Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Little Libertarian on the Prairie

In this morning’s post, A nation of spoiled babies looking for work, I went off on a short tangent about the inherent Libertarianism in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Reminded me. Back in May of 2011, I went off on a long tangent on the same idea. Here’s that post:

image Reading The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

The Wilder Life is as the subtitle suggests about McClure’s attempts to reconnect with the books that meant the most to her when she was a little girl, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In the course of re-reading Wilder’s books and biographies and critical studies and even a cookbook, McClure learns things she didn’t know about Laura Ingalls and her family and one of the things she learns is that the little house in the big woods wasn’t as deep in the woods as it seemed in the book named after it. The nearest town, which McClure had always imagined as a long, long way off from the Ingalls little house, was actually nearby.  Laura and her family had neighbors and more than McClure would have thought.

What astonishes her, though, is that the town was a town.

In the book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder…John E. Miller points out that the Chippewa River valley region where Laura’s family lived was home to a bustling lumber business district; he cites a local newspaper editorial, written a few years before Laura’s birth, that describes Pepin, the town only a few miles from the Ingallses’ log cabin, as having a “busy hum”: “The air was alive with the sounds and voices of intelligent and independent industry,” the editorial claimed.  Miller thinks that was likely an exaggeration, too, but you can’t help but think that even if the industrious hum wasn’t that loud, Pa Ingalls and his family might have been close enough to hear it, so to speak, in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

There was a school in the area close enough for Laura to walk to and Pa Ingalls was the treasurer for the local school district:

…so in between making bullets and tanning hides with brains, he must’ve found time every now and then to wipe the bear trap grease from his hands and attend some boring meeting like an 1870s soccer dad.

Even more astonishing was discovering that De Smet, the town in what’s now South Dakota that’s buried and battered by blizzard after blizzard during The Long Winter, had a roller rink!

“How,” McClure asks, “did the town progress so quickly from nearly starving to death to building teen hangouts?”

I’m only three chapters in, so maybe McClure answers that question later in her book, but if De Smet was like most frontier towns from the beginning of the white settlement of America, starting with Plymouth---Jamestown wasn’t founded as a town; it was a fort or, from the Indians’ point of view, a bandits’ lair.---it didn’t have to progress because the town itself was the progress.

The settling of the continent was a progressive process.  The image from the movies of the settling of the west occurring as a lonely log or sod cabin is built in the wilderness with maybe a trading post a day’s walk away and the settlers fighting off Indians, wild animals, and starvation while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and civilization to catch up---that happened, here and there, but mostly in wilderness areas we now regard as the East.

Mainly, what happened, though, was that whole towns sprang up practically overnight.  Daniel Boone did a lot of solitary exploring but then he came back to the woods to cut it down and found a town.

imageLooking at the iconic image of wagons rolling west, it’s easy to forget that wagon trains were in fact trains.  They were doing what trains still do, carrying lots of passengers with all their attendant baggage and delivering goods.   And when we picture those pioneers bumping along in their wagons, the sounds of pots and pans clanging in the beds behind them, we need to remember what else they were bringing with them besides cooking utensils and some bedding.  They brought books and musical instruments---think of Pa Ingalls and his fiddle---and clocks and pictures to hang on the walls of their log cabins and sod huts once they got them built.  They were also bringing themselves.  That is, they were bringing their attitudes, customs, and habits and generally these were not the attitudes, customs, and habits of “pioneers.”  The people we call pioneers had been born and raised and had lived most of their lives in towns and cities.  There were of course countryfolk among all these townsfolk and cityfolk, but almost from the moment the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, living in the country meant living close to town instead of in it, and countryfolk could hear that same hum, so to speak, that McClure was astonished to learn the Ingallses heard in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

The pioneers were bringing civilization with them.

They didn’t settle themselves in the wilderness and then build civilization from scratch.  It came with them, pre-fab.

It often happened like this, because along with everything else they brought with them they brought their religion and they brought children:  As soon as they could, the settlers built a church and the church usually served as a schoolhouse until they could build a separate one.  And around the church they built stores and offices.  Not everyone who went west went west to farm.  A lot of people went west to sell things, goods and services, to farmers.  They were storekeepers and blacksmiths and lawyers and doctors and newspaper editors, all of whom brought the tools and rules of their trades with them.  Things got social very quickly, and complicated.   That meant hiring or appointing a minister and a teacher and a town police force, which may have included only one man, but he still had to be hired and paid.  In order for the farmers to get to and from town and for people in town to get around, there had to be roads and those roads had to be kept relatively clear.  There were all these wooden structures right up against each other, all lit and heated by flames.  They were fire hazards and that meant they had to watched carefully.  Do you remember the episode of Deadwood that revolved around appointing a fire marshal?  A fire brigade had to be organized, just in case.  Now who did all that?  How did they do all that?  Usually by committee.  Essentially, then, one of the first things they did was put together a town board.  That is, they formed a government.

Some people lit out for the territories like Huck, to escape being civilized.  But most people went west in search of opportunity, the kind of opportunity that is made possible by being civilized.  Even the most self-reliant, anti-social, temperamentally anarchistic, libertarian-minded farmer had to come into town from time to time to buy supplies.

What I’m saying is that it’s not really surprising that whole towns, some with roller rinks, sprang up very shortly after the first settlers felled their first tree or plowed their first furrow, because they needed towns in order to settle.  And a town is almost by definition a government.

Which brings me to libertarianism and libertarians.  Which is not a change of subject away from The Wilder Life, as you’ll see.

Generally, I don’t give much thought to libertarianism because I don’t think libertarians themselves give much thought to it.  As far as I’ve ever been able to see, libertarian describes a temperamental aversion to certain ideas, one in particular, which I’ll get to, more than a philosophic attraction to any.  The libertarians I know are either conservatives who think they’re too cool to be Republicans, hate anyone telling them how to behave, and don’t like be told they owe anything to anybody else or they are liberals who think they’re too cool to be Democrats, hate anybody telling them how to behave, and don’t like to be told they owe anything to anybody else.

That last point of agreement doesn’t mean that either type acts as if they don’t owe anything to anybody else.  Most of them have strong senses of civic responsibility, duty, and obligation. It’s why they believe that a libertarian society would work.  They would do all the pitching in that would be required if the government didn’t plow the roads and put out the fires.  It’s just that they feel scolded when they’re told that they have to pitch in and that makes them cranky.

The libertarian ideal is predicated on the notion that if you leave people alone, their self-interest if not their innate decency will compel them to live together as if they had a government.  You don’t need to enact lots of laws and impose lots of rules and regulations if people are going to act lawfully and follow the “rules” and regulate themselves on their own.  In other words, societies are self-regulating.  But as the most libertarian of the Founders was in the habit of saying, People were made for society and therefore they were made for government.  Society and government are practically synonymous, because the first isn’t possible without the second. As I said, everywhere they settled, one of the first things the pioneers did was form a government.  They didn’t wait around to find out if their neighbors were going to act as if they had a government.  They just set to work setting one up, using as their models the governments they had seemingly left behind.  Another way of putting this, is they brought government with them. 

The thing about libertarians that I find alternately annoying and amusing is that virtually none of them live as self-reliant farmers far from towns they only come into when they absolutely have to.  Most of them live in some of the most well-governed, well-ordered, well-regulated, civilized places on the planet.  Suburbs.

Those who don’t, live in cities.

Rand Paul didn’t wander in from the hills.  He was born in Pittsburgh.  He grew up in Texas but in a city, a little city, but still a city of over 20,000 people.  He went to college at Baylor University, a little city on its own of about 14,000 people, in Waco, Texas, population of about 125,000, then went on to medical school at Duke University, another little city of around 14,000, in Durham, North Carolina, a city of close to a quarter million people.  He hung out his shingle in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of only 58,000 or so.

You can’t have that many people bumping up against each other without lots of rules and regulations just to control the traffic.

It’s not simply the case that Paul’s lived his whole life sheltered and protected by governments large and small.  His life as it is wouldn’t have been possible except for those governments.  He is a pure product of government.  And this is the case for most self-proclaimed libertarians.  Their lives wouldn’t be possible without not just government but without liberal government.

What libertarians hope for is that the democratic-republicans who found and run towns and cities create a solid, functioning, and unobtrusive government that the libertarians can then pretend isn’t there.

It gets down to this.  It’s surprising that De Smet had a roller rink but not that much more surprising than the fact that it had a school Laura could play hooky from one day to go to the roller rink.  Life on the frontier was only possible because there were towns like De Smet that could provide schooling for the children of the pioneers and support businesses that sold things the pioneers needed and among those things, the pioneers being civilized folk and civilized folk need to sustain their minds and spirits as well as their bodies, were recreation and entertainment.

Now.  The connection between the Little House books and libertarianism doesn’t end there.  It ends with an irony.

Here’s another surprising fact McClure turned up in the course of her research.

Laura Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a founder of the Libertarian Party.


Here’s Wendy McClure talking about The Wilder Life at NPR.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Ruining my eyes | Permalink


Friday, June 13, 2014

Bobby Lee

Gettsyburg Longstreet Lee
Tom Berenger as the increasingly disenchanted and doubtful Confederate general James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as a noble but slightly and tragically vain Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg.

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Scott is doing a virtual spit-take at the ad copy for a new biography of Robert E. Lee, a man Scott calls, in keeping with LGM’s stylebook rule of calling the American Civil War the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery (also in keeping with history), “traitor in defense of slavery”:

In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.

