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: Columbus (2017)

Columbus is a soft-spoken movie full of serendipitous meetings against the backdrop of Columbus, Indiana.

This small-size midwestern town is known for its architecture. Columbus is the home of Cummins, a large engine manufacturer with an oversized footprint on the town. Cummins executive J. Irwin Miller along with the Cummins Foundation was behind the boom in modernist architecture in Columbus that went on for decades. The movie highlights many of the architectural treasures in Columbus as the storyline unfolds—the Irwin house, First Christian Church, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, the Irwin Conference Centre, Mill Race Park, the Miller House, the Republic Newspaper Building, Clifty Creek Elementary School, and Columbus City Hall.

The storyline? A world-renown architect is in town for a talk. He and his assistant are at the famous Miller House when he falls ill and is hospitalized. (The Miller House makes appearance throughout the movie. As an aside: the house is well worth a tour.)

The architect’s son, Jin, flies from Korea to be present for…his father’s recovery? His death? As the movie progresses we learn about the strained relationship (or lack of one) with his father, expectations in Korean society about family, and Jin’s own feelings about the situation.

Meanwhile, Cassey, a resident of Columbus and architecture aficionado, encounters Jin. The two of them start a friendship that quickly delves into deep topics. Initially she takes Jin to various architectural sites. Discussions move from superficial talk about the buildings to her feelings behind them to her life.

The discussions with Jin force Cassey to confront her life: she has stayed in Columbus (and told herself she was fine with that) as friends and classmates went off to college. Why, if she has an interest in architecture and was clearly bright, did she not go to college to study architecture? Previously another scholar of architecture offered to take Cassey under her wing. But Cassey demurred.

The discussions with Cassey force Jin to admit to his feelings surrounding Korean societal expectations and his relationship with his father. He is in limbo in Columbus. He is staying in the room his father had at the Irwin House. The movie shows shots of him in the house and views of the gardens. (You can also tour the Irwin House, and the gardens are open to the public during certain hours.)

In the end, there are no clean resolutions. Cassey does move on with her life, clearly scared to leave the town and mother she loves. Jin is stuck, moving from the rooms of the Irwin House to a house he can rent by the month. He is waiting for his father to die or to live. Like real life, the movie doesn’t show us how things end.

Movie review: The Post (2017)

The Post was one of those movies that I looked forward to watching. It did not disappoint.

The movie, which covers a well-known event—the publishing of the Pentagon Papers—is never dry nor dull. The crafting of the movie pulls viewers along, as if they are experiencing the events as they unfold, not sure how things would play out.

The Washington Post has been a long staple of excellent reporting, an icon in the world of newspapers and investigative journalism. But it was not always that way. The Washington Post was an outstanding local newspaper, long in the shadow of The New York Times. This movie covers the moment when the newspaper went from local paper to the big times.

I think of Katherine Graham who owned the paper as a commanding presence, a woman in firm charge. But the movie makes clear that this wasn’t always the case either. The newspaper was started by her ancestors and run by males in the family. The paper was given to her husband to run because, well, that’s how things were done during that time period. Men were in charge, even men who married into the family.

And Katherine was quite content with this. But then her life took a turn she didn’t see coming. Her husband committed suicide and suddenly she was in charge of the paper. She, with no employment experience, had to step in to ensure that her family’s paper survived. She relied on the board, lawyers, and Ben Bradlee who was the executive editor.

From a wealthy family, Katherine ran in the elite circles in Washington DC, which meant that she hobnobbed and was friends with people in high positions in government, like Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. These are the same people that newspapers like hers investigated and reported on. Things got uncomfortable for her, to say the least.

The movie depicts Graham as a somewhat sheltered wealthy woman. She could have easily retreated into her life, stepped away from the newspaper, and not seized the historical moment. But instead, she seized the moment—and it transformed her. And with her, the newspaper.

In 1971, the newspaper found itself in possession of what later became known as the Pentagon Papers. To publish articles about the content or not publish. The New York Times published articles about the papers and found itself the object of a court injunction to cease publication about the top-secret government documents. What would The Post do? To publish would be in defiance to the court order. Graham and Bradlee could end up in prison.

