India. He lives in a house with his mother, older brother, and baby sister. His mother is a laborer who gathers rocks for a living. Saroo sometimes helps her and other times helps his brother Guddu.

One day his brother is preparing to travel some distance to look for night work. Saroo insists that he is big enough and strong enough to go too. Guddu relents. After a train ride, they arrive at night. Saroo, being the small boy that he is, is fast asleep and unable to wake up. Guddu leaves him on a bench with strict orders to stay there until he gets back.

He doesn’t.

He wakes up, all alone at the train station in the middle of the night. He looks for Guddu, including on a nearby empty train. Guddu is nowhere to be found. Saroo falls asleep again. When Saroo awakes, the train is moving with no one else aboard. (The train is traveling to where it will be decommissioned.) After several days, Saroo finds himself in Calcutta, a place where inhabitants do not speak his language.

He tries to get a train ticket back home but no one understands him or recognizes the city (an incorrect version of his actual town name: Ganesha Talai). He wanders the streets, spending the night with a group of orphans sleeping in an underground station. They are rudely awakened by a group of men kidnapping them—the first implication of human trafficking in the movie. Saroo escapes.

Saroo wanders some more, befriended by a woman who takes pity on him. She takes him home, cleans him up, and mentions a nice man who will help him find his mother. Things start to get a little weird with Saroo suspecting that all is not what it seems. He is right—the man exclaims that Saroo is exactly what they like—and then Saroo runs away—the second implication of human trafficking in the movie.

Saroo is befriended by another adult, a man in a nearby café, who takes him to a police station. Finding Saroo’s home is an impossible task. He is taken to what could be called an orphanage where things do not seem up and up—the third implication of human trafficking in the movie.

At the orphanage, Saroo is mysteriously brought before a woman who insists that they looked for his mother but could not find her. He is adopted by a Tasmanian couple who raise him.

Saroo is portrayed as a very cheerful, well-adjusted child. He takes well to John and Sue and life in Tasmania. A year or two after his arrival, John and Sue adopt another child from India, only this time things aren’t so smooth. Mantosh deals with rage and self-harm that follows him into adulthood.

In his 20s, Saroo heads to a hotel management program in Melbourne. He encounters Lucy and a circle of friends, some Indian. They go to an Indian party, but Saroo is out of his element. He knows next to nothing about being Indian. They kid him about needing to use a fork to eat the Indian food rather than eat with his hands (the traditional way).

Saroo spies jalepis in the kitchen, a food item from his youth that he loved. Memories flood back, and this is the start of his saga. Friends at the party suggest that now with help from Google Earth, he could locate his birth family.

Saroo embarks on a multi-year quest that tears apart his relationship with Lucy and threatens (or so he perceives) his relationship with John and Sue. He makes assumptions along the way that turn out to be wrong—he does not share his quest with his adopted mom until the end out of fear of hurting her. He assumed too that she couldn’t have kids, when in fact John and Sue intentionally decided not to bring more children into an overcrowded world.

The movie shows Saroo grabbling internally with the memories flooding back and the realization that his birth mother and brother probably went through a lot of pain. He becomes obsessed and finally receives some peace when he finds his mother—who never moved away, assuming that Saroo would be back—and his sister.

The movie closes with actual footage of Saroo introducing Sue to his birth mother. I wondered what his life was like after that. How did the quest and the end of the quest change him or his life going forward?

At least one question was answered for me: the name of the movie. Just like with his hometown, Saroo misremembered his name all these years. His name isn’t Saroo. It is Sheru—which means lion.