Scott’s bold-facing. Now his response:

Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor?

And he offers a few suggestions:

Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week?

Here you can feel him pause for a silent but definite Jesus H. Christ on Toast! before he continues:

I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads.

The object is to sell books, of course, as Scott knows, and he suggests the target audience for that blurb. (Commenter Jim is more direct if less colorful: “this is a sales pitch aimed at the re-enactors and lost cause-rs”.) Knowing that is only mollifying to the most jaded cynic.

Coming up on a hundred and fifty years since Lee was allowed to ride off from Appomattox Courthouse instead of being clapped in irons and hauled off to Washington to be tried for treason, we’re still selling an alternative history of the Civil War to Southerners and Confederate sympathizers in which slavery played no role and the South’s was somehow a noble cause or at least the soldiers who fought for it were noble men.

Another reader, Michael Confoy, links to a review by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner in which Foner gets quick to the point that Clouds of Glory isn’t an alternative history or a hagiography or an apology for Lee or the South.

As its subtitle suggests, one of Michael Korda’s aims in “Clouds of Glory” is “disentangling Lee from his myth.” In this he mostly succeeds. Although Korda greatly admires Lee, he challenges the image of a man who could do no wrong. He also challenges the Lost Cause portrait of the Old South as a bucolic paradise of small farmers and courtly aristocrats, a vision in which, he notes, “the reality of slavery played no part.”

This is good, but Foner goes on to make the case that Korda is still more than a tad too respectful of his subject and even somewhat neglectful of the actual record, and that’s too bad. Lee’s image in the popular imagination needs a thorough debunking.

Since the War ended, Lee has been used to help sell Southerners a flattering view of a war the South started as a defensive war taken on reluctantly to protect hearth, home, family, and, incidentally, “our peculiar way of lahf,” from Northern aggressors.  Why, look at Bobby Lee, gentleman soldier, reluctant warrior (as reluctant a warrior as a career military man can be, at any rate), good and decent man, practically the reincarnation of George Washington, neither at heart or in principle a secessionist or a die-hard proponent of the South’s peculiar institution, forced by fate and the blunders of politicians to choose between his nation and his country, Virginia.

We’re not supposed to consider that Lee might have done Virginia more good by sticking with the Union.

This only works, of course, because Lee so looked the part. So handsome. So dignified. So fatherly. That stoically impassive expression not quite hiding the sadness in his eyes.  How could a cause that had such an honorable man as its military commander be anything but honorable?

Not only could and did the focus on the image of Lee as a tragic hero take the focus off what he was actually fighting for, it can take the focus off the fact that the South lost, even be used to allow the South to award itself a moral victory.

Yes, we were outmanned and outgunned in the field but still our boys, Bobby Lee’s boys, were the better men.

As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust about Lee’s biggest blunder, known gallantly as Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....

“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Lee said to the remains of Pickett’s division staggering back from Cemetery Ridge.

Yes, it was, General, but the mistake began when you decided to cast your lot with the slavers. Your fellow slavers.

Ironically, Grant’s image has been used to help burnish Lee’s, the contrast between the two portrayed as complementary, two sides of the same wholly American coin.  On the one side, the stately, formal, courteous aristocrat of the Old South, defender of a passing glory, on the other, the bumptious, brusque, impatient, practical citizen solider, harbinger of a new Western-looking America in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb would be united again at last.  And there’s that whole brother against brother thing again, sentimentalizing the war and taking the focus off its cause, the South’s real cause.

Lee and Grant weren’t complements. They were opposites. Comparisons should highlight that, not obscure it.

This, by the way, is one of the (many) things I like about the movie Gettysburg, how it subtly takes on the mythic image of Lee.

Martin Sheen’s Lee looks the part, acts the part, has qualities that make him right for the part, but still has a touch of vanity and a suggestion of emotional fragility that makes him suspect in the part. Add Tom Berenger’s Longstreet’s growing doubts and horror and it’s really something of a subversive portrait. Pickett’s Charge becomes emblematic of the Southern Cause—thousands of men sacrificed for the vanity and ambitions of elderly aristocrats.

On the other hand, one of the most stirring moments in Lincoln for me was Jared Harris’ entrance as Grant. The second he appeared I wanted to jump up and point at the screen, yelling, “That’s HIM!”

Lincoln Grant enters 

And the scene between him and Daniel Day Lewis on the porch broke my heart for both men.


Make sure you read all of Scott’s post and stick around for the comments.

In his review of Clouds of Glory, which you should also read the whole of, Eric Foner writes:

Korda has a knack for describing the complex unfolding of Civil War battles in lucid prose. Most of the book consists of gripping, if perhaps excessively lengthy, accounts of Lee’s military campaigns…

If you’re looking for a book by a professional historian featuring lengthy (but I don’t think excessively so), lucidly written, and gripping battle sequences that gives Lee his due as a military leader but that’s it? I recommend Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. Besides not glorifying Lee, it has the additional virtue of showing up Union General George McClellan as the magnificent asshole he was.

And Foner’s own The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a must read, must own.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, June 04, 2014 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Labels: ,

Saving Sergeant Bergdahl

I wonder how many people think that the soldiers who died looking for Bowe Bergdahl were on a Saving Private Ryan style mission together.  That’s apparently not what happened.

They weren’t out looking for Bergdahl. They were on the lookout for him while they were out on other missions. This isn’t a trivial distinction. It means that it is in fact almost impossible to say that they died on account of Bergdahl or for his sake because they were in harm’s way for reasons that would have placed them there even if Bergdahl hadn’t gone missing. They died in combat in a combat zone and, although it sounds callous, their deaths may have been routine. So it’s debatable how much they should figure in deciding whether Bergdahl was worth saving.

But while they’re thinking of Saving Private Ryan they should be thinking about this.

Saving Matt Damon was not worth losing Tom Hanks.

1083_CTS1248.jpg Now, Private Ryan seems to be a good enough kid. Definitely not someone who deserves to die. But he’s ordinary. Captain Miller, though, is extraordinary or at least exemplary. In the grand scheme of things, the world can do without a few Private Ryans here and there, but it needs more Captain Millers. Sending Miller to die for Ryan is a great unfairness, and Miller himself feels that unfairness, on behalf of his family and his men more than on his own. But he does still feel it. It infuriates him. He resents it. He would resist it except that he accepts the principle.

We don’t judge each other’s worth that way.

We don’t say,  “Before I bother to care what happens to you, prove to me you deserve to be cared about and cared for.”

We operate from the belief that we are all worth it.  In and of ourselves and not relative to other human beings.

We are all worth it because we are all human beings.

We care about and care for everybody, including the least deserving, because it’s our responsibility to care for the whole human race. You are worth it because you are one of us, no matter how much you’ve done to make us think otherwise. In caring for you, we are caring for everybody. On the individual level that means that in saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is saving himself.

Say Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter, and we have to say it because we don’t really know that he was, that’s an accusation made by members of his outfit who may not have been worth saving themselves had they been taken prisoner.  Given all we know that’s gone on over there, they might have committed atrocities, they might have been cowards and shirkers, they might have been rapists. The same goes for the men who died looking for Bergdahl. We don’t know. We’re not asking. It’s beside the point, at the moment. Bergdahl may have been a deserter, he looks more like a bit of a flake with a history of going walkabout, but he may have deserted, and, again, say he did.

Does that make him less than one of us?

And by us, I mean us human beings, not us Americans.

Did he deserve to be left to die?

More than you? More than me? More than whom?

The war---wars---have been going on for thirteen years.  Every grown man and woman in the country under fifty could have volunteered to go fight.  Every one under forty still could. Bowe Bergdahl did. He fought that war for several months before he was taken prisoner. How many people now saying he deserved to be left to die did not fight a single minute because they were too frightened, too complaisant, too selfish, too indifferent, too willing to let the Bowe Bergdahls do it for them?  How then do they dare give themselves the right to judge Bergdahl’s deserving?

Bowe Bergdahl went. It didn’t work out very well for him. But he went.

In my judgment that makes him more deserving than any of the chickenhawks and Sunshine Patriots.

But who am I to judge?

What makes me think I’m deserving?

Ryan Private Ryan And this is another, more selfish, reason we don’t judge each other’s worth that way: In the grand scheme of things, which of us is worth it?  Which of us is all that deserving?

It’s as I’ve said, “Looked at close, none of us is worth it” or as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

So we don’t just treat each other as if we’re all Private Ryans. We assume we are. And we don’t assume we, ourselves, are Captain Millers. We assume we aren’t.

We don’t demand proof someone deserves saving because we believe everyone does.

And because someday we may need saving ourselves and we don’t want to have to prove we’re worth it.

In saving Private Ryan, and Sergeant Bergdahl, grandly and meanly, we’re saving ourselves.

Lance Mannion on Saturday, June 07, 2014 in Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000, Sunday Sermon | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Labels: ,

That’s the trouble with Millennials, they don’t know how to blame the wrong people

Dear Mr Bruni,

After reading your op-ed in the New York Times the other day, about how our generation has screwed things up for the Millennials (known in some circles as our children) and we owe them an apology, I tracked down the two Millennials I know best, my college-aged sons, and told them they’re free to resent their not-rich grandparents for selfishly gobbling up Social Security and Medicare money to help afford themselves a comfortable and healthy retirement even though the old folks know that there might not be enough money left in the till for the young folks when they’re old folks themselves.

