“A rose is a rose is a rose.” So is an action flic, but Zero Dark 30, the film about the hunt for, and capture of, Osama Bin Laden, has raised hackles throughout the entire political spectrum. As if a rose is not a rose. A friend sent me a review by Rabbi Brant Rosen (http://rabbibrant.com/2013/01/21/zero-dark-thirty-my-shalom-rav-review/), which covers most of the criticisms aimed at Z D 30, so I’ll use as a foil to write about the film and its controversies.

According to the rabbi, the movie opening with the words, Based on firsthand accounts of actual events, means it’s “insidious” not to be historically accurate. Sorry, I think “based on” signals the viewer that what we are seeing is not a documentary but rather a fictionalized account of a true story. Countless films, books, and plays use “based on” as a jump-off and rarely get blasted.  So why is this night…?

In his post Rabbi Rosen continues: “From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.

Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.”

Perhaps Rosen feels that the movie’s ability to blur fact and fiction worked too well, but that ultimately should be a compliment, not a criticism.

Rosen complains that the use of 911 call recordings from the September 11th attacks was purely manipulative. Since the movie is about the hunt for Bin Laden it should have begun with the chase. Problem is, Rosen didn’t write the screenplay. The screenwriter, Mark Boal, chose to frame the context with the reason for the hunt and, while the voices from that day are chilling, his decision was dramatically sound. When you think about it, films, books, art, and entertainment are inherently manipulative. Even those that purport to be objective—including journalism.

Rosen then moves to the issue of concern to many, including government officials: Z D 30 glorifies the use of torture by graphically showing it and suggesting torture yielded important information. Of course there was torture. It was well known government policy, euphemistically “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But glorification, or even endorsement? Frankly, I think those scenes are Rorschach tests that tell as much about the viewer as anything else. In reality, the movie makes it quite clear that the essential clues in finding Bin Laden came from painstaking detective work and not torture—a fact often overlooked by those who complain about “glorification.”

I saw the film’s take on torture as a pretty accurate picture of reality. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, as Michael Moore pointed out in an interview, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/25/michael-moore-zero-dark-thirty-torture_n_2552123.html) the real question about torture isn’t whether it “works” or doesn’t. Torture is a moral question and, in his opinion (mine as well), it is wrong. Z D 30 neither condemned or glorified. It showed. Perhaps the rabbi might have felt better if the movie began after President Obama outlawed the use of torture just as he wanted it to begin after the attacks?

Rabbi Rosen formulates, “Beyond this issue (torture), ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/12/dont-trust-zero-dark-thirty/266253/) it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking.”

Near as I can tell embedded filmmaking seems to mean that Bigelow and Boal had “special” access to government information that raised concerns, including some by senators, that the Obama administration had granted that access for political reasons. According to the Inside Movies’ writer Anthony Breznican (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/08/28/zero-dark-thirty-documents/) this simply isn’t true–though a CIA official did spend forty minutes with the two. In fact, careful perusal of related documents shows no indication that anyone in the administration helped shape the movie, despite that forty minute meeting.

But more importantly, even if “special” access were true, so what?  Does the rabbi remember Woodward and Bernstein? Would he have called them embedded journalists because of their connection to Deep Throat?

I’m no fan of the relatively recent phenomena of wartime embedded reporters. In fact, I despise it. But that doesn’t mean I think every story to come out of Iraq and Afghanistan was simply government sponsored propaganda. And I don’t think Z D 30 is either.

Finally, Rabbi Rosen points out that “The CIA and the U.S. government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive…Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad, villain—so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves—and this is exactly the script to which this film follows.”

Duh. If Z D 30 does what virtually every action film does, what’s Rosen’s point? Why pick Z D 30 to complain about? On top of which, no one I know who has seen the film recounts walking out feeling “good about the world and themselves.” And, as far as portraying Arabs and Muslims as bad guys, what films about Dessert Storm, Afghanistan, or Iraq hasn’t? From the moment cowboy pictures hit the screen, it’s been us against them. A huge aspect of our culture has been based upon that idea.

Truth is, I believe the firestorm about this movie is over the top. Over the top political correctness from progressives and over the top from those on the right who holler about Obama propaganda.

I left feeling I’d just watched one hell of a thriller. Two and a half hours flew by without one butt squirm. The story was well framed, the characters well drawn. Jessica Chastain was amazing and believable in her role as Maya the obsessive agent who is unable to let go of her hunt for Bin Laden. Indeed, the last scene shows Maya alone in an H-130 aircraft and, when asked where she wants to go, the tears begin to flow. Her twelve year obsession resolved, she doesn’t have anywhere to go. But I also left the theater grappling with the issues the rabbi raised regarding torture, our government policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sense—or lack thereof—about spending the time, money, and people power to track down and assassinate one individual. Issues raised, but not simply answered, by a film based upon a true story.

