Peter Landesman’s film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017) annoyed the hell out of me. So much that I felt compelled to isolate the elements that motivated my displeasure. And whether these were of my own confection. Or whether they lay in the structure and content of the film. After being annoyed long enough, I concluded the film is likely to become more significant as time passes. With hindsight. With the Trump administration in the rear-view.
My mistake, at first instance, had been to expect a story about Watergate. Or Nixon’s FBI. Or a G-Man.
That’s what Landesman’s script led me to believe. On the surface. Because I fell into the trap of an idiotic literalism in my interpretation. A literalism of the kind I despise in the last two generations.
As already touched on, all non-Americans are made ‘aliens’ in an exceptionalist conception – ‘aliens’ being the pejorative, bureaucratic term the USA applies to ‘foreigners’. It is a concept that doesn’t just reference ‘foreignness’, but the implication that people who are not American are in fact a different species altogether, like extra-terrestrials.
One of the things I learnt in the war is that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice. We are a very aggressive species. It is in us. And people talk a lot about how, ‘well the military turns,’ you know, ‘kids into killing machines’ and stuff. And I’ll always argue that it’s just finishing school.
What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies. And we have to recognise them. I worry about a whole country that doesn’t recognise it. ‘Cause you think of many times we get ourselves in scrapes as a nation because we’re always the good guys.
Sometimes I think if we thought that we weren’t always the good guys we might actually get in less wars.
– Karl Marlantes, former Marine, about 48 minutes into episode five.
‘Come around. I’ll cook steak with mushroom sauce … the way you like it,’ Giovanna said with that alluring Italian lilt. ‘We can watch the rest of Big Little Lies.’
The offer of steak was pretty well irresistible, so I knew there had to be a catch.
‘Can we do the steak without indigestion afterwards?’ I moped at her over the phone. I would have turned up on her doorstep without the offer of any dinner or entertainment. I think she knew it, but we conspired to play the game regardless.
In 2010 I remember reading about US General Stanley Allen McChrystal, the warrior monk runner, eating only one meal a day, and subsisting on four hours’ sleep in every 24. Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings painted him as a bizarre figure, like George C Scott’s Buck Turgidson, or perhaps just as a consequence of Hastings’ antipathy for the military in general and McChrystal in particular.
Watching this old favourite again reminded me that US history is littered with corrosively corrupt people, some of them still inexplicably alive to continue damaging their nation and the people they ruin. Some are thankfully dead and unable to spread more of their virulent influence. One of the latter was Roy Cohn.
James Woods plays the malevolent Cohn with a relentless ferocity that made me wonder whether the actor hadn’t lost his mind when I first saw his performance in the early 1990s.
English television at its best. Idris Elba as the leading man. Ruth Wilson as the delectable psycho killer bitch Alice Morgan. What more would you need to recommend this piece of television history?
Nothing really, but for me it’s all about the sub-text.
You can never be sure that others see what you see. You can’t even be sure that what you see is what the creators intended. But it’s all there regardless. Once it’s released, the mise-en-scène and dialogue don’t undo and recreate themselves in some alternate fashion.
What I see is that Luther and Alice are the same person. Split personality. Two halves of a whole. Yin and Yang. Call it what you will.
The two halves of the film don’t really fit together: contemporary evil corporation manipulating duped experimental subjects, and Renaissance intrigue, murder, and mayhem. Welded together with the crude device of a conspiracy plot more at home in a Dan Brown novel than in a sane mind: The Catholic Church seeks to enslave mankind with evil intent. Presumably giving all the Anglo Protestants in the USA justification to arm themselves to the teeth, form militias, and destroy civilisation to save it from destruction by the Catholics. A fine piece of contemporary American logic.
Worse, from my perspective: there is a substantial portion of dialogue in Spanish, forcing me to turn to sub-titles, which I have always thought of as destroyers of a film. Both for distracting from the visuals, and for usually being the work of illiterate gremlins guessing at original meaning rather than translating it.
My West Wing review hiatus is a reflection of my contempt for politicians and my disgust with politics as practiced in Australia and the USA.
I cannot remember being this appalled since Emperor Bush I went to war against Iraq and left the job unfinished, making sure there would have to be a repeat of the whole disaster. Especially the financial haemorrhage of public funds into private blood banks.