My sons wouldn’t hear of it.

So I told them they’re free to resent their mother and me for having had to buy a house we couldn’t really afford at a price it wasn’t really worth during the housing bubble and for their mother’s having lost her job because some venture capitalists bought up her company and set out to make it “profitable” by gutting the workforce and she’s having trouble finding a new one probably because of her age and gender and I work in academia which when I started out was a comfortably middle-class profession but has since discovered the benefits of temp workers and wage slavery so we don’t have the money on hand at the moment to pay their way through college and they’ll have to take out loans.

I also told them they can resent us because the crash that followed the bubble devastated the 401k’s the middle class of our generation’s forced to fund in place of real pensions because the banksters and Wall Street wolves figured out that was a good first step towards getting their hands on all the money and so we probably won’t have a lot of dough to help them buy their own houses and put their kids through college when the time comes.

They wouldn’t hear of that either.

I told them what you wrote, about how for “decades they’ll be saddled with our effluvium: a monstrous debt, an epidemic of obesity, Adam Sandler movies” and how thanks to global warming “In their lifetimes the Atlantic will possibly swallow Miami Beach” and they should resent not just their grandparents and parents, but their aunts and uncles, their friends’ parents, most of their teachers and professors, a lot of their neighbors, the nice lady who cuts their hair, their favorite clerk at the convenience store who works there as his third job because he needs the money to help put his Millennials through school and on and on.

Well, I left out the Adam Sandler bit because they kind of liked him in Bedtime Stories.

But, know what? They still wouldn’t bite.

Instead they insist on resenting oil companies that have bought and paid for politicians to do nothing about global warming…

And Republicans in Congress who’ve voted to protect and extend the usurious student loan industry...

And extremely profitable corporations that resist hiring, deny raises, scrimp on benefits, and think laying off thousands of workers is the greatest good they can do for the economy…

And elitist politicians and members of the media who make too much to collect Social Security when the time comes insisting that the only way to save Social Security is to cut it drastically as opposed to, oh, say, raising taxes even a little bit on themselves and thus making sure their parents will have even less money in their old age to help them out in their middle age, which they will be spending worrying about how they’ll get through their old age because, you know, Social Security was cut at the insistence of the above mentioned elitist politicians and members of the media.

They also suggested that any apologies due them might come first from fawning journalists whose sycophantic coverage in 2000 helped elect the budget-busting, two-unpaid-for-wars-starting, let’s-make-privatizing-Social Security-a-thing George W. Bush whose idea of an environmentally responsible energy company was ENRON.

That’s the trouble with Millennials. They don’t know how to blame the wrong people.

Yours in abject apology,

Lance Mannion

PS. I know how it pains you to use the words Democrat and Republican in your columns. But the parties exist and they do stand for things or in the case of the Republicans stand against doing anything about the problems “we’re” leaving to the Millennials.

Also, you might get a kick out of reading Dean Baker’s evisceration of the what passes for economics behind the points you’re trying to make in your column about Medicare and Social Security, Frank Bruni Is Angry That the Government Pays 1000 Times as Much to Peter Peterson as It Does to the Average Kid.

(Psst. Baker’s post title is sarcastic.)


This post is adapted from a Twitter rant I went on the other day. Longtime blogging colleague and regular visitor to Mannionville, Jonathan Korman, who blogs at his own place Miniver Cheevy, did a great and remarkable and very kind thing: He Storify-ed that rant.

Lance Mannion on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in Newshounds, Where the money is | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)


(I wrote most of this post Wednesday morning intending to publish it by the afternoon. But you know how it goes.)

Always impressed by how journalists and pundits covering an election night can know what the results mean before the sun comes up and their last cup of coffee’s gone cold on their desk.

But lots of them know already what happened in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district Republican primary and why House Majority Leader lost to Tea Party challenger and “liberal college professor” Dave Brat.

They all know. They don’t all agree.

Which makes me suspect they’re all just giving it their best guess and trying to pass it off as “analysis”. Ain’t I the cynic?

My favorite guess, though, is that Cantor lost to a coalition of personal complacency and smart-aleck Democrats sneaking in to vote in the open primary.

Have to wait for the polls to see how much of an effect those sneaky Democrats had---it already appears not much---but complacency definitely cost him.

Cantor lost because he didn’t get enough votes. I mean, he and his campaign workers didn’t go out, round up their supporters, and bring them to the polls, and that includes Cantor himself. According to Ezra Klein, on primary day, Cantor wasn’t back home rallying the faithful. He was in Washington, fundraising for the general election in the fall. Brat got his voters out to vote. There weren’t a lot of them. Just enough of them.

Hmmm, says the Press Corps. Can’t be that simple. An election like this has to mean something or else why do we do we need political journalists?

Let’s find another narrative.

How about immigration reform?

The most commonly shared best guess that I’ve seen is that Cantor lost because he wasn’t sufficiently hardline on keeping out the you know whos.  That sounds like Cantor, doesn’t it?  “Give us your tired, your poor…”  If that’s the case, that voters in VA07 thought Eric Cantor was too welcoming, it goes to show that you can’t be angry enough, hateful enough, frightened enough to keep the love of the Republican Right Wing base, which is another way of saying the Tea Party faithful, who were supposed to have been chased back under their rocks by the sensible, reasonable, responsible, moderate, establishmentarian Republicans. I’ll get to that.


One thing there does seem to be universal agreement on, the secondary story here: Cantor’s defeat has shocked the folks back in Washington.

Nobody saw it coming.

His was supposed to be among the safest of safe seats.

Lindsey Graham, it was acknowledged, had some work cut out for him. Mitch McConnell too. But I’m not sure people in DC even noticed Cantor was being challenged in a primary. Like I said, Cantor acted like he didn’t notice either.

But I suspect another reason for the surprise, especially among pundits and journalists, is that the Tea Party uprising was, like I mentioned, supposed to have been put down by the sensible, responsible Republicans.

The pundits and the journalists know about polls showing the Tea Party’s unpopularity---they’ve heard of them, at any rate. I’m still not sure they bother to read polls even after Nate Silver showed them how it’s done with all his math and stuff back in 2012. But the fact appears to be that the Tea Party is unpopular everywhere except where it is popular.  You don’t have to read a lot of polls to figure that out.

You want to see the Tea Party in action? Get out of D.C.  Visit the states where Republicans control the state houses. All the craziness coming out of those places is not due to moderate establishmentarians fearlessly fighting to find common ground with Democrats.

Now look at who’s the current front-runner for the Republican nomination.

No, Mr Pundit, it’s not Jeb Bush.

It’s Ted Cruz.

But the Tea Party is on the run!

People know this because they’ve been told so…by sensible, responsible Republicans.

Like Mitch McConnell.

As if there is such a thing anymore as a sensible, responsible Republican.

I don’t know why, but the Washington Press Corps persists in believing there is and, like believers in ghosts for whom all houses turn out to be haunted, they keep finding them.

One thing that makes this easier is their definition of a sensible, responsible Republican apparently doesn’t include being responsible.

Responsible Republicans aren’t Republicans who vote responsibly on issues like combating global warming, balancing the budget, creating jobs, protecting women’s health and well-being, controlling gun violence, immigration reform, and so on. Responsible Republicans are Republicans who would, they swear, vote responsibly if only the Democrats would compromise by inventing positions for Republicans to take that were both responsible and still conservative, that is, that did not cost money, raise taxes, benefit the Democratic base, or, well, actually solve anything.

Basically, a responsible Republican is a Republican who can sound sincerely disappointed about how Republicans are given no choice by those Democratic bullies in Congress and the really arrogant one in the White House but to vote irresponsibly.

Then there’s that word moderate. It’s used as if it means “not guided entirely by ideology; willing to consider others’ points of view and compromise; not stubbornly partisan”. What it really is is a description of people who moderate. They moderate their voices. Moderate their rhetoric. Moderate their demeanors. It’s a way of saying without saying, “Here’s someone who won’t embarrass me by acting as if his politics and his views on a given issues matter.”

The political press loves this about these moderates because it helps them play the She said/He said game without having to think about what He actually said, and that, it turn, lets them continue in their fondest dream about what goes on in Washington, that it is a game.

They can go on with their sports reporting without having to take sides.

They can keep up their Both Sides Do It dodge. Both sides turn the ball over. Ball sides talk trash. Both sides steal signs. Both sides do everything they can to win. Both sides have star players who can be cast as heroes or villains. Both sides are just playing for a trophy.

So the sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans told them the Tea Party was no longer a worry, and they swallowed it.

Never mind how those sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans actually vote.

Never mind that they rarely and barely say boo when one of their Tea Party colleagues or nominally fellow Republicans in Congress or back home says something like non-Christians are damned or homosexuals should be stoned to death.

Never mind that how sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans have beat back Tea Party challengers by un-moderating their rhetoric and championing views that are decidedly not sensible or responsible.

Never mind that the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and the presumed next Speaker of the House was a Tea Party darling until he was deemed to be not Right Wing enough.

