11th 07 - 2016 | 4 comments »

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director: Alan J. Pakula


By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I pick through the daily helpings of mainstream-media-bashing, liberal- and conservative-bias-shaming and all the other pleasantries that instantly greet all the news that’s fit to tweet, I find myself longing for some remnant of truth, justice, and the American Way the way I used to know. I find one bright spot in the journalism conducted under the auspices of First Look, a self-described “new-model media company devoted to supporting independent voices” that coproduced the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades-long sexual abuse of children by scores of priests and the Boston Archdiocese’s attempts to cover it up. As you can imagine, movies about heroic journalists are rare as hen’s teeth these days, so whatever the merits of Spotlight—and I can argue that it has many—its appearance and relatively high profile at a time when lies and propaganda are degrading freedoms throughout the world are a blessing and a balm to me.


The newspaper movie, however, has had a long run in motion pictures, chronicling both the cynicism that characterized the early years of yellow journalism (Chicago [1927]), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. [1952]) and harmful (Try and Get Me! [aka The Sound of Fury, 1950]). The inherent drama of headline news provides filmmakers with a constant supply of riveting material that offers audiences more bang for their buck for being at least partially true.


Arguably the most acclaimed and enduring of newspaper movies is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then reporters for the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting on the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. , revealed a vast dirty-tricks conspiracy that eventually ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I remember very fondly volunteering at my local PBS station to answer phones and take pledges during its rebroadcasts of the 319 hours of U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings, shown and aired live on the three major networks and NPR beginning May 17, 1973. An estimated 85 percent of the American public watched or listened to at least part of the hearings, and many people called in to express their thanks to PBS for giving them access to information about which they cared deeply. I don’t remember a single caller who attacked the effort, phoned in a bomb or death threat, or called me or PBS functionaries libtards. A lot of young people may not understand why “–gate” is appended to most public scandals these days, but for my generation, the Watergate scandal left a permanent mark and continues to reverberate, as extremists double-down to secure the power and national prestige lost following Nixon’s disgrace.


Just as Watergate changed the American political landscape, so, too, did Pakula’s film spread its influence far beyond the newspaper or political thriller. On TV, there has been a steady succession of small cells of true believers trying to right wrongs and uncover truths by any means necessary (“The X-Files,” “Person of Interest,” “Leverage,” “Burn Notice”). On the big screen, John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does a pretty good job of recreating the conspiracies and meticulous fact-finding of President’s Men in a western setting, and director Shane Carruth said his knockout scifi film Primer (2004) was directly influenced by the newspaper drama. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) not only continues that director’s themes of outsiders combating power, but also appears to take inspiration from Pakula’s vision of a depopulated maze of streets and buildings that look, precomputer age, ever so much like Blackhat’s opening volley of digital circuitry. I might even go so far as to say that many of the superhero/comic book films would be nowhere without their “origin story”—newspaper funnies—and their focus on the courage of a few against the oppressions of the powerful.


All the President’s Men is, too, a product and exemplar of its time. The 1970s witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of American film culture, with more realistic, director-driven movies that mixed spectacle, elegance, and old-fashioned star power with a raw immediacy and violence for audiences weaned on the televised Vietnam War who wanted their entertainment to draw blood. Pakula avoids histrionics, but amps up the tension of his film, borrowing from Antonioni’s urban alienation and George Romero’s paranoia to paint a portrait of ultimate power as both dangerous and deeply stupid.


The opening sequence, the break-in itself, offers us a voyeuristic thrill reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tableau in Rear Window (1954), but more for stroking our own egos at observing how hopelessly inept the burglars were in planning their crime—drab men in ugly clothes duct-taping a door catch open and rifling through offices awash in light and open windows. Their tracks are detected easily by a lone security guard, who handily dispatches police to catch the burglars in the act. The only thing about this sordid event that catches Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s (Jack Warden) attention is that the bust-in occurred at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Reford) is dispatched to attend the arraignment.


The burglary might have been buried for good inside the pages of the Post had Woodward not chatted up a white-shoe attorney (Nicolas Coster) observing the public defenders assigned to the case. The five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James McCord, Jr., all testify to having ties to the CIA. The trail starts to warm up as former CIA worker and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, work into the chain of events. The National Desk starts angling to take over the story, and Metro reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) worms his way onto the investigation by doctoring Woodward’s copy as soon as he turns it over to the copy desk. This scene—Bernstein’s underhanded, but skillful assistance and Woodward’s forthright approach in calling him on it—sets up the bad cop/good cop routine “Woodstein” will marshall when trying to get information out of reluctant informants.