Zero Dark Thirty grabbed me, held me, and made me think. You really can’t ask much more from any movie.

“A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” ~G.C. Lichtenberg


I recently had the good fortune of spending time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since today is a celebration of his life and accomplishments, I believe it appropriate to publish the interview. We met in Providence, Rhode Island, in a quiet room off the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel. Only about 5′ 6½” his stocky build lent size and gravitas to his presence.  He wore a dark brown suit with a thin tie and settled into the couch with a contented sigh.

MLK:  “Good to be here. Don’t get around much anymore.”

ME:  “Dr. King, I was surprised you asked to meet me in Providence.”

A small smile danced across his face.

MLK:  “I knew it wasn’t terribly far from your home–mine either.

ME:  “You know, I was pretty nervous thinking about talking to you. I feel I’m in the presence of a truly great human being.”

MLK:  “I hope you aren’t nervous now. As you can see, we both have two arms and two legs.

ME:  “Dr. King…”

MLK:  “Martin, please.”

ME:  “That might be tough, sir.”

A flicker of annoyance flashed in his bright brown eyes.

MLK:  “This interview isn’t going to last very long if you insist on calling me ‘sir.’ I much prefer to be seen as a person, even a dead person. I’m getting tired of being a larger than life figure.”

ME:  “Okay, s.., excuse me, Martin, but speaking of larger than life, what do you think about your monument?”

MLK:  “I’ve always thought of myself as a kinder and friendlier looking man than the one made from that stone. I appreciate the thought and effort, but find the strife it’s caused from its conception onward…”

ME:  “Pretty ironic.”

MLK:  “Very much so. I’d rather my legacy be framed in social progress.”

ME:  “In your wildest imaginings, did you ever think this country would have a Martin Luther King holiday?”

MLK:  “Of course not, although being assassinated helped, I suppose. But at the time of my death, my approval rating was around 30 percent.”

ME:  “You kept track of approval ratings?”

MLK:  “Ahh, another shock to your fantasy about Saint Martin? As a writer who came along after me once wrote, ‘The medium is the message.’ While I don’t entirely agree with that message, it was important to understand how others saw me if I wanted my words and actions to mean something.”

ME:  “Why only 30 percent, though?”

MLK:  “I’m tempted to suggest that you ask the respondents, but I’ll give it a try. It was a moment in time when traditions were being challenged. When the vast majority of Americans were confused, upset, and bewildered by what was taking place around them. Stokely had rejected my non-violent approach toward change by calling for Black Power and aligning himself with the Panthers. So there was real fear among White people about Negro leaders.  But I think what angered many people in 1968, including allies and friends, was my linkage of civil rights, the Vietnam war, support of unions, and a guaranteed income for everybody as the way to end poverty.”

ME:  “Do you feel your non-violent approach was vindicated by the election of a Black President. Progress as a result of your efforts?”

King smiled widely before he spoke.

MLK:  “It’s certainly progress but needs to be understood within a larger context.”

I nodded for him to continue.

MLK:  “In the long run, the most important aspect of Obama’s presidency may be less that he is a Negro than the coalition he put together to be elected. I believe he was able to mobilize the constituencies needed to work for significant and progressive change. I’m hopeful that coalition will continue to act in concert. People of color, as we’re now known, young people, White people, women, unions, Gays.  All were instrumental in Obama’s election.”

It took me a moment to realize the sound coming from the couch was laughter.

MLK:  “Which is why those groups are so angry with him.  He surely isn’t a progressive.  Which is also why people who believe in real progress must understand that change comes from the ground up and not top down.”

ME:  “You sound like a member of the Occupy Movement.”

MLK:  “I really don’t belong to groups anymore.”

ME:  “But it does sound like you support their cause though many people criticize their lack of organization, that their outdoor compounds were just magnets for drug addicts and the homeless.

MLK:  “Causes is more accurate. And I do believe if they are to become relevant organizational development is essential, but the other criticisms–those sadden me. Homelessness in a land of this wealth? Drug addiction without real treatment alternatives? A justice system that metes out different punishments for drugs that White and Black people use? Worse–a country that turned its mentally ill onto the streets by closing down homes and institutions while spending billions for multiple wars? Those are tragedies and that’s why the broadest possible progressive coalition–including addicts and the homeless–is needed to foster real change.”

ME:  “People point to the election of President Obama as evidence that we, in the U.S. live in a “post-racial” society.  What’s your take?”

King’s bulky body shook and this time there was no confusion about his laughter.