You’d think by now worshippers in the Church of the Savvy would have savvied that the Tea Party was not a spontaneous grassroots uprising of regular folks riled up by Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant against the irresponsible borrowers he blamed for crashing the economy and infuriated by the passage of the ACA.  It was a well-financed, well-thought out, well-organized mobilization of forces already at work within the Republican Party making it the party of Right Wing Reaction. Tea Party types and sympathizers didn’t give up and go home. They were home. Are home. And they didn’t give up. They won.

Dave Brat isn’t just a Tea Party hero. He’s an up and coming Republican star.


This is interesting but probably academic. (Academic! Get it? I’m talking about Dave Brat who’s a college professor!) Brat ran a vociferously anti-banker, anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate money in politics populist campaign.  He tied it in with the usual Tea Party rage against immigrants, but in sound, feeling, and, possibly, principle, it was old-fashioned populism of the kind that gives the elites of both parties nightmares.

And in this post at the New Yorker, David Brat, the Elizabeth Warren of the Right, Ryan Lizza writes that Brat’s message is being “embraced by Tea Party candidates around the country.”

I’ll believe it when I see it, but wouldn’t it be something?

The Tea Party Types have been steadily adding to their list of the people relegated to the status of THEM, the THEM who are not US and are responsible for whatever’s wrong with America at the moment, and it would be funny if they’ve finally hit on a THEM who are in fact responsible, the banksters and fraudsters of Wall Street and their pet journalists and bought and paid for politicians of both parties.

There are progressives looking for reasons to Stand With Rand. Maybe we’ll start seeing Tea Party types who want to Start Roarin’ With Warren!

That’s not me making my best guess, of course, or even a wild guess.

That’s me dreaming.


Pierce will believe it when he sees it too:


From Vox: 12 things to know about Dave Brat.

At the New York Times, Trip Gabriel and Richard Perez-Pena does a compare and contrast between Brat and his Democratic opponent in the fall, Jack Trammell, who is also his fellow professor at Randolph-Macon College and teammate on a faculty basketball team.

Kevin Drum agrees that the Tea Party has won, but he as he sees it that means FoxNews has won too.

More on Right Wing populism from digby, The American right wing populist strain was perfectly realized in David Brat's campaign.

Lance Mannion on Friday, June 13, 2014 in Newshounds, Smoke-filled rooms | Permalink


Friday, February 28, 2014

Raylan’s hat and the secret of our success

You don’t need me to tell you Justified is a Western with cars and cell phones and quicker reloads after eruptions of gunfire. It’s one of the best TV Westerns ever. Better than Deadwood. Almost as good as Lonesome Dove. It’s so good a Western that it’s easy for me to see it in my head as an actual Western with horses and six-shooters and the characters getting around their reliance on cell phones with visits to conveniently located telegraph offices and the introduction of a Cheyenne teenager named Rides Like the Wind.

Since Justified was based on Elmore Leonard’s crime novels not his Westerns---although the latter always informed the former which is how Raylan Givens came to be. He moseyed out of Leonard’s imagination into the wrong sort of novels. That was the joke. Raylan wasn’t just a man out of his time. He was out of his genre.--- Justified was always going to be set in the present.  But imagine if somewhere along the line in its development someone with the power to make it happen said, Hell with this pretending we’re doing something we’re not. Let’s make this a real Western.

Show probably would have failed before it finished its first season.

I say that not because Westerns are doomed to fail but because almost all new TV shows are doomed to fail and quickly. The ones that don’t are flukes and it’s usually hard to say what they have the failures didn’t. Good writing, good acting, lots of shows that came and went had those. The right star in the right role? That must have a lot to do with it. Bad shows succeed because of that. Justified sure has that going for it in Timothy Olyphant.

But I’d argue it’s not just Olyphant.

It’s the hat.

Justified Raylan's hat The way he wears it.

Same difference, though.

Rarely gets lauded to the degree it should, but good acting isn’t just saying the lines well or, sorry Spencer Tracy, all done with the eyes. It includes how you move. How you handle a prop. How you pull off a piece of business. How you wear your costume. How you wear your hat. Olyphant makes the hat work. The hat makes Raylan.

The producers and writers are well aware of this and make use of it. Maybe too aware. There was a stretch there when they were in danger of over-using it. Then they almost went wrong the other way and made serious moves towards getting rid of the hat. Fortunately, they snapped out of it. The hat is too important or, I should say, Olyphant does too good a job with it, carrying off an affectation that ought to mark him as a doofus and would mark almost any other lawman or man (or actor) who tried it as a doofus. It’s key to Raylan’s character and his appeal that he---Raylan, but of course Olyphant too---makes the hat work.


But here’s the thing.

If Justified had been a conventional Western, the hat would have been a lot harder to use as it’s used because all the men and some of the women would have been wearing cowboy hats too. Olyphant would have had to wear his hat better than all his co-stars who would have had to wear their hats well because you can’t have an entire supporting cast of characters who look like doofuses in their sombreros and ten-gallon Stetsons. Boyd Crowder would have had to look cool in his. Tim Gutterson would have had to too. If the producers decided to go the Calamity Jane route with the part of Deputy Brooks, Erica Tazel would have had to look as good in hers as Paula Wiegert looked in hers on Deadwood, otherwise, the male actor who replaced her would have had to look good in his.

Marshal Art Mullen---Marshal not Chief Deputy Marshal. In a traditional Western, you don't bother with bureaucratic nicities and Chief Deputy would be dropped from Art's job title---Marshall Art Mullen would have had to look good in a cowboy hat too and so Nick Searcy who plays Art is lucky Justified isn’t a real Western because I can’t see him looking good in a cowboy hat. He doesn’t seem to have the head for it. His face is too small and narrow. His ears stick out. His eyes are little and would get lost in the shadow of the brim. His jawline is blurred by his jowls. Hats make men look older and Searcy already looks old for his age. I think a cowboy hat would make him look like an old coot of the Walter Brennan type, either that or like Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles, sinister but kind of dumb, and Art may be a bit cranky verging on the curmudgeonly but he’s not an old coot and he’s not dumb. How he’d have looked in a cowboy hat might have cost Searcy the part.

As it is, something along those lines really might have cost him the part. Might have cost someone else the part. Seemingly trivial things like how they look in a hat or look when they take one off cost actors jobs all the time. Look left when the casting director thinks it would have been more effective to look right or up or down or straight ahead or left but quicker or slower, take the hat off or put it back on a beat too soon or too late, put all your weight on it as you lean on a desk, be somehow unconvincing lighting up a cigarette, appear somehow out of place standing next to a potential co-star or a horse or a car or a mailbox and the next words you hear will be “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Searcy’s lucky he got the part at all. He’s lucky he still has it, that the producers haven’t decided to kill Art off. They’re a pretty ruthless bunch, and I imagine Raymond J. Barry who plays---played---Raylan’s father Arlo agrees and is wishing he’d been as lucky as Searcy. I think Searcy’s terrific as Art and he’s part of what makes Justified fun for me. But I don’t think I’d miss him much if Art disappeared, and I mean Searcy and his character. And I doubt if he hadn’t lucked out and gotten the part very many fans of the show would be saying to themselves, This guy playing Art is ok, but you know who they really should have gotten for the part? Nick Searcy!

Lucky guy, then, Searcy.

Lucky as you have to be to succeed as an actor, luck carries you only so far. You have to be talented, hard-working, and smart, at least smart about the way you approach a part, and Searcy is talented and smart in that way and maybe other ways as well, and I assume he’s hard-working or no one would want to work with him.

He’s also a Right Wing loon.

Not that that matters.

An actor or an artist’s politics doesn’t affect my judgment of his work or my enjoyment. Clint Eastwood is easy. Robert Downey Jr’s post-prison conversion to Republicanism doesn’t change my opinion that he is one of the best movie actors among the current crop of leading men and I look forward to his appearance in a movie as much or more than I do some very liberal favorites like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Tom Hanks.

Robert Duvall, James Woods, Jon Voight---I admire them all.

Kelsey Grammar I have a harder time with these days, not because he’s a Republican blowhard, but because he’s a despicable human being.

So I don’t care how Nick Searcy votes or what his politics are. It makes no difference to me that he’s a Right Wing loon.

What’s depressing is how I know he’s a right wing loon.

Through Twitter.

Searcy has an active and lively Twitter presence as the online equivalent of the loudmouth at the end of the bar trying to pick a fight with the guy he’s decided is the weakest in the room.

Searcy’s routine is to bait foolish and humorless liberals into engaging with him by tweeting outrageous and offensive nonsense, insult, belittle, and bully them when they do, then step back to accept the applause of other Right Wing loons among followers who think I know you are but what am I is an argument-demolisher no one ever sees coming.

If you want a sample of Searcy all a-twitter, Tony Ortega is happy to oblige with this post at Raw Story, ‘Justified’ actor Nick Searcy asked us not to call him a ‘Teabagger,’ ‘Ultra-Con,’ or ‘Bigot’ in this headline.

You’ll notice Searcy is offended when liberals sneer at him using terms along the lines of Right Wing loon, which is amusing considering one of his favorite terms of endearment for people who disagree with him politically is pussies.

Now, for all I know, this is one big goof on Searcy’s part. He might be just trying to build his brand. He has a series of comic videos on YouTube called Acting School With Nick Searcy whose central joke is that Nick Searcy, "international film and television star"  is a clueless egomaniac too full of himself to notice he’s not as smart, talented, ingratiating, or worth emulating as he brags of being. His Twitter self could just be a version of his YouTube self. His Twitter profile includes what could be a wink and an elbow to the ribs: "All new followers must proceed directly to Acting School with Nick Searcy before addressing me."