Pakula offers the dynamics of the competitive news business as the pair watch the New York Times covering similar ground and finding new leads. Bernstein flies to Miami to follow up a NYT-prompted lead that payoffs from the Committee to Reelect the President were made to the Watergate burglars, waiting all day for Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney’s office, to show him a check written to one of the burglars. The scene shows the dogged determination of Bernstein to reach his goal, including making a phony call to Dardis’ honey-tongued watchdog (Polly Holliday) to get her off her guard station in front of Dardis’ office.


Pakula uses a sort of Shakespearean construction of deep drama alternating with comic moments to keep the audience on a rollercoaster of tension and release, an effective strategy for a story whose momentous outcome was known years before. Foremost is the character of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), now known to be W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI at the time of the break-in. He had been an occasional deep background source to Woodward and kept him on track with Watergate, meeting with him in a parking garage to talk. The archetype of the oracle is an ancient one, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ shadowy underlair suggests a plot born from Hell, pulling the film out of the everyday and marking it with mythic dimensions. Holbrook’s Deep Throat gives up his secrets grudgingly, dismissing Woodward with vague aphorisms like “follow the money” to avoid more pointed information that would lead to some deep damnation or other. Eventually, he reveals that lives are at risk, giving Pakula an opportunity to release audience tension by shooting Woodward rather comically whiplashing around to look over his shoulder as he walks away.


Pakula will raise and lower tensions again as Bernstein interviews a frightened bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) who oversaw payments to the network of dirty tricksters taking orders from Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The scene is an understated cat-and-mouse game, beginning with the bookkeeper standing behind a prisonlike banister in a corner of a room and moving to a different corner, this time created by Bernstein and her own desire to tell the truth. Bernstein approaches her as though she were a coiled cobra, moving slowly to “refresh” his memory with his notebook and accepting her offers of coffee. The scene ends in antic merriment when Bernstein goes to Woodward’s apartment with his notes after consuming 20 cups of coffee from his six-hour marathon interview.


Spotlight took a clear inspiration from President’s Men in its depiction of churches as part of the Boston landscape through which the Globe reporters pounded the pavement. Here, there are numerous shots of Woodward and Bernstein driving past the White House, the endpoint of their inquiry, though they didn’t know it from the start. Willis favors high overhead shots to emphasize the informational maze through which the heroes must travel. One famous shot shows the pair in the mandala that is the Library of Congress, rifling through stacks of library slips. Willis also likes long shots of the wide-open city room, often nearly empty, as though to emphasize the egalitarian and transparent nature of news reporting. In retrospect, it also emphasizes how reporters were always out in the community and how news-gathering has shifted today to online research conducted in remote fashion.


Of particular note is the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design, which emphasizes a strong, muscular, determined group of professionals plying their trade with machines whose metal keys punch ink onto paper. It’s a distinctive and percussive sound, and emphasizes why I find so annoying the anemic, plastic clicking of the computer keyboards that have taken over from the typewriters and teletype machines in life—and especially in the movies. Coins ring into pay phones, telephone dials spin and click, stereo knobs click on and off—there are a whole range of sounds that are nearly lost to us today that make a more direct connection between the characters and their actions, and that immediacy also quickens the heart of the moviegoer.

Picture 1

So, too, does the thoroughness of the reporters. Today, lies are reported more routinely than facts in some circles—we live in an age of the gossip rag—but corner-cutting was not Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s style. Jason Robards, as Bradlee, tells his reporters that their verifications (at least two) feel thin, he checks their desire to run with what they’ve got. It’s no good if it isn’t true, can’t be proven to be true. Predictably, one of their stories brings a denial from a high-profile source—even though the facts are right, the circumstances of their discovery were not reported properly—and a dramatic dressing-down from Bradlee. Can you imagine that happening today?


