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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 1, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Unbroken, Face Off, Napoleon

Yes, I agree completely, Christmas is over for another year and I should leave it behind.

Except for one video. About a little boy whose best friend is a penguin. A penguin that wants something for Christmas. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iccscUFY860

*

I know quite a few people who read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand has the gift of taking stories that are only mildly interesting and making them seem compelling, and this story of an American Olympic athlete who is singled out for torment in a Japanese prison camp during World War II offered her plenty to work with.

The reason I never read it was that as people told me about the story, it seemed to me that what Louie Zamperini went through did not begin to plumb the depths of Japanese atrocities toward prisoners in World War II.

Having read Ghost Soldiers (by Hampton Sides), the account of American prisoners who survived the Bataan Death March and were rescued just before their guards could carry out the death orders issued near the end of the war, I was keenly aware that the sort of experience Zamperini went through while imprisoned was not all that rare.

Cynically, I assumed that what made him "matter" more than the other prisoners was not that his treatment was unusual, but that he was a celebrity.

However, in conversations after seeing the movie, I've learned that for Zamperini himself, his story was important primarily because of his religious conversion before the war, and the vow he made to dedicate his life to God if he was allowed to live through his tribulations.

That vow is in the movie -- a surprising fact, given Hollywood's abhorrence of any kind of affirmation of religious faith. However, the movie completely skips his religious conversion (guided in part by a young Billy Graham) and gives no other hint of him praying or turning to God in any way during his worst trials as a prisoner.

That's no surprise, and I don't even disagree with the decision to downplay the religious element, if only because the evangelical version of the story would probably be relentlessly, tediously affirmative toward religion. Better to underplay than overplay the religious angle -- that's my bias, at least.

However, in watching the movie, what struck me was not the religious element at all. The screenwriters -- an astonishing team consisting of the Coen brothers (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Raising Arizona, True Grit, No Country for Old Men), Richard LaGravenese (Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer, Beloved, Water for Elephants), and William Nicholson (Gladiator, Mandela, LesMiserables, First Knight, Nell, Shadowlands) -- were faced with a very difficult story.

In a book, you can segue from juvenile delinquent to Olympic runner to B-29 bombardier to lifeboat survivor to prison camp inmate because you have hundreds of pages to work with.

In a screenplay, however, you only have a couple of hours -- in this case, two hours and seventeen minutes -- to tell your story. The audience expects a certain amount of unity. If a story begins with an Italian immigrant juvenile delinquent, then presumably the movie will end by fulfilling some kind of promise made in that opening.

But when it's a true story, life doesn't offer such neatly tied-off conclusions. Once Zamperini gets into the B-29 as bombardier, it doesn't matter any more whether he was the son of hardscrabble Italian immigrants or of a Southern Baptist minister or of an atheist Harvard professor.

The fact that he was an Olympic athlete only mattered because it seemed to annoy his chief tormentor among the Japanese guards. The sorts of things that happened to him happened to others -- and far worse torments.

The writers struggled to make the whole story hold together, and for them it was not Zamperini's faith but his struggle to become a champion runner that became the focus tying everything together. They treat his athletic training as the thing that saved him from a life of crime, and the same dedication that made him a winner in races became the key to his survival as a prisoner.

Those were valid artistic decisions. But they still didn't do the job. Ultimately, if we did not know this story was based on a real man's life, we would not be as satisfied with it as, say, An Officer and a Gentleman, another military story in which a young man is tormented and goaded into survival and achievement by an angry NCO.

For me, it's always a problem when a story depends for its success on knowledge that the audience brings with them into the theater. Perhaps I'm too demanding, but I think storytelling should be self-contained: For Unbroken to be great, the film should work whether we know Zamperini was a real man or not.

But maybe I'm being too harsh. Because once we get to the prison camp, the filmmakers' decision to focus on the relationship between Zamperini and a Japanese corporal named Watanabe (and nicknamed "The Bird" by the American prisoners) gave the movie a powerful focus.

In fact, to me the most interesting aspect of the movie was the character of Watanabe, and the actor who played him, Takamasa Ishihara, may well be the actor with the most powerful screen presence I have ever seen. He blows everybody else off the screen -- including Jack O'Connell as Zamperini.

O'Connell is very, very good as Zamperini -- but his role pales beside that of The Bird, exactly as Luke Skywalker vanishes in the presence of Darth Vader.

Yet this is not a mistake in the making of this movie, because it is inevitable: Zamperini can't do anything, while Watanabe initiates everything. Zamperini's part is passive in the extreme. As a kid he is rescued and goaded to athletic success by his brother. As a bombardier he follows orders; as a life raft survivor he can only cope with whatever difficulties come his way.

