ALL THE WAY: LBJ comes alive

Bryan Cranston in ALL THE WAY
Bryan Cranston in ALL THE WAY

Lyndon B. Johnson, one of American history’s larger-than-life characters, finally comes alive on the screen in the HBO movie All the Way. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Trumbo) is the first actor who captures LBJ in all his facets – a man who was boring and square on television but frenetic, forceful and ever-dominating in person.  All the Way traces the first year in LBJ’s presidency, when he ended official racial segregation in America with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

LBJ was obsessed with gaining and keeping political power, and he was utterly ruthless and amoral about the means to do that. His tools of persuasion included deceit, flattery, threats, promised benefits and horse-trading. He was equally comfortable in playing to someone’s ideals and better nature as well to one’s vanity or venality. In All the Way, we see one classic moment of what was called “the Johnson treatment”, when LBJ looms over Senator Everett Dirksen, and it becomes inevitable that Dirksen is going to be cajoled, intimidated or bought off and ultimately give LBJ what he wants.

LBJ was so notoriously insincere that one of the joys of All the Way is watching LBJ tell completely inconsistent stories to the both sides of the Civil Right battle. Both the Civil Rights proponents (Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the opponents (the Southern Senators led by Richard Russell) must determine whether LBJ is lying and to whom. Each of them must make this calculation and then bet his own cause on his perception of LBJ’s real intentions.

But LBJ amassed power for two reasons – he needed to have it and he needed to do something with it. Along with the LBJ’s unattractive personal selfishness and the political sausage-making that some may find distasteful, All the Way shows that Johnson did have two core beliefs that drove his political goals – revulsion in equal parts to discrimination and poverty. We hear references to the childhood poverty that led to the humiliation of his father, to the plight of the Mexican schoolchildren in Cotulla, Texas, that he mentored as a young man, and his outrage at the discriminatory treatment suffered by his African-American cook Zephyr.

Bryan Cranston brilliantly brings us the complete LBJ – crude, conniving, thin-skinned, intimidating and politically masterful. Besides Cranston’s, we also see superb performances by Melissa Leo as Lady Bird, Anthony Mackie as MLK, Bradley Whitford as Hubert Humphrey and Frank Langella as Richard Russell.

All the Way is remarkably historically accurate. It does capsulize some characters and events, but the overall depiction of 1964 in US history is essentially truthful. As did Selma, All the Way drills down to secondary characters like James Eastland and Bob Moses. We also see the would-be scandal involving LBJ’s chief of staff Walter Jenkins, a story that has receded from the popular culture. Vietnam is alluded to with a reference to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which is fitting since Vietnam grew to become LBJ’s nemesis and the national obsession only after the 1964 election.

All the Way was adapted from a Broadway play for which Cranston won a Tony. I saw three movies in theaters last weekend and none of them were as good as All the Way. LBJ’s 1964 makes for a stirring story, and All the Way is a compelling film. Seek it out on HBO.

GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF: a devastating expose

GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF
GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF

Going Clear: The Prison of Belief, documentarian Alex Gibney’s devastating expose of Scientology, originally shown on HBO in April, is opening theatrically tomorrow. The indictment of Scientology as dangerous cult is stunning. Gibney is sunshining an amazingly rich reservoir of source material: we hear from several former Scientologists, including the former chief spokesperson, the former top deputy to the Chairman of the Board, along with former believer director Paul Haggis and the John Travolta’s original Scientology handler.