Hoffman and Redford are iconic in these roles, but they really did seem born to play these men. Scrappy, energetic Hoffman channels just a bit of his Ratso Rizzo sleaze from Midnight Cowboy (1969), marrying it to ambition and the good sense to let Woodward take the high ground when needed. Redford has us on his side all the way, his blond good looks and low-pressure style encouraging people to volunteer information they initially refused to divulge. A vast supporting cast keeps the film moving in a dizzying, but never incoherent way. One performance of note is Robert Walden as Donald Segretti, a “ratfucker,” that is, a dirty-tricks purveyor who was, no doubt, the idol of the king of the ratfuckers, Lee Atwater. I found his story of giving up on a law career for something more lucrative and, to him, the equivalent of moral mischief, an interesting and always timely one. Walden would go on to play a wily Bernsteinesque reporter teamed with a sensitive Woodwardlike journalist in the TV series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), another great work that must have owed its very existence to All the President’s Men.

8th 10 - 2012 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2012: The Last Sentence (Dom Över Dod Man, 2012)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jan Troell

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.

Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.

At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.

The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the face of overwhelming misery and threat from without.

One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.

The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August lent a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.

I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.

Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.

The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.

The Last Sentence screens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Previous coverage

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

26th 04 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Ebertfest 2009: Nothing But the Truth (2008)

Director/Screenwriter: Rod Lurie

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009


By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I watched Nothing But the Truth with growing excitement, I thought, this is All the President’s Men for the new millennium. This film will inspire confidence in the press again and bring a whole new generation of idealists into journalism. Thank you, Rod Lurie, a thousand times thank you. And then I saw the last three minutes of the film. DAMN! DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!

Nothing But the Truth hasn’t opened yet, a victim of the economy, but it is expected to some time this year. I am going to talk about those final, horrible, three minutes, so consider this a warning of a major spoiler. If you think you might want to see this film, please stop when I get to the ending. In fact, the very best advice I can give anyone is go see this film, leave the film immediately after the scene in the gazebo, and don’t look back. That is where this film should have ended, and if you don’t see its current ending, you will be able to preserve a well-deserved admiration for the gigantic bulk of this film.

The screenplay, written by director and former film critic Rod Lurie, is loosely based by the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame by New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller refused to reveal her source and spent several months in jail. In this film, Kate Beckinsale plays reporter Rachel Armstrong, who learns that the mom of one of the children who attends her son Timmy’s (Preston Bailey) school, Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), is an undercover CIA agent. Van Doren’s writer husband (Jamey Sheridan) has been critical of the government, and she herself produced a memo offering no evidence that the Venezuelan government was involved in the assassination attempt on fictional President Lyman (Scott Williamson) that opens the movie, thus failing to justify the government’s military incursion into that South American country.


Rachel’s boss Bonnie Benjamin (Angela Bassett) decides, over the objections of the newspaper’s attorney, Avril Aronson (Noah Wyle), to run Rachel’s story. It is a federal crime to reveal the identity of a CIA agent, and Aronson worries about the paper’s and Rachel’s exposure to prosecution. Certainly, if Rachel refuses to name her source, she will be held in contempt of court. Both Rachel and Bonnie are prepared to stand firm. Before the story is published, Rachel gives Erica a heads up and a chance to comment on the record. Erica is furious and panicked at the same time. Of course, she denies she is a spy to Rachel, but she will have her own trouble with the agency, which, in trying to find the leak, will cast doubt on Erica herself and put her life at risk.


When the newspaper arrives at the Armstrong home the next morning, Rachel’s husband Ray (David Schwimmer) is proud and tells her she’s going to get a Pulitzer for it. Her initial excitement is dampened when FBI agents pick her up as she drops Timmy off at school not 48 hours after the story breaks. Tough Special Prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) moves swiftly as a matter of national security to convene a grand jury to compel Rachel to reveal her source. White-shoe attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda) is engaged by the newspaper to defend her. Burnside isn’t worried; Judge Hall (Floyd Abrams) and he exchange Christmas cards, and he’s sure to grant a continuance so Burnside can prepare their defense. Wrong. When Rachel refuses to name her source, he charges her with contempt, and she is taken immediately into custody. So begins a long, painful odyssey that will see Rachel spend nearly a year in jail and her marriage teeter on the brink; Erica lose her marriage and career, and face physical violence; and both women lose touch with their children.


All for a principle. The fact that Nothing But the Truth brings principles back into the public discussion is the first great thing it does. The way it does so is the other. Rachel is a bonafide hero, enduring separation from her beloved son and the recriminations of those who question her mother love as a result, learning that her husband couldn’t spend even a few months alone before stepping out with another woman, enduring the incremental loss of her humanity to the point where she takes a terrible beating over who gets the top bunk. All for the principle that the press must be a trusted court of last resort against the abuses of the powerful.