In addition, Graham was putting in jeopardy the public offering of stock for her newspaper. To keep the newspaper solvent and invest in its future, Graham was pursuing taking the newspaper public. Legally, institutional investors could pull out and the deal would crumble if anything catastrophic happened. The newspaper being sued and Graham going to prison could be considered a catastrophic event.

Against the advice of board members and lawyers and putting the public offering of the newspaper at risk, Graham gave the green light to publish. The movie emphasizes that it was not an easy decision or one that was taken lightly. It ultimately was a pivotal moment both for Graham and the paper—the two of them came into their own through her decision. Graham was now a defender of freedom of the press and head of a respected national paper. The Washington Post, which defended itself before the Supreme Court, along with The New York Times, was now on equally footing with The Times.

The movie is full of top stars. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play the leads Graham and Bradlee, but the entire movie is peppered with veteran actors, some of whom I recognized and others that I did not realize were in the movie until I saw the credits.

At a time when maligning the media has become commonplace, The Post is an inspiring movie to watch. It leads to questions about the role and purpose of the media, what defines the media, and how newspapers differ from non-traditional media sources. I couldn’t help ponder the differences between the publication of the Pentagon Papers and all the leaks posted by WikiLeaks. One seems like journalism, the other not so much. What makes one journalism and the other not?

The Supreme Court decided that an injunction against publishing the Pentagon Papers was a violation of the First Amendment. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black succinctly articulated the point of the press: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

This is still a good goal of the press. Some modern media have strayed far from this guideline.

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: The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I really want to like John le Carré movies. I found Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy confusing (though the 2011 version is supposed to be one of the best le Carré film adaptations). I did like The Spy That Came In From The Cold and A Most Wanted Man. But The Tailor of Panama….not so much.

The plot wasn’t all that confusing, but I found at one point that I thought I had missed something vital. I had to stop and think through it. And I found the spy in the center of the story, well, revolting.

The ending is different from a “typical” spy story. I wasn’t expecting things to end tidily like they did. Cold War spy stories never do. But then again, this story doesn’t take place during the Cold War.

The Tailor of Panama takes place in 2001, a mere two years after the US handed over the Panama Canal to Panama. A British spy is banished to Panama after some mishap during a previous mission. He ferrets out a British ex-pat who is laying low but has good contacts among the political elites in Panama: a tailor.

The tailor of course is not whom he appears. He has a past. A past that the British spy uses against him. After a stint in prison, the tailor moved to Panama and reinvented himself. He is now a successful, posh tailor for all the elites in Panama. He is married to a woman who works high in the government. Every day he cooks breakfast for their kids and takes them to school. Life is idyllic. Until the British spy enters the picture.

He wants dirt. He wants to know what is going on behind the scenes in Panama and pressures the tailor to introduce him to the political elites that he rubs elbows with in his trade. Nothing really is amiss. Sure, Panamanian society and politics is corrupt. But Noriega has long been removed from power. Nothing is really going on in Panama. At least nothing that other spy organizations know about.

And yet here is this British spy pressuring the tailor to bring him dirt. If he doesn’t, he will reveal the tailor’s past and stop payments that the tailor needs to pay off his debts. What to do? Well, feed him a line: the government is looking for someone to sell the canal to. The British spy is very interested.

He wants this information not so much to get himself out of exile with the British spy agencies but to line his pockets with money so he can disappear into retirement.

Only things take a dramatic turn. This charade—a lie from the tailor to give the spy what he wants and bribery from the spy so he can disappear into a life of comfort—set in motion a US invasion of Panama. The Panama Canal being sold—quite possibly to China—is a security threat that must be stopped.

Suddenly the tailor and his wife through her connections in government are trying to stop everything set in motion. The spy pays off the British ambassador to Panama and leaves the country with millions of dollars. The shady immorality of the spying world is alive and well.

Although made in 2001, the movie had a 1980s or 1990s feel to it for me. It is definitely not a good spy vs. bad spy movie—the so-called good spy is actually a very, very bad spy. Lives and almost an entire country are ruined for profit. Morality is ambiguous or non-existent.