Gibney begins by tracing the journey of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard and reviewing the organization’s history. Now I knew about the science fiction writer Hubbard, his book Dianetics and even the E-meter. But I sure didn’t know about the Sea Org with its billion-year employment contracts, the Scientology Navy and the bizarro theology with invisible Thetans, volcanos and H-bombs. Nor had I seen the North Korea-style cult-of-personality spectacles featuring Chairman of the Board David McCavige. And I hadn’t heard about the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Then come the really scary stuff. We hear from former Scientology officials who testify that they have been incarcerated in the Rehabilitation Project Force – a concentration camp on a top floor of the Scientology’s Los Angeles HQ and in what is essentially a prison camp in Florida to “re-educate” suspected heretics and backsliders. And there is testimony about the prisoners being separated from their children, who are shunted off to Cadet Org. One official offers personal testimony of his assignment to break up Nicole Kidman’s marriage to Tom Cruise and to alienate her children from her. It’s horrifying stuff. And it’s a riveting viewing experience.

Alex Gibney is one our very, very best documentarians. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the superb Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. (He can’t seem to pass up a really long movie title – but Going Clear etc., came from a book title.)

If you’re asking “How can smart, able people fall into this stuff?”, then I recommend finding a film that I reviewed at Cinequest 2015 – The Center. Upon its release, The Center should become the perfect narrative fiction companion to Going Clear.

SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL – as told by his wives and his kids

SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL
SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is a solid and sometimes revelatory biopic of Frank Sinatra now playing on HBO. It’s shown in two two-hour segments. Sinatra fans should watch the whole thing. For everyone else, the middle part is especially strong – focus on the stretch from his affair and marriage to Ava Gardner through the Frank, Jr., kidnapping and the marriage to Mia Farrow.

Documentarian Alex Gibney has an unusual gift for finding the best possible source material, including coaxing interviews from the most intimate witnesses. The strength of Sinatra: All or Nothing At All comes from interviews of Sinatra’s children Tina, Nancy and Frank, Jr., along with audio of Sinatra’s first three wives – Nancy Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow – and girlfriend Lauren Bacall.

Gibney has another strong doc running on HBO right now: Going Clear: The Prison of Belief. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the excellent Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is a pretty comprehensive biodoc, tracing the Italian immigrant parents, the humble (but not destitute) Hoboken upbringing, rocketing to pop stardom, the career fade with the Great Comeback – along with his womanizing and friendships with the Mob, the Rat Pack and JFK. There are also some tidbits that I hadn’t seen before, for example, not being able to get an US government security clearance to entertain troops in Korea because of his political associations, plus an awkward performance with Elvis in the 50s. See “Spoiler Alert” below for the movie’s take on how Sinatra got the role in From Here to Eternity that launched his comeback. And, although I lived through it, I had completely forgotten about the kidnapping of Frank, Jr.

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is playing on HBO and is available streaming from HBO GO.

[Spoiler Alert: By the early 50s, Sinatra’s career was floundering and he was desperate for the acting role of Maggio in the upcoming From Here to Eternity. For years, there has been a legend that Sinatra called on his buddies in the Mafia to put the arm on Columbia Pictures to cast him. This tale is depicted in The Godfather with the horse’s-head-in-the-bed scene. Sinatra: All or Nothing At All persuasively debunks this story, explaining that, instead, his recent ex Ava Gardner pressured the studio filmmakers to cast Sinatra. Another appeal was that Sinatra was also a big name who worked for very cheap. This is consistent with Director Fred Zinnemann’s version .]

GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF: a devastating expose

GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF
GOING CLEAR: THE PRISON OF BELIEF

HBO is airing Going Clear: The Prison of Belief, documentarian Alex Gibney’s devastating expose of Scientology.  The indictment of Scientology as dangerous cult is stunning.  Gibney is sunshining an amazingly rich reservoir of source material: we hear from several  former Scientologists, including the former chief spokesperson, the former top deputy to the Chairman of the Board, along with former believer director Paul Haggis and the John Travolta’s original Scientology handler.