The script is terrific and incredibly smart. Bonnie tells Rachel that her case is fading from the public eye and advises her to do an interview with touchie-feelie media figure Molly Meyers (Angelica Tom). The first questions are of the “how do you feel” variety. Then Molly gets “real”: “I have to ask. Who was your source?” Rachel toughly counters, “Why do you have to ask? You said to me before we went on air that you were with me.” Molly, on the defensive, says, “We all could be in your shoes.” “I’m sorry,” Rachel says, “but you couldn’t ever be in my shoes because frankly, the FBI doesn’t care how you found out where Paris dined last night.” What an indictment of the empty calories infotainment reporters serve the audiences they have turned into junk news junkies. Another line I love is when Burnside says, “Sometimes a mistake is like wearing white after Labor Day, and sometimes a mistake is invading Russia in winter!”


Perhaps the grandest moment is when Burnside presents Rachel’s case before the Supreme Court:

In 1972 in Branzburg v. Hayes this Court ruled against the right of reporters to withhold the names of their sources before a grand jury, and it gave the power to the government to imprison those reporters who did. It was a 5-4 decision, close. In his dissent in Branzburg, Justice Stewart said, ‘As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. Those in power,’ he said, ‘whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it, and the people are the victims.’ Well, the years have passed, and that power is pervasive. Mrs. Armstrong could have buckled to the demands of the government. She could’ve abandoned her promise of confidentiality. She could’ve simply gone home to her family. But to do so would mean that no source would ever speak to her again, and no source would ever speak to her newspaper again. And then tomorrow, when we lock up journalists from other newspapers, we’ll make those publications irrelevant as well, and thus we’ll make the First Amendment irrelevant. And then how will we know if a President has covered up crimes or if an army officer has condoned torture? We as a nation will no longer be able to hold those in power accountable to those whom they have power over, and what then is the nature of government when it has no fear of accountability? We should shudder at the thought. Imprisoning journalists: that’s for other countries, that’s for countries who fear their citizens, not countries that cherish and protect them. Some time ago, I began to feel the personal, human pressure on Rachel Armstrong, and I told her that I was there to represent her and not her principle. And it was not until I met her that I realized that with great people, there’s no difference between principle and the person.

This isn’t even a little corny. This is something many people, including me, believe passionately.

Judge Hall eventually frees Rachel, convinced that further incarceration will have no effect on her resolve. Dubois is furious that Hall is letting a criminal go, but in fact, Rachel committed no crime under Hall’s jurisdiction. As she is being driven away from jail, she is stopped and arrested for criminal obstruction of justice, a charge for which she accepts a plea bargain. Rachel says good-bye to her son under a gazebo at a public park before beginning to serve her 2-year prison term. And then the entire film is cheapened, nearly destroyed, by the final reveal of the original source for Rachel’s story.

BIG SPOILER: In a flashback, Rachel is on a school bus with Timmy’s class. She has changed seats with a boy who has been harassing a little girl, and begins writing on her laptop. The little girl turns out to be Erica’s daughter Allison (Kristen Bough), and Allison asks Erica what she does. She says she writes for a newspaper. Then Allison says her daddy is a writer, but that her mommy argues with him about what he puts in his stories, things about mommy’s work. Having just read Van Doren’s spy novel, Rachel puts two and two together and asks Allison if her mommy was in Venezuela. “Yes, but don’t tell anyone I told you,” Allison says. “You bet,” Rachel agrees.

I asked my colleague, media critic Steve Rhodes, about whether Allison could be considered a source or a lead. Here’s what he said:

Wow, I can’t believe that ending! I think you got it right at the end – that would be a lead, not a confirmation. Who knows what goes on in the imagination of a five-year-old. Plus, you don’t make confidentiality agreements with five-year-olds, who do not have the understanding of what they are involved in. Now, is that an agreement you have to uphold? . . . My instinct is to say she shouldn’t give up a source, but she never should have made a ‘deal’ with a five-year-old, and I hate the fact that the movie used that gimmick to make its point. It makes me forget that the point is to not give up a source; instead, I feel like a five-year-old isn’t a legitimate source in the first place.

