Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.

Movie review: Jane (2017)

So you think you know all about Jane Goodall? Maybe. Maybe not. This documentary uses 100 hours of newly discovered film shot from Jane’s early days studying chimpanzees in Gombe. The film was shot by Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. Hugo would go on to become Jane’s husband. It is interspersed with more modern film and an interview with Jane herself.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey thought that the study of chimpanzees could teach us about early man. He was looking for someone not tainted by thinking in the scientific community. He needed someone with an open mind, a love of animals, and a passion for knowledge. Jane had grown up dreaming of living in Africa among animals. She unfortunately was unable to attend university so she had no training and no degree. It was a perfect pairing.

Jane left on a six-month study of chimpanzees in Gombe. She found chimpanzees and tried to get close to them. The first five months went nowhere. At six months, the funding would run out. Thankfully she experienced a break through with the chimpanzees during the last months. The chimpanzees accepted her. Her study and observations went into high gear…and more funding followed.

This was the 1960s though. And she was a young twenty-something. A woman by herself in the wild just would not do. So her mom went with her. Yes, her mom. Her mom seems to be something of an independent woman (where else would Jane have gotten her independence?) who strongly supported and encouraged her daughter. She opened a clinic and provided medicine to African fishermen while Jane conducted her study of the chimpanzees.

Jane’s observation of the chimpanzee stood a lot of assumptions on their head. She countered the beliefs that only humans were rational, only humans had minds, only humans used tools. She disproved all of these and was attacked for it. After she observed chimpanzees fashioning tools to reach termites in order to eat them—and passing this tool-making knowledge on to other chimpanzees—a photographer was sent to capture the chimpanzees and Jane.

At first annoyed that her solitude was disturbed, Jane later found that she and Hugo (the cameraman) seemed to be two peas in a pod. After his assignment ended and he went elsewhere, he proposed and Jane accepted. Jane never dreamt of marriage, but there she was getting married. She never dreamt of having children, but there she was having a child.

Marriage and motherhood threw her a curveball. Reflecting the times, wives and mothers took second tier to their husbands’ careers. Jane was no exception. She took what turned out to be a hiatus from studying chimps to go to the Serengeti with Hugo. She wrote books and he filmed. Later she raised her son in Africa until he was school-age and then sent him to England to live with her mother while he attended school.

Although disruptive to her career, motherhood for Jane was informed by her earlier observations of an infant-mother relationship (the chimpanzees Flo and Flint). In turn, her own motherhood informed her observations of the chimpanzees.

The film shows fun times with chimpanzees. The observers became close to the chimps, touching and even grooming them. Later though this community of chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic. It was excruciating to hear about and witness—I cannot imagine the pain that Jane might have felt as she watched what happened to the chimpanzees that she had grown to known quite well.

Some of the chimpanzees suffered paralyzed limbs. Others were not affected. One in particular was euthanized to end his suffering. This was a case of the human observer interfering in the so-called normal course of nature. But Jane could not watch a chimpanzee basically die through starvation because he could not move to feed or care for himself.

The film portrays other emotional moments with the tribe. When Flo, the elder female chimpanzee whom Jane had observed over the years, died, her teenage son Flint was so distraught. He stopped eating and within 3 weeks died himself. Heartbreak seems to not just be a human trait.

Flo’s death had other consequences that deeply affected the tribe. Some split into a separate tribe and moved south. They became strangers to the original tribe. The result? When the groups interacted again, there was warfare. The southern group was obliterated. Suddenly another assumption was destroyed: chimpanzees are not the mostly docile bunch Jane and others thought they were. (Granted, she recognized that they killed other primate babies…which was a consideration when raising her own son in Africa).

Jane helped me understand more fully Goodall’s life and the important observations that she made that contributed to our understanding about ourselves and mankind. Jane never stopped doing the work that Dr. Leakey first set out to do: study chimpanzees to better understand early man. Her observations debunked so many erroneous ideas (only humans are rational, have minds, use tools, conduct warfare) and led to better understandings of ourselves (mother-infant relationships).

In many ways, Jane is a role model, a woman who lived her dreams. She tried to combined career, marriage, and motherhood, but her life again reveals how hard that is—she had to put her own research on hold and the marriage ultimately ended. Her life story is both the sad reflection of the societal limitations on women and the ways that women can and cannot overcome them.

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: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

You can be forgiven for thinking that the movie gets its name from the unofficial mission of WikiLeaks. Perhaps it does. But the line “we steal secrets” in the movie comes directly out of the mouth of the former Director of the National Security Agency, Michael Hayden. That, Hayden was saying, was the point of all countries trying to provide national security. You must steal secrets from other countries in order to protect your own. Stealing secrets also implies that you must keep these secrets, well, secret.

This documentary is another look at Julian Assange and the organization he founded. It seems more poignant to know the background of the man and WikiLeaks given his recent removal in April 2019 from self-imposed exile in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The movie is an excellent recap of his early hacking life, WikiLeaks, and all of the controversy surrounding him. Of course, the movie ends in 2013 so we are left with a six-year gap.

Also, caveat emptor. Everyone has a slant on Assange, WikiLeaks, whistleblowing activities, and the whistleblowers. To some they are heroes, to others traitors. The reality is muddier but where the mud lies depends on your perspective.

The movie is well made with interviews from people on both sides of the issues—people who formerly worked with WikiLeaks as well as high-ranking people in the national security apparatus. The movie weaves together a cohesive narrative about his early involvement in the international WANK worm through all of WikiLeaks activities to Assange’s paranoia and legal woes.

Adrian Lamao is interviewed about his contact with Cheslea Manning when she was still a private in Iraq under the identity of Bradley Manning. However you feel about what Manning did, the movie provides insightful interviews with Lamao and transcripts of texts between Manning and Lamao. We get a glimpse into Manning’s tortured life and motivations for what he did—as well as Lamao’s tortured decision to turn Manning in.

Assange appears on film in interviews at specific times during WikiLeaks’ spotlight on the international stage. None of these interviews were done for this particular movie. Neither Assange or Manning participated in the creation of this documentary.

We Steal Secrets runs down the various leaks that WikiLeaks participated in during the 2009-2010 time period. In rapid succession, WikiLeaks broke leaks on the Icelandic financial collapse, Swiss banking tax evasion, Kenyan government corruption, toxic-waste dumping, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and diplomatic cables. Then following systematic attacks on Assange and WikiLeaks, both came crashing down.

The documentary suggests that Assange’s longstanding paranoia was finally warranted. The powers that be did not go after the established news agencies (The Guardian, New York Times, etc.) that worked with Assange to publish news about the leaked information. The established new agencies seemed to have been intentionally ignored. The focus was on Assange. A smear campaign on him and WikiLeaks ensued.

Assange however was a master manipulator; it was suggested that he duped his supporters around the world. The landscape got muddier and muddier. Who was being duped? His supporters, or those who believed that his leaks were a danger to our national security (but those by the established media weren’t)?

The irony of course is that the man who set out to unmask corruption in all its forms and demand transparency and accountability was cloaking himself in transparency. He appeared to be part of the same corruption, just in a different form.

Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.