Archive for the ‘F.B.I.’ Category

Sicario

November 17, 2015

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Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a script by Taylor Sheridan, is a thriller set on the US-Mexican border.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent, who, along with her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), is recruited to a special operations force, led by a Department of Defense adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and by the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The ostensible purpose of the force is to combat a Mexican drug cartel that has been operating inside the US. However, Kate eventually discovers that the group has a more sinister aim.

Sicario is a powerful indictment of the futility and corruption of the “War on Drugs”. And I must say that after Zero Dark Thirty, it’s nice to see a film that shows the CIA in a bad light. My one quibble with this film is that the main character is too much of a Goodie Two Shoes. I find it hard to believe that an FBI agent would show as much outrage at what is going on as Kate does. After all, we’re talking about the people who gave us COINTELPRO, the Waco Massacre, the Leonard Peltier case, and Whitey Bulger. I guess the filmmakers felt they needed to give the film a moral center. Still, Sicario is a great film.

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Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015

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Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.

Selma

January 18, 2015

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Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay based on a screenplay by Paul Webb and DuVernay, depicts the struggle for voting rights in Alabama, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Although the film is about historical events, it has a topicality due to the recent undermining of the Act and the efforts to disenfranchise black voters in some states.

The script is highly didactic. Almost every scene seems to drive home a particular point. Many of the scenes consist of two or three people talking, in which they present contrasting points of view. This can be effective at times, but it becomes a drawback in the scenes between Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The two of them sound so high-minded and professorial, that one wonders how they didn’t drive each other crazy.

Selma touches upon King’s complicated attitude towards violence. It makes clear that one of the aims of non-violent resistance was to provoke a violent response from authorities, in order to cause them to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The film shows King struggling with the possible consequences of this tactic. In one scene, he calls off a march -much to the consternation of his supporters – because he fears that the police have set a trap.

One thing I liked about Selma is that it doesn’t try to prettify anything. J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace are portrayed as being every bit as vile as they were. Some people have criticized the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), particularly its implication that Johnson got Hoover to try to blackmail King. However, we know that Johnson was not above playing dirty, and at the very least he was aware of Hoover’s hostility towards King, so one has to admit that this part of the film is at least plausible. (Fun fact: it was Robert Kennedy who ordered the FBI to spy on King and his associates.)

Selma is a timely film that everyone should see.

American Hustle

January 21, 2014

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American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970’s. This resulted from a sting operation in which the FBI developed the methods of entrapment it uses today against Muslims.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a couple of swindlers who are caught in an FBI sting operation led by Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso tells them that he will not press charges provided that they agree to help him catch white collar criminals, which they reluctantly consent to do. The three of them eventually set their sights on a powerful New Jersey politician, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who wants money to build casinos, which he believes will revive the state’s economy. They hook Polito up with a phoney sheikh (Michael Peña), who promises him money. The scheme begins to involve more people, including Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), one of the most powerful figures in organized crime. Meanwhile, Rosenfeld comes to believe that Polito, although somewhat corrupt, is basically a well-intentioned person, and he begins to regret the fact that he is setting him up. Rosenfeld’s woes are exacerbated by the erratic behavior of his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who nearly blows his cover.

American Hustle is an amusing comedy that benefits from strong perfromances (although Louis CK is not quite convincing as DiMaso’s boss). I have never been keen on Chirstian Bale in the past. His performances have struck me as either too operatic (The Fighter) or too understated (The Dark Knight Rises). In this movie, he strikes just the right balance, playing a character who is sleazy, but not totally devoid of empathy. And it’s fun to watch Jennifer Lawrence playing a character who is the human opposite of the one she plays in the Hunger Games films.

American Hustle questions whether the FBI’s sting operation actually accomplished anything. People have asked similar questions about the FBI’s sting operations against Muslim “terrorists”. (I have written about one of these cases here.)

Big Brother

June 7, 2013

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The recent revelations about massive government spying on the American people should come as no surprise. Indeed, they merely confirm what many of us have suspected for quite some time now. It’s worth noting here that all this obsessive information gathering did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombings from happening. The reason for this should be obvious: no terrorist with half a brain is going to discuss his plans over a cell phone or over the Internet. Even the Tsarnaev brothers, who weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs, knew better than that.

So, how concerned should we be about this? As long as you aren’t doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be too concerned. The government, however, keeps expanding the boundaries of what is illegal. (In New York state, for example, it is now a felony to annoy a police officer. During the time I lived in New York, I got the impression that the cops there were a bit touchy. I imagine it can’t be that hard to annoy them.)