MLK:  “From where I listen, the words often used are ‘level playing field.’ That, and ‘post racial’ are ways to ignore the injustice that runs rampant throughout this society. Simply look at life expectancy: white males live about seven years longer on average than Black men. White women live more than five years longer than their Black counterparts. Although researchers have suggested that genetics accounts for the differences in health and not health care access, that notion has been debunked. Wages? As recently as 2010 median annual earnings of Black men were 74, 75 cents to a White male’s dollar. Less than the Constitution’s original 3/5ths valuation.

I began to ask another question but King shook me off.

MLK:  “The issues facing our country are deeper than simply race–though race is certainly not simple. The issue of color is interwoven with economics and economics affect more than just people of color. It affects the White woman and her children who live in a holler without clean water, or no water at all, the laborer whose pensions have been destroyed by the upper class even as the upper class generates enormous amounts of money for itself, the government worker who no longer has the right to collective bargaining, the middle class who struggle to pay exorbitant college tuition. I could continue.

ME:  “You seem pretty up to date on what’s taking place here.”

MLK:  “I have plenty of time on my hands.”

ME:  “So if you were able to return would you still be as committed to non-violence given everything you just described?”

MLK:  “Absolutely. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. It doesn’t require murder. A society formed from blood inevitably leads to more blood. We need nothing else than to look at history for confirmation.”

ME:  “Most people don’t believe this world capable of non-violence. To use your words, ‘we need nothing else than to look at history for confirmation.'”

King smiled.

MLK:  “You’ve lost your nervousness. Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

ME:  “You didn’t have a chance to climb the stairs.”

MLK:  “The assassination just strengthened my belief that a society built upon blood never leaves that blood behind–which makes it so important that change is engendered non-violently.”

Dr. King stood and I popped off my chair.

MLK:  “I’m not interviewed much these days. Thank you.”

ME:  “Are you kidding? This was an honor.”

MLK:  “No, my friend, it was just an interview.”

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Martin Luther King


The lights began to slowly brighten as the movie credits rolled onto the giant screen; Jack Reacher had reached its end. We stood and I could feel Sue’s eyes rake my face.

“Okay,” I said, “it was a bad movie and Cruise was wooden.”

There, I’d done it. Bared my neck and waited for her teeth. But she was kind. Must have been because it was our mini-honeymoon (mini-moon) in Providence. Still, I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m not crazy about him as an action hero either, you know.”

“I know,” Sue replied, her voice trailing off as if she wanted to say more but didn’t.

And there it was. An agreement to disagree, debate avoided. We’ve been having this “discussion” for decades and neither of us have given an inch, so this truce was really the best I could hope for.

Ever since Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award for Rain Man in 1988, I’d become a Tom Cruise champion. I couldn’t believe they gave the Oscar to Hoffman while Cruise’s performance was rich, nuanced, with a real and believable arc.

I hadn’t been surprised by his ability. Nor was I surprised by his willingness to play against a super strong older actor. He’d done it before in The Color Of Money with Paul Newman and more than held his own. He would also do it again. A number of times.

Still Sue couldn’t understand why I believed he should have won Best Actor.

“Hoffman’s performance was terrific and Cruise is a lightweight.”

“What are you saying? You’ve seen Hoffman on talk shows. He damn near played himself in the movie.”

“It was different enough. And you still haven’t said anything about Cruse’s shallowness.”

“Because he isn’t!”

“I suppose not–if you reduce the idea of what being a man is to brash assertiveness.”

And so it has gone. When Cruise’s name comes up and I say tomato, Sue potato. Even when she actually likes one of his films.

But I haven’t come here today to bury Susan; I’ve come to praise Tom.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t much enjoy him in action pictures—though, I thought he was pretty good in Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible. And the only thing I enjoyed about Eyes Wide Shut was Nichole Kidman. While I’m at it, I thought Days of Thunder was a clichéd story despite good performances by Cruise, Kidman, and especially Robert Duval—it was also another film where Cruise held his own working alongside a brilliant older male actor.

Sure, there are plenty of dogs in his portfolio. But when you look at the totality of his work I think it’s mission impossible to denigrate his acting prowess:

Top Gun where he fit the role perfectly.

All The Right Moves where moviegeeks.com said: “Tom Cruise shines as a high school football player desperately trying to land a college scholarship so he can leave his small town…” And rated the movie #18 in all time best football flicks. (Personally, I’d have rated it higher but that’s me. Yes, few can beat Dallas North Forty, but I never was a Knute Rockne or William Bendix fan—except for The Life Of Riley.)

A Few Good Men. The money line was shouted by Jack Nicholson, but once again Cruise was spot on with his portrayal of Lt. Daniel Kaffee and stood strong in the face of Nicholson’s performance and fury.

Jerry Maguire. “Show me the money!!” Nuff said.

And finally, what I consider his greatest role as Ron Kovic in the amazing film Born On The Fourth Of July. Cruise handled his part with Academy Award winning brilliance, hitting just the right notes throughout the entire movie.

