Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

Small Museums, Big Pleasures: South Bend, Youngstown, Cincinnati

It’s easy to love The Met, the Smithsonian, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Getty, and the nation’s many other Major Museums. But really? Are you always up for eight or nine hours of that? You don’t have to visit one of these demanding (time, energy, and $$) enterprises to have a rewarding museum experience. Smaller, more manageable, typically less crowded museums throughout the country have impressive offerings. Here are east-of-the-Mississippi examples from recent travels.

Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana

OK, granted, you may have to have a thing about cars to fully appreciate the Studebaker National Museum. Old cars, that is (Studebaker stopped manufacturing its vehicles in the 1960s). But an appreciation of history can serve every bit as well. Before it manufactured automobiles, Studebaker produced prize-winning wagons and carriages. On display is the carriage that President and Mrs. Lincoln used for their ill-fated trip to Ford’s Theater. And the carriage used by Indiana native son, President Benjamin Harrison.

There are early “station wagons,” carriages designed especially for traveling to and from the train station (luggage outside). Among the farm wagons is a miniature version for children, with a sign reading “Propulsion provided by goat, large dog, or younger sibling.” Aww.

America’s Packard Museum, located in a restored Packard dealership in Dayton, Ohio, is equally impressive, carwise, BTW.

Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

I remembered that the Butler Institute has Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap the Whip,” but I hadn’t recalled that its collection, devoted to works by American artists, includes so many other notable works, as a recent visit revealed. Some of the paintings from the Hudson River School and other mid-19th century artists are truly spectacular. There are some fun contemporary works as well, including a large painting of a dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not.

Butler—one of the few museums of its caliber that does not charge an admission fee and relies solely on community contributions—has an “Adopt-a-Painting” program in which donors can contribute to the restoration of specific works of art. That’s an exciting possibility, which may intrigue some of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Maybe other museums have programs like this, but they have escaped my notice.

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

We visited the Taft Museum of Art in 2016 and liked it, but what caught my eye recently was the announcement of an upcoming exhibition (February 8-May 3, 2020) of the works of N.C. Wyeth. The passionate early 20th century works of the patriarch, N.C., appeal to me more than those of his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. I’m drawn to their swashbuckling energy and storytelling power. The exhibit will include his illustrations for Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans (Hawkeye, pictured), and The Boys’ King Arthur, as well as standalone works of equal vivacity.

Alas, I won’t be in Cincinnati during the run of this show, but I hope you will be and that you’ll see it and tell me what you liked best.

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Visiting the sights near Cairo, we criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own today.

The tour took us first to the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand Egyptian Museum, expected next year.

Gradually over the course of the tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic depictions.

The oldest monuments near Cairo that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt. Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago. (The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great river.)

The area includes a beautiful temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice, built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’ first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.

In Memphis are the beautifully detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing, it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’”)

Highlight of any Egypt trip is a visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.

From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.

Theories still conflict about how the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope they did.

It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.

We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Photos: (Akhenaten) José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, creative commons license; all others, Vicki Weisfeld

Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Egypt, workmen, Temple of Dendera

What to wear? Inevitably, some American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin. While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans, which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)

Although I wouldn’t have expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.

But what about the Egyptians? In Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one. Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and the country’s leadership has tried to discourage it.

In the south, many men wear the long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their fields.

Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

*****This Mortal Boy

justice

By Fiona Kidman – Based on a true story of one of the last executions in New Zealand, Fiona Kidman’s historical crime novel, This Mortal Boy, concerns a young man found guilty of murder is a powerful question mark. When is the death penalty justified? How does politics affect ‘blind justice’? Fundamentally, what is justice?

Although the novel takes place in New Zealand in late 1955, its thought-provoking issues are still germane to the United States and to the more than 50 countries where the death penalty exists today, countries where more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives.

What’s remarkable about this book is how Kidman brings forth the issues involved like specimens under a strong light, showing them in all their complexity, without ever preaching or becoming polemical. You are reading a compelling and disturbing story, not an essay.

Albert Black is a young man from tension-filled, divided Belfast, who leaves his parents and younger brother to immigrate to New Zealand for a fresh start and a better life. In a bar fight, he stabs Johnny McBride, the bully who’s been tormenting him. From his Auckland jail cell he reminisces about his upbringing on the other side of the world and his life during the two years since he left Northern Ireland. The vivid descriptions of these various communities and his circumstances, as well as his actions, make him a fully rounded person. While Kidman doesn’t romanticize him, he inspires empathy.

He feels he’s an outsider in New Zealand. That feeling turns into grim reality when he’s on trial, and jury members hold his Irishness against him. He’s ‘not one of ours,’ the judge says. Kidman also reveals the mindset of the jurors (‘set’ being the operative word) and the high-level discussions amongst the legal establishment regarding capital punishment.

She skillfully uses the frame of the trial to enable comparison of retold events to witness testimony, and while there’s no doubt that Black attacked McBride, the circumstances make both the situation and the cause of death more ambiguous than they first appear or than the court ever hears.

Albert Black was hanged 5 December 1955, and, as Kidman says in an Afterword, “A tide of disgust against the penalty overtook public perception after the hanging of Albert Black.” When a new government took over in New Zealand in 1957, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1961, the death penalty was abolished.

This Mortal Boy won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award, the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction, and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dame Fiona Kidman, DNZM, OBE, was born and lives in New Zealand and is the award-winning author of novels, poems, plays, and short stories.

Photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay

Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.