I’d like to think he's being funny. Trying to be funny. I’d like to think a successful and admired fifty-four year international film and television star has an at least financial reason for adopting the persona of a twenty year old frat boy still smarting from the B he got from a professor he’s convinced had it in for him because of his brave and bold political incorrectness.

But Searcy seems a little too convincing at it, a little too pleased with himself, a little too happy about it. So I just feel I have no choice but to take him for what he makes himself out to be, a Right Wing loon and a loudmouthed jerk with no idea of how better to spend his time than play around at being an asshole on Twitter.

Judging by the sampling from Ortega’s post, Searcy’s new tactic is to beat up his opponents with the fact he’s rich and famous and they’re just a bunch of nobodies.

The proof that he’s right and you’re not, you’re a pussy, is that he’s Nick Searcy and you’re not or, rather, he’s Art Mullen and you’re not.

It’s his version of If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

He’s rich, richer than your average college professor, anyway; highly successful compared to most people and almost all other actors who spend the bulk of their careers waiting for callbacks for TV commercials instead of having regular gigs on popular TV series; and he’s famous, among fans of Justified, if nobody else. And his point is that since he’s all those things and you’re none of those things, you’re just a nobody and a pussy, he must be smarter than you and if he is---and he is. See above.---then he’s automatically right in all things and you, well, you don’t even matter enough to be thought wrong.

But he’s not that rich or successful or famous compared to his own co-stars, let alone to the likes of George Clooney. And if being rich, successful, and famous decides all political arguments in favor of the richest and most successful and most famous party to the debate, then Searcy’s lost every fight with Clooney before he’s even entered the ring. Before he’s left the locker room. Before he even thought of going to the gym. It would be fun, though, to dare him to walk up to Clooney at a party and call him a pussy. The fun being in watching him not doing it. I’m assuming he has enough common sense and instinct for self-preservation not to do that, not necessarily that he’s a coward.

But if Searcy believes what he appears to believe, then he’d probably be glad to concede the argument to Clooney because the point is not Liberalism versus Conservatism. It’s power, them that’s got it and them that ain’t.

Allowing that Clooney’s wealth, success, and fame make him right in all things including his decisions on whether, how, and when to throw his weight around and bully the less rich, less successful, and less famous gives the likes of Nick Searcy permission to think themselves right in all encounters with people less etc than they are and bully them.

It hardly matters. Searcy himself hardly matters, as a spokesman for Right Wing lunacy, at any rate. He’s just a celebrity, a relatively minor one at that, and his days as even a minor celebrity are fleeting---Justified’s producers have announced next season will be the show’s last. What are the odds he'll land another role as good as Art Mullen on another series as good as Justified?  Given his age, he'll likely begin winding down his career with a succession of guest starring roles of diminishing importance on shows and in movies of diminshing quality and what's he going to be saying on Twitter when he's seventy and feeling lucky to have one line on this week's episode of a sitcom that's already been cancelled?  But what do I know? He could strike lucky again. Again, doesn't matter.  The height of his political influence will be when his name shows up in the inevitable lists of Hollywood types who support Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (These days, Searcy is for Cruz.) versus those who support Hillary Clinton, adding to the general and mostly correct impression that all the really cool kids vote Democratic.

Like I said, I half-suspect Searcy's kidding around. The offline politics are real but the Twitter character is a joke.  The troubling fact is that Searcy is echoing rich and successful types who aren't joking and who do influence policy and the economy and who do believe that their wealth and success makes them right in all things and therefore they should be put in charge of running the country without question or check. The rest of us can just like it or lump it but whichever keep our mouths shut and our heads down, do what we’re told, and put up with and be grateful for whatever our betters decide we deserve.

Which is not much.

If we were deserving of wealth, success, status, and power, we’d have already earned it. Like them.

The Corporatist Right and its political flunkeys and media apologists have been growing more and more outspoken and active in their efforts to not just refuse to share any more of the wealth but to deny even more of it to the rest of us. And fundamental to their argument is that their money and success gives them the right to rule. Just the fact they have the money proves they deserve it. It shows they were favored by God or Nature, marks them as superior. Our superiors.

Equally fundamental is their belief that they earned it, every penny of it, all on their own, with no help from anyone, certainly none from the government, least of all from the people who did the real, hard, and often dangerous labor required to run the machines, dig the mines, grow the food, build the roads, maintain the offices, ship the goods, keep the peace, and mind the stores necessary to their money-making enterprises actually making money.

They tell themselves and each other I did build this! when mostly what they did was take advantage of what thousands, millions of others sweated, died, and went broke and broke their hearts building. But according to themselves, it was all their own individual doing, no one else contributed anything but cost, and luck had nothing to do with it.

This is a lie, of course, and it would be easy to show it up as lie if only there was the equivalent of imdb.com for bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and other suit-wearers fancying themselves real-life John Galts. Then the course of their luck would be trackable and the names of the people who helped them and those folks’ exact contributions could be listed, as is the case with actors like Nick Searcy.

I said I can’t picture Searcy looking good in a cowboy hat, but thinking it over I can see him in a bowler pushed back raffishly from his forehead. If Justified had been a traditional Western, it would have been someone’s job to picture him in the right headgear, find it for him, and show him how to wear it to his advantage.

Justified Art in his office Tombstone As it is, his looking the part on camera is still someone else’s job---several someone elses’ jobs. Actors on TV shows don’t design their own costumes. They’re usually not responsible for their make-up. They don’t light themselves, don’t position the cameras. They don’t fill in the backgrounds around them. Maybe it was Searcy’s idea to hang the poster for Tombstone on Art’s office wall but probably not.

And all these people responsible for Searcy’s success every week are knowable. Their names are in the credits.

Searcy is enjoying his current success because he’s talented, because he’s hard-working, and because a whole bunch of other talented and hard-working people are good at their jobs. He is where he is because an even more talented guy, Elmore Leonard, wrote a novel called Pronto twenty years ago. He is where he is because Justified’s showrunner Graham Yost has been brilliant at translating Leonard’s style and vision to television. He is where he is because someone noticed in time that Walton Goggins had made the slated to be killed off in the pilot Boyd Crowder not just a character worth keeping around but a character that could be the show’s second lead. He is where he is because Margo Martindale’s performance as Mags Bennett in the show’s second season lifted Justified to a near Sopranos-Breaking Bad-Lonesome Dove level of tragedy.

He is where he is because a partnership of other talented, hard-working, and very likely richer people have the money to pay him handsomely to come into work a few days a week a few months out of the year to pretend to be somebody too busy, too smart, too responsible, and too grown-up to waste his time getting into silly fights and throwing tantrums on Twitter, a character who is also, by the way, not rich and not famous and not notably impressed by anyone who is.

He is where he is because a whole lot of nobodies and pussies tune into Justified each week for a number of pleasures one of which is Art Mullen as played by Nick Searcy.

Mainly, though, he is where he is and what he is because Timothy Olyphant knows how to wear a hat.

And something similar can be said about all of us, including the rich Right Wing corporatists who want to return us to feudalism and make an aristocracy of themselves and a peasantry of the rest of us because the money they’ve piled up proves their superiority.

We’re all where we are because somewhere along the way we were lucky enough to get help from someone who knew how to wear a hat.

Hat tip to TBogg for the heads up on Ortega's post.

Updated with Justified contempt and disgust: If Searcy's Twitter persona is a joke, it's a joke that's gone way too far.  But I don't think he's kidding. I think he's worse than I thought. Adam Baldwin is no prize either.

Lance Mannion on Saturday, February 22, 2014 in Rants 2010-2013, Too Much TV |

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big man in a suit of armor

Iron Man 3 is out on DVD. Here’s my review from when it was in the theaters this past spring.


Iron Man beside himself:  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark feeling less than invincible as he contemplates what else he is without his suit of armor besides a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, and wonders if he’s up to that job in Iron Man 3.

Maybe it’s the painkillers talking, but I’m about to write a review of Iron Man 3 arguing it’s a two hour commentary on Pixar’s The Incredibles.

This isn’t a joke. After all, The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made, right up there with Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and the original Iron Man. Every superhero movie ought to be able to stand up to comparisons of one type or another with it.

No matter where I go with this, I will not be arguing that Pepper Potts is sexier than Mrs Incredible.

But think about it. Syndrome is a version of Iron Man. Both owe their powers to available technology which means both are walking, flying, fighting advertisements for the notion that anybody can be a superhero. Syndrome not only embraces the idea, he intends to peddle it. Tony Stark rejects it, but what is it Cap says to him in The Avengers?

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

And that’s the big question. What makes Iron Man a “super” and not merely a spoiled man-child playing with a lot of cool toys he’s invented?

What makes a “super” a superhero is one of the themes of The Incredibles. It’s the theme of the Tony Stark/Iron Man arc in the Avengers series.

Iron Man 3 is the story of Tony Stark trying to answer for himself the challenge Captain America put to him in The Avengers:

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Stark’s comeback, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” is funny but empty, because it’s missing a word.


Or even just hero.

Stark tries to get back at Cap by calling him a lab rat and belittling his powers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Which shows that he must never have read his father’s notes on the Super-Soldier project.