I must say, I agree. I and many of my fellow moviegoers felt cheated, as though the film decided to be about how Rachel is all woman for protecting a child from, from what exactly? Her mother exactly. While Erica might have been fired for discussing her work at home, Allison certainly wouldn’t have been in danger of prosecution. The film subtly reinforces the importance of mother love over journalistic ethics and the public’s right to know and, thus, becomes a reactionary film in the end. END SPOILER.

All of the performances are great, with special kudos to Matt Dillon who played the fictional version of every Illinoisan’s hero, Patrick Fitzgerald, and Vera Farmiga, whose fierce, complex performance as Erica Van Doren was a real tour de force. Kate Beckinsale was a solid anchor for this film, building admiration and sympathy as she showed her fear and rage, but still wouldn’t buckle. Remember, leave after the gazebo scene and bask in the intelligence and glory that this film really offers.

11th 06 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Our Backstreets #10: Mommie Dearest Strikes Again

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps some of you saw an Associated Press story in your local paper or online news service (Comcast, for example) this past week reporting on the findings of a study comparing obesity in children with parenting style. The headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read “Strict Moms Raise Fatter Kids: Study.” The lead graf was: ”’Clean your plate or else!’ and other authoritarian approaches to parenting can lead to overweight children, a new study finds.”

Well, it’s hard for me to believe that a study published in the June issue of Pediatrics actually cited the phrase “clean your plate or else” in describing its findings, but since I don’t subscribe to Pediatrics, I can’t say for sure. The AP article was bylined by Carla K. Johnson, who I have learned is supposedly the first medical writer to have started a blog. She is quoted in Poynteronline (“Everything you need to be a better journalist”) as saying, “People comment that my blog is fun to read. I try to look for quirky health stories, something I can make a wry comment about. . . . I’m bringing a more casual tone into some of my print stories.” So, I think maybe she made that lead up.

I’m intrigued by how many media outlets picked up this item. Not all of them used the accusatory headline that was in the Sun-Times. The Washington Post started with “Strict Parenting Linked to Overweight Kids.” ABC affiliate KATU-TV has “Study Finds Strict Parenting Can Lead to Overweight Kids” on its website. To be frank, however, the Sun-Times headline, while more offensive, was also more honest. The study drew from data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which surveyed only mothers and children.

I have limited access to the data used in this study. You have to pay to use it, and that’s exactly what a lot of academics do who can’t get funding for their own studies but need to publish to keep their jobs and gain that increasingly elusive tenure. What I have learned is that the study authors constructed four parenting styles using two scales—maternal sensitivity and maternal expectations for child self-control—and compared the mothers in the data mine’s longitudinal study with the weight of their offspring over time. Hence, the finding that what they called “authoritarian” mothering created fatter children.

Why the National Institute study chose not to involve fathers in their data mine is a basic question any reporter should have asked. A good reporter also would have asked about food choices that were the norm in the study households. Fast food is a popular—and fattening—choice because almost all kids will eat it, and modern families frequently don’t have time for traditional sit-down meals. In addition, there was no mention of the commercial food industry that creates demand for high-calorie cereals, desserts, and snacks through advertising and entertainment tie-ins as being a link in the child obesity chain. I question the peer reviewers at Pediatrics for accepting this article for publication, but I’m not really here to bludgeon the academic press.

Rather, I am tired of the media taking the easy way out on medical studies and especially looking for “hooks” that will resonate in the public consciousness. The long and complicated history of Mom in the culture wars that have dominated the second half of the 20th century is further tangled by reporters looking for wry and quirky data to feed undigested to media that are getting increasingly boilerplate in their coverage. (I also wonder why Carla Johnson [or an editor at the Sun-Times] felt the need to Anglicize the name of the study’s lead author from Kyung to Kay, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Moms have a hard time these days juggling multiple responsibilities, and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty about whether their necessary disciplining is going to jeopardize their children’s health. I think perhaps journalism ought to worry less about strict moms and more about lax reporters and editors and the health of the news they’re putting out there. l

8th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

Our Backstreets #2: Finley Peter Dunne: The Bard of Bridgeport

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As I look across my bookshelves, works by Russell Baker, Anna Quindlen, Mike Royko, and Myles na Gopaleen (aka, Flann O’Brien) and a first-edition of Nelson Algren’s nonfiction collection, Who Stole an American, remind methat when it came to writing, journalism was my first love. This blog is the realization of a very long-standing dream of mine to have my own column.