The Internet is a useful organizing tool, but it clearly has its limits and it should be used with caution. Those who have argued that the Internet is the solution to all the Left’s problems should reconsider their position. It’s clear that the Left can’t rely solely upon the Internet.

Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

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Although the police are to be commended for having solved this case so quickly, there are still some things about this episode that a leave one feeling uncomfortable. Such as the unnecessary decision to completely shut down the city of Boston. (Common sense dictated that Dzokhar Tsaraev would likely be found in or near Watertown, and, indeed, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in that very city.) Or police officers in military gear searching people’s homes without warrants. Or the government’s refusal to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

The Constitution is really the only thing that holds this fractious country together, yet we increasingly treat it as something disposable, like Kleenex. Mayor Bloomberg of New York recently announced:

    The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex word where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.

This is coy. Bloomberg has made it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, as when he ordered the police to attack Occupy Wall Street protestors, or in his “stop and frisk” policy that targets minority youths. He no doubt drooled as he added:

    We have to understand that in the world going forward, we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some sense, but it’s different from what we are used to.

We already have lots of cameras in our society. Photos and videos taken by private citizens helped the police to pick out the suspects. Hizzoner is specifically referring to surveillance cameras by the police, likely to be positioned to keep the world safe for Wall Street hedge fund managers.

And then there is the question of the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. There is a substantial amount of evidence that Tamelan was attracted to radical Islam, but Dzhoubar attended a party at UMass-Dartmouth shortly after the bombings, which is not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a Muslim fundamentalist. I suspect that there is a complicated story here, one which we learn about as more evidence comes to light.

Dzhoubar has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”. It used to be that this term only referred to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It now applies to pressure cooker bombs. No doubt it will soon apply to firecrackers. (But not, of course, to assault rifles!)

J. Edgar

November 14, 2011

Clint Eastwood has certainly come a long way from Dirty Harry. His new film about J. Edgar Hoover, from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, will upset many right-wingers. I wish I could give this movie an unqualified endorsement, but I have some reservations about it.

The film portrays Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a repressed homosexual, and it suggests that this repression was the source of his obsessive behavior. He and his number two man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), have a relationship similar to that between Burns and Smithers on The Simpsons. When Hoover tells Tolson that he intends to propose to Dorothy Lamour, the two of them have what amounts to a lovers’ quarrel. Their relationship, however, is never consummated. Hoover is portrayed as being obsessed with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), while being emotionally estranged from his father. Some will no doubt make the valid complaint that this reproduces an all too common “explanation” of homosexuality. You must admit, however, that this fits with what we know about Hoover.

Hoover is portrayed as petty and jealous. He deliberately wreaks the career of an F.B.I. agent named Melivin Purvis, because the latter has received more publicity than he has. He is also extremely prone to self-delusion. He says things like “love is the most powerful force in the world” without the least trace of irony. He tells people that he saved the U.S. from a “Bolshevik” revolution in 1919. In one scene, Hoover complains that newly elected president Richard Nixon wants him to do things that are illegal, oblivious to the fact that he has been doing illegal things all his life.

The film reminds us that Hoover began his career as a librarian. (Yes, it’s true.) He helped the Library of Congress develop a new system of organizing books. In one particularly eerie scene, the young Hoover tells his future secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) that he wishes he could organize and identify people the same way he does books. “Information is power”, he tells her.

I found this movie fascinating to watch and even darkly funny at some moments. The acting is very good (DiCaprio is brilliant). However, it seemed a bit over-long. One weakness of the film is that it devotes far too much time to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Eastwood and Black apparently wanted to make the point that Hoover claimed to have solved the case when he actually hadn’t. (All the F.B.I. proved, really, was that Bruno Hauptmann was somehow connected to the crime.) This is a valid argument, but it skews the film towards a relatively minor episode of his career. For that matter, the film devotes too much time to the “Hoover was a closet queen” theory. This would have been a better film if it had spent more time on COINTELPRO and the way it destroyed people’s lives.

The posters for this movie call Hoover “the most powerful man in the world”. This is an enormous exaggeration. Hoover was actually an extremely ruthless and shrewd courtier, one who built his own fiefdom inside the U.S. government. This film attributes Hoover’s power to his knack for blackmailing people. There is a good deal of truth to this, but there was more to it than that. Many powerful people defended Hoover (or at least looked the other way), because they knew he was defending the interests of the ruling class. This could have been a more powerful film if it had made this point in some way.