We know, from Captain America: The First Avenger, that everything special about Steve Rogers was already in him. That’s why Dr Erskine picked him. The serum just brought it to the surface. At heart and in his soul and to the physical degree he was capable of, Steve Rogers was already Captain America.

Iron Man 3 is one of the better-made of all the movies in the Avengers series. But I left the theater feeling strangely let down and anxious and…lonely.

Alienated might be the better word.

This ennui surprised me because I thought I had been enjoying the movie while I was watching it. Mulling it over afterwards, I got half way to concluding I’d just been put off by the obligatory ad for the video game that’s become the standard climactic battle of every Marvel superhero movie. At least this one varies from the endings of Spider-Man 3, both Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. It doesn’t take place in the city streets full of crowds of screaming civilians running pointlessly to and fro while cars and trucks blow up around them and pieces of buildings rain down on their heads. But it’s confused, directionless, repetitive, purposeless in that it doesn’t build toward a satisfying confrontation between our hero and the villain, it just keeps throwing up more obstacles between them until the director and his stunt coordinator run out of gags and the whole thing just sort of times out, nihilistic, perfunctorily violent for violence’s sake, visually ugly, boring, and ultimately just another big noisy mess, and it’d have been no wonder if it was what had soured me on the film.

But then I realized that all the battle had done was dampen the sense of fun to the point that I was left feeling more strongly something I’d been feeling all along.


And it dawned on me that Iron Man 3 is in fact a sad story about the losses that come when you reach a certain age and you turn around and realize you are now the grown-up in the room and everybody around you is relying on you and you have no one to rely on yourself in the same way, because all the grown-ups you used to count on are gone from your life.

In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Tony Stark behaved as if he didn’t need anybody and nobody really needed him. Being a superhero was just something he did to amuse himself. In The Avengers he got a lesson in teamwork. He found out he couldn’t go it alone. The question was going to be whether the lesson would take.

Maybe we’ll get the answer to that in The Avengers 2. In Iron Man 3, Tony learns something else, that he was never as alone as he’d always thought and prided himself on being. But he learns it by finding himself suddenly very much alone. And he learns it while also learning that being a superhero isn’t something he can do for kicks. It’s something he’s obligated to do because other people need him to be one. And he learns that when as it happens he doesn’t have his superpowers.

Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what is he?

Jeez. No wonder Tony’s so sad. And since he’s still played by Robert Downey, his sadness is profound and convincing and, at least for me, infectious.

This is the first Iron Man---the first Avengers---movie without a certifiable grown-up, good or evil, to guide, advise, support, or challenge the hero, or, as Stark has always taken advantage of, mother, father, big brother or sister him. Agent Coulson is dead. Nick Fury is off doing whatever it is he’s doing with Cap in The Winter Soldier, along with Black Widow. Jim Rhodes is busy trying to chase down the super-terrorist known as the Mandarin. Happy Hogan’s in the hospital. Jarvis, Stark’s cyber-assistant and alter-ego, has been knocked out of commission. And, while Pepper Potts lives to take care of Tony, the trouble coming his way is way beyond her skill set and it isn’t long before she’s in no position to take care of him in any way.

Even Iron Man is out of the picture for much of the picture.

That is, if you accept that it’s the armor that makes Tony Stark Iron Man and not Stark who makes the armor something more than a machine.

Stark’s tried and true suits of armor have disappeared in the rubble of his house after the Mandarin’s minions leveled it in a helicopter attack and the one suit he has left is a prototype designed to assemble itself telekinetically but it has a few bugs in its program so that at the moment it’s much better at disassembling itself. It has a habit of short-circuiting and falling apart on him and eventually, instead of carrying Tony through the air, Stark is hauling it through the snow on a makeshift litter.

Tony is left to save himself, save his friends, save the President, save the country, and save the day all on his own, and it’s not a job he feels at all up to.

Iron Man 3 isn’t about learning that with great power comes responsibility. It’s about learning that with responsibility you don’t have enough power to take care of everybody you’re responsible for and yet you still have to try to take care of them.

In Iron Man 3, we get to see Tony doing things he hasn’t had to do before---think seriously about what he’s up to, doubt himself, ask for help---and not doing things and being things he’s used to doing and being. He has to not be so full of himself, not deflect criticisms, not shrug off or joke away feelings. In short, he has to act like an adult. Since he regards all this adult behavior as a drag (and an assault on who he thinks he is), he is add odds with himself in a way he hasn’t been before, consciously.

And he’s not sure whose side he’s on.

He jumps back and forth, but either way he jumps he treats himself as he’s been in the habit of treating everybody, dismissively, with impatience, with a general lack of sympathy, with offhand contempt, and as the deserving object of his meanest jokes.

And this means we get to see Robert Downey doing something he hasn’t had do to often in the series, play it straight. He gives us a Tony Stark who’s sober, somber, sorrowful, afraid, and…lonely.

It’s disconcerting. And of course Downey does it all very well. Maybe too well. Which it’s why it’s like I said earlier. Infectious.

Nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 undid that for me.

Since Tony is on his own throughout much of the movie, Downey is on his own too. He has some fun moments in the early going with Jon Favreau as an unhappy Happy Hogan and a funny scene with a couple of the villains’ henchmen who let themselves get a little cocky after making the mistake of thinking that Tony Stark without his armor is just a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. But his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes are mostly a matter of their focusing together on the same spots on the green screens. All his best work with the Rebecca Hall as a sexy scientist with a secret and Guy Pearce as an unsexy scientist with a bigger secret is over and done with in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

And when Stark at last confronts the Mandarin, Downey’s main job is to hang back and feed Ben Kingsley pieces of scenery to devour.

The closest then Downey has to a co-star to really share a scene with is eleven year old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley Keener, a fatherless middle-schooler with access to a workshop Tony commandeers to try to repair his recalcitrant suit of armor after it crashlands in the woods outside Harley’s small town in Tennessee.

Harley is a budding engineering genius in his own right and desperately in need of a father-figure, so naturally he takes to hero-worshipping Tony right away, something the old Tony would have enjoyed as his due but at the moment, beaten up from within by self-doubt and self-recrimination and not in the mood to hear what a swell guy he is, something he doesn’t feel he deserves. This has Tony brushing off Harley’s attempts at friendship which allows Downey to deliver some of the most acerbic anti-child acting since W.C. Fields last said, “Go away, son, you bother me.”

If you’re thinking that Tony and Harley sound a little like they're paralleling Mr Incredible and Buddy Pine at the beginning of The Incredibles, then you’re thinking along the same lines I’m thinking, but you’re ahead of me. I’ll catch up.

Downey and Keener make a good team, but given that Tony is divided against himself, Downey is really his own main co-star and mostly left alone to play against himself. Which means we finally get to see Tony Stark/Iron Man in the full Hamlet mode that’s the signature emotional state of Marvel’s superheroes.

This doesn’t mean he’s all gloom and doom. Like Hamlet, Downey’s Stark is still quick with a joke and, since the suit of armor’s been taken away, we get to see him (Downey and Stark) do something else we haven’t really seen him do yet, play the action hero. And Downey has a ball with it. As is the case with any great movie star, the man can move.

Stark is in good shape and he’s had training that’s made him a martial arts expert, but he’s no Captain America without his armor. What he is, though, is a genius. That’s his superpower: his ability to think and invent and build on the fly or, since the suit’s out of commission and he’s grounded, on the run.

He has to MacGyver his way through various challenges and around obstacles and past dangers and out of all kinds of trouble, and, as he showed in his last three outings as Tony, Downey is a genius at playing a genius. He doesn’t just look and sound smart, he moves smart. As a scientist, he’s poetry in motion. As an engineer, he’s a dancer and a painter, a musician and a performance artist. He makes the act of creating look creative.

Of course, what we’re really seeing is if without the suit of armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man.

There’s always been a distant allusion to the Tin Man of Oz in the Iron Man myth, the working and survival and metaphorical existence of Tony’s heart being always and often literally an open question. Tony’s brain is what powers and empowers the armor, but what the suit needs is a heart. The Stark chapters of the Avengers series have been about the search for Iron Man’s heart.

But in Iron Man 3, there’s one more missing element Tony has to find.


Tony has never been a fraidy cat. But that’s not the same as saying he’s been courageous. What’s to be afraid of when you’re the Invincible Iron Man?

But it’s not physical courage he needs. He has plenty of that, although with him it’s a fine line between bravery and a recklessness born of pure vanity. Tony needs to find the moral courage to accept grown-up responsibility for other people even though he doubts he has the strength or the wisdom necessary for the job.

Ok. This has gone too far down the Yellow Brick Road. Let’s back up so I can get back to The Incredibles.

In most superhero movies and most action-adventure movies in which the supposedly normal hero is in effect a superhero, the villain drives the plot in one of two ways.

Either he’s just going about his business as a supervillain and his scheme to control or destroy whatever he feels he needs to control or destroy is really just an excuse to show our hero acting heroically.

Or it’s personal. For one reason or another he has it in for our hero. His schemes to control or destroy are just ruses to draw our hero into a trap and, of course, force him to act heroically.

Sometimes the two get combined. Things get personal because our hero gets in the villain’s way and the villain’s feelings are hurt by that.

In The Incredibles it’s the second situation. It’s very personal for Syndrome. But with this variation. It’s the hero’s fault.

This is where things can start to border on the tragic or, at least, on the grown-up. Sometimes it’s personal because the hero has, to one degree or another, helped bring about the evil he has to confront and defeat.