There are many more, but I’d like to add just one cameo appearance in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. Whatever one thinks of the movie (frankly, I loved it, as dumb and crazy as it was) Cruise’s moments on camera as a Hollywood producer simply stole the show. The memory of his bald head bobbing as he danced around his Los Angeles office is forever burned into my brain.

I’m not Pauline Kael, James Agee, or Roger Ebert, so to cement my case, let me list the directors who have chosen to cast him in their films.

Franco Zeffirelli (Endless Love, 1981)

Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders, 1983)

Ridley Scott (Legend, 1985)

Tony Scott (Top Gun, 1986)

Martin Scorsese (The Color Of Money, 1986)

Barry Levinson (Rain Man, 1988)

Oliver Stone (Born On The Fourth Of July, 1989)

Ron Howard (Far And Away, 1992)

Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, 1992)

Sydney Pollack (The Firm, 1993)

Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, 1996)

Steven Spielberg (Minority Report, 2002)

Michael Mann (Collateral, 2004)

Robert Redford (Lions For Lambs, 2007)

I’m in some seriously good company.

When I showed this post to Sue, she quickly eyeballed my lists. “So?”

“‘So?’ What do you mean ‘so?’ Look at that list of directors. Look at the movies he’s been in!”

“He’s still shallow.”

I shook my head, searching for a comeback. All I could finally manage was, “but you’ll never forget him skidding across the floor only wearing BVDs in Risky Business, will you?”

Don’t forget Zach’s frequent consumer protection statement: I make stuff up. –Susan Goodman

An’ It’s 1-2-3 What Are We Writin’ For? -OR- Para-vice Lost

A big thanks to Rawrahs from http://rawrahs.blogspot.com/ for starting the new year in a style and voice all his own. Please visit him regularly at the link above. You won’t regret it.  …Zach

Writers write. Different writers write for different reasons. And please, make no mistake, all writers are “different”. The moving writer writes and having writ moves on.

The objective measure of writing success is: Readers? Book sales? Technorati rating? A byline? A paycheck? Critical praise and acclaim? A movie deal? Being aggregated on Huff Po, The Daily Beast, The Great Orange Satan? A six-figure advance on your next work? A Pulitzer? A Newberry?

Where better than a writer’s blog to pose such questions? I’ve attained ONE of the above.

Is it purely money, compliments, and publicity by which we measure?

Biographer, columnist, comedian, composer, creator, dialogist, essayist, freelance, ghostwriter, hack, ink slinger, journalist, novelist, originator, playwright, poet, producer, prose writer, reporter, scribbler, scribe, scripter, speech writer, word slinger, wordsmith, word whore, words-for-hire, will write for food…

Does where one writes matter?
Does what?
Does when?
Who decides what words are seen?

If number of readers is the determinate, does that mean that David Fucking Brooks is a great writer? Any better than the graffiti artist whose work is seen daily, by millions? What about the shithouse poet?

For twenty bucks you can buy the paperback edition of Writer’s Market. For ten bucks you can get the Kindle version. Do you write first, then find a market or do you find a market then write for it? If a particular market is squat upon by a stable of nags who’ve been wrong about everything, by what dint do they continue to get paid to occupy their lofty writing aerie to spew out another thousand words of bullshit?

If one manages to infiltrate the villagers’ circle jerk, does one have to abide by the “say nae a bad word towards another villager” creed?

Is there a more dysfunctional career path than writing? …Anything one could do that is more soul-crushing? Anything more fickle?

Who do you read? How did you find them? I realize these are impolite questions, perhaps unanswerable even, yet I ask all the same.

Is there a hierarchy of writers? A club? A selection committee? A secret handshake?

You are here reading. You arrived, probably expecting to read Zach’s latest insight, but instead find me beebling on about this crap. I’d apologize, but that’s not much help to you, since it’s not particularly heartfelt.

It this occupation too diluted or too deluded?

If you’ve read this far, did you expect an answer? You know the answer for yourself, but how does that apply to those of us who construct words for your reading pleasure?

I look for answers in works that seem to attract readers and find little rhyme or reason beyond the mass-hysteria herd mentality. There isn’t much of a market for anything you don’t want to hear, regardless of how desperately you may need to hear it.

We read to escape. Does that mean that writers who can’t cater to the escapist market are trapped? I read many thousands upon thousands of words each day, and sometimes attempt to distill what I’ve read into a palatable quaff; trying to turn something distasteful or absurd into bite-sized, digestible nuggets. It’s a processing process that ingests, excludes; then extrudes.

I am about to start ingesting a compendium entitled “Deadline Artists” billed and touted as THE best of the absolute best in the fine columnist tradition. Wish me luck.

Should not our daily word-gruel contain a minimum RDA of useful nutrients. Our diet determines our fitness. I am Brussel Sprouts?