I had to experience a lot and hone my craft to get to this point. But perhaps the most important thing I did on the road to fulfillment was to discover Finley Peter Dunne. The first sentence of the preface of the book that started it all for me, Charles Fanning’s Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years, says, “Every four years editorial writers remember that Finley Peter Dunne created a bartender-philosopher named Martin Dooley, whose comments on national politics remain fresh enough for resurrection and application to the current presidential campaign.” Alas, that sentence no longer pertains. Dunne has faded like the numerous newspapers, causes, and times he wrote for and about. I’m not sure that the residents of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, Irish stronghold of Chicago mayors and the place Dunne attempted to paint in dialect and prose for so many years, would even recognize his name.

I have never forgotten him, but I haven’t revisited his works in a while. However, recent events in Chicago—the retiring of the name of the Marshall Field’s department store in favor of its new owner, Macy’s; the announced closing of the 100+-year-old German restaurant The Berghoff; and the demolition of ParKing, the miniature-golf mecca of my youth—had me dipping into Fanning’s book for a taste of old Chicago and the man who set me on the road to my professional future.

Dunne got his start at the Chicago Daily News in 1884 and began experimenting with reporting in Irish dialect at the Chicago Times in 1889. He job-hopped quite a bit, eventually landing at the Evening Post, where he gave birth to Martin Dooley on October 7, 1893, as follows:

Business was dull in the liquor-shop of Mr. Martin Dooley in Archey [Archer] Road last Wednesday night and Mr. Dooley was sitting back in the rear of the shop holding a newspaper at arm’s length before him and reading the sporting news. In came Mr. John McKenna…
“…’Good evening, Martin,’ he said.

“‘Hello, Jawnny,’ replied Mr. Dooley, as if they had parted only the evening before. ‘How’s thricks? I don’t mind, Jawnny, if I do. ‘Tis duller here than a ray-publican primary in th’ fourth wa-ard, th’ night. Sure, ye’re like a ray iv sunlight, ye ar that.”

Through the 1890s, Dunne would use Mr. Dooley to report on the Irish experience in America as lived by the residents of Bridgeport, providing a unique record of this evolving community. Just as we baby boomers learned at the knees of our Depression-formed parents, Dunne was influenced by his elders, refugees from the Irish Famine. He recorded indelibly the pain of their experience.

Comparing poor strike-bound families in Chicago with Famine victims, he said:

Tis not th’ min, ye mind; ’tis th’ women an’ childhren. Glory be to Gawd, I can scarce go out f’r a wa-alk f’r pity at seein’ th’ little wans settin’ on th’ stoops an’ th’ women with thim lines in th’ fa-ace that I seen but wanst befure, an’ that in our parish over beyant, whin th’ potatoes was all kilt be th’ frost an’ th’ oats rotted with th’ dhrivin’ rain. . . Musha, but ’tis a sound to dhrive ye’er heart cold whin a woman sobs an’ th’ young wans cries, an’ both because there’s no bread in th’ house. (EP, Aug. 25, 1894)

Dunne’s chronicles saw no event as too small to note. A church play staged by parish youth, weddings and funerals, raffles—all provided fodder for Mr. Dunne’s street sage. He used Dooley to hammer hard at the killing division of haves and have-nots in American society, writing especially damning columns during the extremely harsh winter of 1896-1897:

A man, or a woman ayether, has to have what ye may call peculiar qualifications f’r to gain th’ lump iv coal or th’ pound iv steak that an organized charity gives out. He must be honest an’ sober an’ industhrious. He must have a frind in th’ organization. He must have arned th’ right to beg his bread be th’ sweat iv his brow. He must be able to comport himself like a gintleman in fair society an’ play a good hand at whist. He must have a marridge license over th’ pianny an’ a goold-edged Bible on th’ marble-topped table.

His columns broadened over time, and those on the Spanish-American War catapulted him to the national stage at the turn of the 20th century. He moved to New York, became prosperous, and eventually lost touch with the Bridgeport neighborhood that formed him. One day, Mr. Dooley became irrelevant, and he vanished from Dunne’s writing. But he deserves a new audience; as the above excerpt shows us, the times haven’t changed nearly enough.