And in effect, this puts our hero in conflict with himself.

Kind of goes without saying that The Incredibles isn’t a tragedy. Neither is Iron Man 3. And neither one is really intended for grown-ups. But it’s definitely an important theme of both movies. And The Incredibles does a better job of developing it and resolving it.

Both movies begin with our heroes making the same potentially tragic mistake. They reject offers of help from characters they make clear they regard as not worth their time or attention.

Stark does it with less reason and more cruelty and with a gratuitous demonstration of open contempt. But the effect is the same. The characters whose help they reject return to threaten everyone they love and they return having reinvented themselves as evil shadows of our heroes.

And their intention isn’t simply to destroy our heroes.

It’s to replace them.

Syndrome wants to be the superhero. Iron Man 3’s villain wants to be…Tony Stark.

They’re also in it for the money, of course. But that’s gravy. Mainly what they’re after is the sense of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction Mr Incredible expressed in rejecting Buddy’s application to be his sidekick. “I work alone” means I don’t need anybody else. But it also means “I get to take all the credit and reap all the rewards.”

Mr Incredible can only triumph by recognizing the mistake he made that brought Syndrome into existence and rectifying it. He has to face up to the fact that he can’t work alone and, not only is this well played-out in the dialog, it’s resolved in the climactic battle.

That’s what makes The Incredibles far more satisfying in the end.

That and that Syndrome is just a much better written villain with a far more interesting and sexy sexy henchwoman.

Also, Iron Man 3 has no Edna Mode.

The Incredibles gives Mr Incredible time---and better dialog---in which to realize what’s he done and face up to the consequences.

Tony does realize his mistake but he and we have very little time to process it before the video game boots.

And the big noisy mess that’s the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 3 doesn’t play out as a confrontation between Tony Stark and his own evil shadow.

That might have contributed to let down at the end. I think there was something else, though.

So, Iron Man 3 isn’t as good as The Incredibles. But how does it stack up against the other Avengers movies?

Pretty well. I’d rank them this way. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.

But it’s getting to where asking which movie you think is best is like asking which chapter of a novel you liked best. All the chapters share in a fan’s affection for being part of the same book, and that’s the point. Iron Man is now thoroughly part of the Avengers series and I missed the other Avengers, Cap most of all. Not just because I’ve always liked him the best, but because his story is still ongoing.

Tony’s almost certainly going to be back for The Avengers 2 and probably for an Iron Man 4, and there’s already talk of recasting when Robert Downey decides to take off the armor for good. But really Stark’s and Iron Man’s story was completed in The Avengers and in a very real way Iron Man 3 is about driving that home---the story is done and it’s time to say farewell.

So maybe that’s what I was feeling at the end. A sense of loss.

It’s over and I’m going to miss this Iron Man.


Yes, Stan Lee’s back for another cameo, and, yes, you should sit all the way through the end credits.


The Incredibles, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet?  Really, Lance?  Of course. What else would you expect from the English professor who reviewed The Avengers as a commentary on the Knights of the Round Table?


Like I said up top, as much as I like Gwyneth, Mrs Incredible is far sexier than Pepper Potts. But know what else? Much as I like Don Cheadle? No way the Iron Patriot is as cool as Frozone.


Saturday Matinee update: I'm not the only one who saw references to The Incredibles.  Via Oliver Mannion: How Iron Man 3 Should Have Ended. Probably you shouldn't watch if you haven't seen the movie. Spoilers, of course, but also the jokes won't work if you don't know the film.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyenth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Paul Bettany, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, and Ben Kingsley. Now in available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Company Robert Redford Keeps

Mannion Family Movie Night!

TCYK Grant and Lewis

“We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” Jim Grant, a former 60s radical back on the run from the FBI after decades underground, turns for help to his rival, antagonist, and friend from his college days, Professor Jed Lewis, a one-upon-a-time campus activist now a celebrity academic who wants nothing to do with him or their shared past in The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford with Redford as Grant and Richard Jenkins as Lewis leading an ensemble of great character actors and stars playing against type in a group portrait of people bound together by a decades-old crime.

Early in Robert Redford’s often thrilling but not all that political political thriller, The Company You Keep, Susan Sarandon, as a once-upon-a-time 60s radical recently arrested after thirty-odd years underground, tries to explain herself to a hotshot young newspaper reporter come to interview her in jail.

She begins her attempt to make him understand why she did what she did all those years ago and why she’s done what she’s now done by asking him if he has children.

The reporter, Ben Shepard (played by Shia LaBeouf), grins a calculatedly charming self-deprecating grin you know he’s applied to have patented and is working on bottling for sale.

“I barely have furniture,” he says.

It's a revealing line. Not so much of his character. For Shepard it's just a reflexive joke. It doesn't mean much. He's caught up in the fun and excitement of being a hotshot young reporter. He's not given any real thought to marriage, family, or his future beyond the next big scoop, and he's not about to start thinking about any of that now, not while he's in the middle of chasing this scoop, at any rate.

But one of the themes of The Company You Keep is that having children makes conservatives of us all.

This being a movie directed by Robert Redford, conservative means law-abiding, job-holding, tax-paying decent-minded, do-gooding liberals working within the system to make it better as opposed to radicals and revolutionaries working to destroy it from outside.

TCYK Solarz busted 2 Sarandon plays Sharon Solarz, a now wife and mother of two college-aged children who as a die-hard member of the Weathermen more than a generation ago took part in a bank robbery during which a security guard was shot and killed. The FBI has been looking for her and her accomplices for decades. One of those accomplices, the actual shooter, is long dead. Another, the gang’s leader of the moment, Mimi Lurie, has gone so deep underground that none of her former friends in Weather know where to even begin to look for her. But the third, Nick Sloan, Mimi’s lover at the time, has been hiding in plain sight, living as a lawyer named Jim Grant near Albany, New York, and in the course of investigating Solarz’ story, Shepard stumbles on a connection between her and Grant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that that connection is something more than that of lawyer to potential client. And it doesn’t take Grant long to figure out that Shepard has him figured out.

Sloan has been so successful at building a new identity for himself---one that besides a semi-public law career includes a late-in-life family. His wife has recently died, leaving him the sixty-something single father of a still grieving and emotionally fragile eleven year old daughter---that he no longer thinks of himself as Sloan.

But there’s something else he’s never thought of himself as.


He wasn’t in on the robbery.  That day Mimi had borrowed his car for the getaway and when the police found it after she’d abandoned of course they found Sloan’s fingerprints all over it and assumed he was the getaway driver.  But not only was he not there, by that time, Sloan had already distanced himself politically and morally from the Weathermen. The only reason he was still in the picture at all was Mimi.  He was hanging around out of love for her and for the sake of the someone else.

But even though Grant doesn’t think of himself as Nick Sloan, he has never stopped thinking of himself as a fugitive who might have to go back on the run at any moment.  He has always had plans for escape and when he realizes Shepard is about to expose him, he puts one of those plans into motion.  His intention, however, isn’t to disappear.  It’s to finally clear his name so he can keep his life as Jim Grant, not just for his own sake but the sake of his daughter who he knows isn’t up to losing a second parent in the course of a year.

Grant, then, is on a rescue mission to save his daughter.  He’s running to chase down the one person who can vouch for his innocence, and while he’s chasing Mimi, Shepard, chasing his big scoop, chases after him.

The politics and history of the 1960s and 70s are important to the backgrounds of the main characters, but they’re not important to the movie.  It’s a given that the war in Vietnam was immoral but also as a given that the Weathermen’s efforts to “bring the War home” were inexcusable and a betrayal of the anti-war movement’s principles.  As one of Grant’s rivals for campus leadership and Mimi’s affections back in the day (Richard Jenkins in a brilliant cameo) exasperatedly reminds him, “We were a peace movement, for Crissake!”  But The Company You Keep spends little time rehashing those old debates.  Politics is the Maguffin, the excuse for the chase.  The Company You Keep is a chase movie, and a pretty exciting chase movie at that. In parts it’s as exciting as The Fugitive and Redford's own Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game.

But the chase is itself a Maguffin, the excuse to paint serial portraits of people haunted individual and particular ways by their part in a crime. That the crime had a political nature only matters in that it lets them and us avoid thinking of Grant and Mimi and Solarz and their old friends and associates as run of the mill criminals and murderers.  The Company You Keep is about the company they kept and, out of love, loyalty, and complicity, still keep despite the distances of time and space that appear to have separated them.

As Grant/Sloan, Robert Redford is at the center of The Company You Keep, but as director the main job he’s given himself as actor is to lead the camera into scenes with his many co-stars and hold it there while they deliver the real goods.  Redford mostly just has to convince us he’s thinking his way through the problem of being on the run again and that he’s smart enough to stay one step ahead of Shepard and two steps ahead of the FBI.

Playing smart has always been one of his Redford’s strengths.

Back in the day, people thought Redford was unconvincing as Bob Woodward because he was too handsome to be a newspaper reporter. All these years later, now that we know Woodward better, Will Ferrell's performance as Woodward in Dick seems more true to life than Redford's in All the President's Men. Redford is unconvincing because he seems too smart.

Redford has often seemed too smart for the characters he's played. He has infused characters, who played by other actors wouldn't have been as smart, might even have been dumb, with a surprising and complicating intelligence making them not so much too smart for their own good but smart to their own perplexing. They know enough to know they should know more and suspect they would be happier knowing less. Sundance, Jay Gatsby, Hubbell Gardner. Even Bill McKay.