Gibney begins by tracing the journey of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard and reviewing the organization’s history.  Now I knew about the science fiction writer Hubbard, his book Dianetics and even the E-meter.  But I sure didn’t know about the Sea Org with its billion-year employment contracts, the Scientology Navy and the bizarro theology with invisible Thetans, volcanos and H-bombs.  Nor had I seen the North Korea-style cult-of-personality spectacles featuring Chairman of the Board David McCavige.  And I hadn’t heard about the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Then come the really scary stuff.  We hear from former Scientology officials who testify that they have been incarcerated in the Rehabilitation Project Force –  a concentration camp on a top floor of the Scientology’s Los Angeles HQ and in what is essentially a prison camp in Florida to “re-educate” suspected heretics and backsliders.  And there is testimony about the prisoners being separated from their children, who are shunted off to Cadet Org.  One official offers personal testimony of his assignment to break up Nicole Kidman’s marriage to Tom Cruise and to alienate her children from her.  It’s horrifying stuff.  And it’s a riveting viewing experience.

Alex Gibney is one our very, very best documentarians.  He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the superb Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.  (He can’t seem to pass up a really long movie title – but Going Clear etc., came from a book title.)

If you’re asking “How can smart, able people fall into this stuff?”, then I recommend finding a film that I reviewed at Cinequest 2015 – The Center.  Upon its release, The Center should become the perfect narrative fiction companion to Going Clear.

The Newburgh Sting: war on terrorism…NOT

The Newburgh Sting is a credible and politically important documentary from HBO. In 2009, the FBI arrested four American Muslims with what look like bombs outside a synagogue.  The Newburgh Sting examines the case by showing us the actual FBI surveillance videos and audios, along with talking heads of relatives and community members. And a different reality emerges.

As the story unfolds, the FBI enrolls an informant – a serial con man who needed FBI leverage to hang on to the ill-gotten gains of a previous scam. The informant heads to hardscrabble Newburgh, NY, and flashes cash and expensive cars; he pretends to be an international terrorist who will pay $250,000 for a “job”. The informant finds a local hustler who will say anything to scrounge some cash. The hustler rounds up three more unemployed guys who will also do anything for a little money, let alone $250,000. The informant describes and plans the job, organizes the job and provides all the materials (including fake bombs).

Whether or not this meets the legal definition of entrapment is one thing. But, as a matter of policy, it’s clear that – absent the FBI informant paying them to do so – these guys would never have been involved in such a scheme. It’s also easy for the audience to conclude that the FBI only stopped a “terrorist incident” that it manufactured, spending resources that could have been used against real terrorists with the actual means to carry out an attack.

The most distasteful part of the story is the cable news coverage of the arrests, trumpeting the FBI’s spin: the capture of a terrorist cell intent on mass murder of Americans. By the time we watch this, we have seen the video of the informant and the dumbass suspects actually plotting the “attack”, and we have a pretty clear picture of the personalities involved and what really happened. Because of the surveillance videos, it’s definitely worth a watch.

The Newburgh Sting is playing on HBO.

DVD/Stream of the Week: True Detective

true detective
My DVD/Stream of the week – perfect for binge-viewing on the holiday weekend – is the eight one-hour episodes of HBO’s True Detective. It’s a dark tale of two mismatched detectives – each tormented by his own demons – obsessed by a whodunit in contemporary back bayou Lousiana. Woody Harrelson is very good – but Matthew McConaughey’s performance may have been the best on TV this year.

The two detectives are shown pursuing a case together in 1995 and then being interviewed separately about it in 2012.  In the 2012 scenes, McConaughey sits at a table, his eyes dead but occasionally flashing, behind a coffee mug and an increasing lineup of empty beer cans.  He chain smokes and stares down his interrogators – doing very little with frightening intensity.  McConaughey has recently delivered brilliant performances in excellent movies (Mud, Bernie, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club) – and this may be his best.  McConaughey is reason enough to watch True Detective.

True Detective is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from HBO GO.