Then, in prison camp, his role is completely passive. The closest he comes to being an active participant in his own story is his demand that other prisoners hit him, when they are ordered to do so by The Bird, and then in his mighty roar as he lifts the beam high over his head in defiance.

Yet this latter action comes after a moment of weakness. Other prisoners are still carrying on in their slave labor at a Japanese port; he alone sits down to rest, unable to go on. Only then does The Bird once again single him out for torment; and the surprise is that Zamperini isn't simply shot, which is what the Japanese routinely did to prisoners who gave up or gave out.

Making Watanabe the focus of the film is, ultimately, the most historically dishonest thing in the movie, however. While it follows film-school rules about focusing on a single antagonist, it obscures the fact that torture and murder were routine in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

They needed no sadistic Watanabe to single out Americans for torture. It was a matter of Japanese policy to torture prisoners, punishing them individually for daring to make war against the Japanese Empire.

But routine torture does not make for a good movie, especially in our politically correct times. Making the enemies of America into obscenely evil monsters is not good Hollywood ideology these days -- even when it's the simple truth.

Ideology aside, however, it's also not good movie-making, and if the Japanese torment of Allied prisoners has been turned into routine practice, it would have made the Japanese recede into the background -- a faceless mob. By focusing on Watanabe, the torture was turned into a single malevolent will. It became a choice, not a habit, and therefore was more interesting.

No, let's just admit it: It's more entertaining. Because even though this is a true story, it is also an entertainment -- a Hollywood movie designed to make money. (That's not a criticism: It's the need to make money that keeps films from going off into the neverland of artiness that has kidnapped art fiction and poetry.)

And what does it make its money from? The depiction of an underdog American who faces three overwhelming challenges and achieves victory each time -- first by rising out of poverty and crime through footracing, then surviving on the open ocean against all odds, and finally by outlasting a tormentor who singled him out in prison camp.

That's right. Angelina Jolie has made a hit movie that depends on audiences inwardly chanting "U.S.A! U.S.A!"

It's about American spunk -- as embodied by our great national self-story, the despised immigrant who makes good no matter what.

In fact, with the current Republican obsession with punishing immigrants, they are actually performing a valuable service: Republicans will now be the all-purpose villains in a new generation of that same old story. We're just about ready for the award-winning movie about the illegal Mexican immigrant or the Vietnamese boat escapee or the Nigerian political refugee who overcomes Republican hostility to achieve the American dream.

All we need is a true story to latch onto.

With all my quibbling, Unbroken remains a very entertaining, positive movie. It could have been made as an R-rated movie, but director Angelina Jolie showed great restraint, not only in the soldiers' language but also in the scenes of torture depicted. The movie has a PG-13 rating because young children would certainly be disturbed by the constant threat of death and some of the terrible things that occur. Yet the worst things occur offscreen.

I would also like to salute Unbroken for being the first convincing depiction of life aboard a B-29 during World War II. The claustrophobia, the exposure, the vertigo of flying in a confined space at medium altitudes while under attack -- I've never seen it done half so well before.

And while there are many admirable performances in this movie, the actor I'm most eager to see again is Takamasa Ishihara. I hope other directors have taken note of his raw power on the screen. This man has the talent and the charisma to be a great actor and an unforgettable star.

When you consider that he's also a composer and animator, I can easily believe that he has the intelligence and talent to make a real difference in the world of film.

*

With all the first-rate "reality shows" on television these days, it's hard to pick a favorite. They're all so different from each other. So You Think You Can Dance demonstrates real brilliance in an incredibly difficult art, week after week. American Ninja Warrior does the same thing, with astonishing athletic achievements on the hardest obstacle courses imaginable.

But there are also some wonderful low-key contest shows that offer insights into other demanding arts.

I wish Wizard Wars would give us at least an occasional reveal about how a particular illusion is carried off. The closest they come is when Teller's mouth hangs open to show his genuine astonishment, as when an autumn leaf he signed shows up inside a sealed bottle of maple syrup that has been under observation the whole time.

But, alas, Wizard Wars adheres to the magicians' code of never telling how a trick is done.

Fortunately, there is no such code with Face Off, a contest among special-effect makeup artists who are assigned to create full-body fantasy or sci-fi costumes, working within insane time limits.

We get to watch each of the competitors -- who, like the contestants in So You Think You Can Dance and American Ninja Warrior, are all very good -- sketch their designs, then begin to model them in clay and put them together on a living model.

There is a strong feeling of collegiality among these artists -- they recognize when their competitors have done well, and the show's producers make no attempt to juice up the ratings with fake rivalries.

