SSince early December I have been reading my way through Jack Higgins’s novels. He had first used the character Martin Fallon in 1960 (Cry of the Hunter), reprising him in 1973 for the novel A Prayer for the Dying.
It’s a mournful story of an IRA soldier, haunted by the innocents he’s killed, trying to get out, but finding it hard to quarantine his particular skills from the bargains he must strike to escape.
Christmas excesses usually require some recuperation, and binge-watching back-to-back television episodes is a reliable pastime for the waking hours, while digesting too much food and sweating out too much booze in the heat of the season.
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.