I know that reading dialect can be hard going, but what a gift it is to have a virtual recording of voices at this momentous time in American history! I’ll end this meditation on the estimable Mr. Dunne with Mr. Dooley’s justification for the types of columns Dunne wrote in Chicago:

I know histhry isn’t thrue, Hinnissy, because it ain’t like what I see ivry day in Halsted Sthreet. If any wan comes along with a histhry iv Greece or Rome that’ll show me th’ peopole fightin’, gettin’ dhrunk, makin’ love, gettin’ married, owin’ th’ grocery man an’ bein’ without hard-coal, I’ll believe they was a Greece or Rome, but not before. Historyans is like doctors. They are always lookin’ f’r symptoms. Those iv them that writes about their own times examines th’ tongue an’ feels th’ pulse an’ makes a wrong dygnosis. Th’ other kind iv histhry is a post-mortem examination. It tells ye what a counthry died iv. But I’d like to know what it lived iv.

Fanning, Charles. (1978). Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

The Literary Encyclopedia short biography of Finley Peter Dunne: http://tinyurl.com/8so6h

5th 01 - 2006 | 3 comments »

Control Room (2004)

Director: Jehane Noujaim

By Marilyn Ferdinand

An experiment in the public’s right to know began when Al Jazeera began broadcasting in the 1990s. This news organization, headquartered in Qatar, was widely reviled for criticizing the governments of the Arab countries of the Middle East that contain its target audience. Attempts to silence Al Jazeera failed, and the organization is the now the most popular in the Arab world. The nascent organization, however, came up against one of its most dangerous foes in 2003 – the United States.

Al Jazeera – working on the brink of the invasion of Iraq, during the war, and at the moment Baghdad was occupied by coalition forces – is the subject of this film by Egyptian-American documentarian Jehane Noujaim. Noujaim does an excellent job of providing a thumbnail history of Al Jazeera, impressing the personalities of her ‘characters’ on the minds of viewers and then letting us see what reporting the war was like for this organization and others, including most of the major American news outlets.

Foremost among the individuals we get to know are Sameer Khader, Al Jazeera’s senior producer; the rotund, affable Hassan Ibrahim, a former BBC reporter; and Cpt. Josh Rushing, press liaison with the U.S. military. Each of these individuals, most impressively Rushing, has some degree of skepticism about the information they are giving and receiving.

In Rushing’s case, he comes to doubt what he is doing. Starting as a fresh-faced optimist who has arrived in Iraq to help liberate its people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, he rather quickly comes to see how the people all around him are spinning and counterspinning stories and information, how stories his office is issuing are picked up (or not) and used by both international and American news services, and how his basic assumptions about life may need scrutiny when he realizes he has been made nauseated by an Al Jazeera broadcast showing dead Americans, but reacted less strongly to a story shown the night before depicting Iraqi victims of an American bombing. He also learns that while Americans see the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as separate from Iraq, Arabs look at it as one issue.

Khader seems like a typical producer looking to please his audience. He’s also learning how to be a journalist who combines the strong partisanship of European journalism with the more objective balance for which American journalists strive. For example, he is appalled by an interview his booker has arranged via satellite with an American in Washington, D.C. The man is an antiwar activist, and Khader is very angry that his booker did not get someone who could offer his audience a balanced viewpoint.

Ibrahim is, by far, the most fair-sighted of our main characters. He’s aware of the many angles of news gathering and storytelling, seeing how all sides will view whatever actions are taken. He is sort of the Father Christmas of the story, a comforting presence in a sea of danger, death, and disinformation. Things get tense for Al Jazeera and other Arab news services when Don Rumsfeld comes to see them as hampering attempts for Americans to be effective ‘liberators’ because they keep showing the civilian costs of the war that are inciting anti-American sentiment. In one of the most damnable actions of the Americans during the whole war, bombs target Al Jazeera headquarters in Baghdad, as well as Abu Dabi News headquarters and a hotel known to house journalists. It is an action worthy of any totalitarian regime.

The film is eye-opening, warm, and, unfortunately, carefully edited to create a sequence of events that appear to make a causal link between Rumsfeld’s complaints about Al Jazeera and the bombing of their reporters. That link may be very real, but it does weaken the case for the objectivity of this film. On the other hand, news organizations that take sides are not considered suspect in most parts of the world – including, despite protests to the contrary, the United States. Perhaps this is just another point of the documentary.

I highly recommend this film to anyone interested in journalism, especially those interested in how a free press might develop in formerly repressive areas of the world. l

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