That intelligence is a problem here. It's not that the likes of Bernadine Dorn and Bill Ayers weren't smart. They were very smart. But they were also dumb in the way very smart people can be dumb, especially very smart young people who are also vain, egotistical, careless, and full of self-righteous purpose. They could persuade themselves that they were always smart, smart about everything, and therefore any idea they had must be a good idea. Smart as he can play it, Redford doesn’t come across as smart enough in that way to have been dumb enough in that way.  But there's another, offsetting quality to Redford's screen persona, a degree of passivity. Many of his characters are temperamentally drifters, carried along by whatever current they've happened to fall into until taken into tow by more active and driven personalities.

“I'll change.”

“No, don't change. You're your own girl, you have your own style.”

“But then I won't have you. Why can't I have you?”

“Because you push too hard, every damn minute. There's no time to ever relax and enjoy living. Every things too serious to be so serious.”

“If I push too hard it's because I want things to be better, I want us to be better, I want you to be better. Sure I make waves you have I mean you have to. And I'll keep making them till you’re everything you should be and will be. You'll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much as I do or to love you as much.”


"You know what you are, Paul? You're a watcher. There are watchers in this world and there are doers. And the watchers sit around watching the doers, do. Well, tonight you watched, and I did. "

"Well, it was a lot harder watching what you did than it was for you to do what I was watching!"


"You keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."

"I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."

Something to keep in mind when picturing his Gatsby standing at the edge of his lawn and feeling the pull of the green light the end of Daisy's dock.

But in The Company You Keep there's no Butch, no Corrie Bratter, no Katie Morosky.

There's supposed to be.

Maybe I'd have felt there was if Mimi had been played by someone else. Mimi is supposed to be the one still carrying the flame, the one who has not, at least in her own mind, made concessions to time, age, or history.  And I can think of two of Redford's former leading ladies who’d have fit the bill perfectly.

Jane Fonda.

Barbara Streisand.

The late Nathalie Wood would have been ideal. But, now, since she was already on hand, Susan Sarandon would have been fine in the part. (Sarandon was never one of his leading ladies but she was a minor love interest. Quick. Without checking Imdb. Name the movie.)

Instead it's Julie Christie playing what is more or less the femme fatale from Grant's and the other old men's shared past, and as wonderful as it always is to see Christie on screen, she's just too cool and aloof for a former planter of bombs and robber of banks and current smuggler of pot still breaking the law in the name of the Revolution.

Redford himself almost saves the day here.  We might not quite believe Christie’s Mimi was ever the force of nature who made smart men stupid enough to rob banks and plant bombs with her, but Redford makes us believe his Grant is the type of romantic who would do almost anything for the women he loves. (Something else to think about when thinking about his Gatsby.) Anything but something really, really stupid, which, as it turns out, is to the point.

All this, though, is by way of an aside to talking about the Redford who really matters to The Company You Keep.  Redford the director.

Somebody somewhere must have done a study of the influences on Redford’s work as a director of the directors he’s acted for, including George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, and Lasse Hallstrom, all of whose lessons pop up throughout The Company You Keep.  But I think just as important to Redford’s directing style is his time spent as an aspiring painter.  Before he turned to acting, Redford studied at the Pratt Institute of Art and lived the artist’s life in Paris, and it’s a painter’s eye that guides his camera. I don’t mean he thinks in terms of pretty pictures. I mean he works in illustrations.  His films are series of still lifes, landscapes, street scenes, single and small group portraits, and genre paintings. He creates people-scapes. He knows how to see his way through a crowd.  Large groups of people aren’t masses in motion for him, they are forms arranged around what we need to find or follow.

Movies are stories told in pictures. Redford likes to tell stories within pictures.

TCYK Shepard hits the wall 2There’s a shot of Sarandon in profile that perfectly translates into an image a line from the Neil Gordon novel The Company You Keep is based on---“Sharon Solarz, in person, was a handsome woman with thick black hair and a face that had aged hard, bringing out a certain pugnacity that would not, in my opinion, sit well with a jury.”---and a single shot of Redford and Richard Jenkins as a former student radical turned celebrity academic sitting on a bench in an art gallery tells us the whole story of these characters’ past rivalry, current animosity, and permanent bond of sympathy, loyalty, and respect.  And something similar is at work when LaBeouf’s reporter confronts Brendan Gleeson as a former FBI agent strangely indifferent to the solution of a case he began his career investigating.  He looms over LaBeouf like a wall of integrity, honesty, and secrecy Shepard can’t climb, break through, or get around, the only motion on Gleeson’s part the potential motion of his character’s picking up the reporter and tossing him off the dock they’re standing on.

Often there’s not a lot of movement in a single shot but there’ll still be a lot going on.  Redford creates tension through juxtapositions of shapes and shadows and he can imply an awful lot of motion simply by a small disturbance in the stillness:  The distant, solitary figure of Joe Mondragon scrambling up a dusty hill in The Milagro Beanfield War.  The flick of Paul’s wrist and then the curling through space of his fly and line in A River Runs Through It.  A finger pinning down the corner of a newspaper and then slowly dragging it across a countertop in The Company You Keep.

As an actor Redford has always had a good ear and an excellent sense of timing, and he brings both to his work as a director.  And he has a knack for putting together ensembles of great character actors and stars cast against type. Besides Sarandon, Christie, Jenkins, and Gleeson, The Company You Keep features features finely tuned, low-key performances by Terrence Howard as the implacable FBI agent chasing Grant, Stanley Tucci as Shepard's tough-talking but easily talked over and around editor, Chris Cooper as Grant 's doctor brother manipulated into having to make the sort of choice between what's lawful and what's right he avoided having to make back when he and his brother were in college and Grant's radicalism was tearing their family apart, and Stephen Root as a former pot farmer turned organic grocer who can't seem to believe his current business is legal any more than he could believe his former one was illegal.

My favorite, though, and possibly for sentimental reasons, is Nick Nolte as Grant's best friend from college who, even though they haven't seen each other in decades, is still cheerfully loyal and happily willing to risk everything to help his old friend in whatever way he can.

I got a special kick out of seeing Nolte and Redford together because I've always believed Nolte's career took off when some producer said, Get me a Redford type only one who looks like he'd be a little slower on the uptake and quicker to reach for a drink or a joint or to throw a punch.

The two have a nearly wordless scene together in a diner that sums up the dynamic of their characters' friendship and made me look forward to their upcoming  pairing in the adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods which I'd been mildly dreading.

But for me the most remarkable and surprising performance is LaBeouf's. I'd given up expecting him to follow through on the promise he showed in The Greatest Game Ever Played. This is the most relaxed I've seen him on screen since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In everything that's followed he's looked tense and headachy as if trying desperately to hear himself think through the din of The Transformers movies still pounding in his ears. But here it's as if the noise has finally faded and, able to concentrate again at last, he's not only remembered how to act but how acting can be fun.

It's also as if Redford has reminded him that there are other ways to be a leading man besides trying to be Harrison Ford Jr or, for that matter, a darker Robert Redford.  Or, rather, that the way to be like Ford or Redford is to not take himself too seriously.

LaBeouf is clearly having a good time playing Shepard as one of those annoyingly self-infatuated young men who enter every conversation convinced it won't be very long before you start finding them as charming as they find themselves.  These types are even more annoying when it turns out they're right. Shepard isn't half as adorable as he thinks you'll think he is, but he's adorable enough that a shy smile, a deliberately clumsy witticism, a widening of his big Bambi eyes will usually cause a source to open up, a boss to surrender, an old girlfriend to forgive and forget, and a potential new girlfriend to become very curious about what she'll be expected to forgive and forget.

It’s not surprising that he’s come to think of journalism as a contest between himself and a source, that good reporting is a matter of turning up the charm, and that point of getting a story is the he got it.

LaBeouf's Shepard comes across as heartless and careless, thanks, apparently, to an excess of vanity, ego, and ambition. And he is vain, egotistical, and ambitious. But so are most talented twentysomethings enjoying the fruits of early success. Shepard's real problem is that he has never had reason to question what he does professionally. As far as he knows, just being good at his job makes him one of the good guys. (Maybe it's an idea he picked up from movies like All the President's Men.) Very few stories come a reporter's way that will, if reported honestly and fully, ruin innocent people's lives. By the time the reporter gets there with an open notebook, those lives have already been ruined. The cars have crashed, the houses have burned, the shots have been fired, the bodies have fallen, and the cops have moved in.

Shepard is about to learn that there are other kinds of stories---and more to every kind of story---that can't be told honestly and fully in a newspaper. Reporters who learn that lesson too well quit and become David Simon.

The Company You Keep is Jim Grant’s adventure, but it’s Ben Shepard’s story in that, this time, getting the story means getting the point, at last.


For one of Redford’s best peoplescapes, see the scene in The Conspirator in which Lincoln’s body is carried out of Ford’s Theatre and through the crowd to the house where he will lie on what will be his deathbed.  Here’s my review of that one.

And here’s my review of The Guard, an Irish comic thriller that stars Brendan Gleeson as a very different sort of lawman than he plays in The Company You Keep.

The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Julie Christie, and Nick Nolte. Now available on DVD and to watch instatnly at Amazon.