Seduced and Abandoned: a sly look at money grubbing

Seduced and Abandoned is director James Toback’s (The Pickup Artist, Tyson) documentary about that overlooked aspect of filmmaking: the pitch.  The camera follows Toback and his star Alec Baldwin through the Cannes Film Festival as they try to get funding for their new movie. The project they are pitching is Last Tango in Tikrit.  One can only imagine…

Toback is shameless in his pursuit of backers: “250 years from now, the only reason anyone will know your name is when it rolls on the screen as producer of my movie”.  When Toback and Baldwin learn that a young actor-wannabe has a very rich dad, they pounce and dangle a newly written role for the son.   Toback is willing to dump Neve Campbell for a younger box office hottie and to change the plot from a Middle East story  so he can shoot in the US.  It’s all very sly.

Seduced and Abandoned is playing on HBO.  Here’s the teaser.

Casting By: revealing an essential piece of filmmaking

Marion Dougherty (left) and some of her discoveries in CASTING BY

Every serious movie fan should see the fine HBO documentary Casting By, which reveals the importance of the casting department, chiefly by focusing on the pioneering work of New York casting director Marion Dougherty and her Hollywood counterpart Lynn Stalmaster.

In the hey day of the Studio System, studios would simply typecast actors plucked from their list of contract players,  But Dougherty, casting for the early TV dramas shot in New York, picked the most promising stage actors and cast them AGAINST type.  When the Studio System collapsed in the early 1960s, Dougherty and Stalmaster were able to bring this approach to the movies, especially for former TV directors like Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill and young up-and-comers like Martin Scorsese.

It’s really difficult to imagine American cinema from the past 50 years without Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall – and Dougherty is the person who cast them for their breakout credits.  Not to mention James Dean, Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, Rod Steiger, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Martin Sheen and Diane Lane.  And she pushed for Danny Glover to be cast in his Lethal Weapon role, originally written for a white detective.

Stalmaster’s story is just as compelling, including his advocacy for then unknown John Travolta and his casting of the very odd kid in Deliverance.

Casting By also takes on the turf war with the remarkably ungenerous Directors Guild, which results in grudging credits and no Oscars for casting directors.

Casting By is now playing on HBO.

The Cheshire Murders: beyond the police procedural

THE CHESHIRE MURDERS

The Cheshire Murders, another in HBO’s fine summer documentary series, takes us beyond the familiar police procedural.  This is not a whodunit – we immediately know what happened and who committed the crimes.  Three murders were committed in a home invasion, and the two perpetrators were caught red-handed – their guilt confirmed by confessions and DNA and other forensic  evidence.

Instead, as The Cheshire Murders peels back the onion, we hear about the crime’s impact on a quiet Connecticut suburb and on the families of the victims and the perpetrators. We trace the unanswered questions on the police response.  We follow the life journeys of the murderers which culminate in this horrific crime.  We see how the case affected the political debate over capital punishment in Connecticut, and test our own views on capital punishment with the facts of  a heinous crime, certain guilt and monstrous offenders.

The Cheshire Murders is all the more effective because the filmmakers refused to sensationalize the case.  The facts, speaking for themselves, are compelling enough.

The Cheshire Murders is currently playing on HBO.  Note: Some of the victims of this wanton, senseless and disgusting crime were children; although there are no grisly images, the facts of the case are disturbing.

Gideon’s Army: Sisyphus goes to court

GIDEON'S ARMY

Gideon’s Army, another gem from HBO’s fine summer documentary series, explores the work of public defenders in the South.  By defending indigent criminal defendants, these lawyers preserve the American legal principles of fair trials and the presumption of innocence.   But the game is rigged against them – they are starkly under-resourced and, in the South, face shockingly high bail requirements and extremely severe mandatory sentencing laws.  Each responsible for 120-150 cases at a time, they suffer long hours and low pay, defending the mostly guilty – a recipe for burnout.  One PD even has had one client who planned to murder her in open court.

To tell this Sisyphean story, Gideon’s Army focuses on a handful of public defenders and their cases.  There’s probably more optimism in the film than in real life (which is necessary, because a more realistic depiction would probably be depressingly unwatchable).    It’s an important subject and a good watch.  Gideon’s Army is currently playing on HBO.