The panel of experts (along with a guest judge, who is usually an actor who has shared the screen with various monsters and creatures) do a superb job of explaining to the contestants -- and to us -- why certain effects are good, how they are lacking, and which effects were particularly hard to bring off well.

Thus we understand why a creature that wasn't terribly successful might be praised for its sheer ambition, while a creature that seems to have fewer flaws is dismissed as relatively easy.

There are also mentors who comment on work under construction, offering tips that sometimes can lead to real improvements -- but usually come too late in the game to make much difference, except that the artist is all the more insecure as he or she finishes up.

At the end of the contest, the artists present their creations and explain them. They don't really defend their work -- in fact, sometimes they point out elements that don't satisfy them. Professional pride comes into play here: There's none of that fake-confident "We're gonna win" mentality, because they know that they are constantly auditioning within the film industry with everything they do and say.

They would rather have a potential employer hear them offer self-criticism, so that he or she will know that these artists will do much better work when they have time to go back and fix mistakes.

The contestants have interesting, engaging personalities. In the real world of creature creation, nobody works alone; you aren't going to succeed if you can't collaborate respectfully with other artists. So within a couple of episodes, you find yourself liking everybody.

Yet when a competitor is eliminated each week, there's none of the hostility of Donald Trump's "You're Fired," or the despair of being dropped from American Idol. In fact, I have never disagreed with the judges' decision -- and it seems that the competitors almost always know, before the decision, whether they have done excellent work or not.

Sometimes they squeak through only because somebody made worse mistakes; with a sigh of relief they go on to try to do better work the next time. But when Dina won the most recent season, it was especially gratifying because week after week, she had done work that surprised even herself with its quality.

She had a gift for making costumes and makeups into a harmonious whole that looks as if it might really work on the screen.

The only place where I disagree with the judges is when they give a bad costume a pass because it somehow is an hommage to the awful man-in-a-sack monsters of 1950s Japanese horror films.

Who cares if it's an hommage when it's also fromage -- pure cheese. If it would look absurd on screen, who cares if it reminds you of unbelievable costumes from fifty years ago? It's the reason I didn't like Outer Limits when it was supposedly the cutting edge of television monster shows: Man-in-a-sack costumes look stupid and destroy believability, and therefore eliminate the fear factor. Shows don't work when monsters look dumb.

Most of the time, however, the competitors -- and the judges -- try for, and give most praise to, the costumes and makeups that are most convincing. They also give high praise to beauty and to flawless execution.

I must also give a bit of praise to the models, who endure these makeups and then try to make them effective for the judges. Some of them are extraordinarily transformed -- and yet, like Andy Serkis as Gollum (and everybody else), they also remain themselves.

One of the best moments in every makeup presentation is when they do a computer morph from the model's face to the finished makeup. It makes the transformation all the more remarkable, for we are reminded of the human face underneath all the prosthetics and paint.

Face Off runs on SyFy, and you can vew clips and past episodes at syfy.com. Of course, every clip is preceded by an ad -- but the ads are short and sometimes entertaining.

No, there's not the drama of American Ninja or the powerful kinetic artistry of So You Think You Can Dance. But the contestants are real artists, and the work they do is often excellent and sometimes memorably beautiful and effective.

I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine careers are made and hiring is done based on this show. Sculpting new creatures on a living human body is an art that you don't make a living at unless somebody is hiring -- but I kept thinking, I'd like to see what Dina or Cig would do with this or that character of mine.

*

Napoleon has been dead for a long time, but the effects of his life and work are still with us. During World War II, Hitler was constantly being compared to Napoleon, and not just because they both conquered most of continental Europe before hammering their empires to death in the snows of Russia.

In both cases, England stood alone against the European hegemons; in the case of Napoleon, England even financed most of the armies that came against him. If England had been willing to make peace with him (something that he often asked for), then the war would have been over.

But comparisons between Napoleon and Hitler are grossly misleading. Winston Churchill loved to make that comparison during World War II because England retained powerful memories of successfully standing alone against the military genius of Napoleon. It was good propaganda.

But it was also false in almost every way. First, Napoleon's wars rarely began with him -- most of the time, others declared war on him, and he was often perfectly content to remain behind the existing borders or even make significant concessions.

Second, Napoleon did not bring havoc, genocide, and destruction to the lands he conquered.

On the contrary, he usually brought far better government than the people had known before. Lands that had been fragmented were unified; corrupt, inept government was replaced by something approaching competence; cruel and whimsical legal systems were replaced by the Napoleonic Code, which continues to be the legal basis in many countries throughout the world because it was so much better and fairer than what had existed before.

Napoleon may well have been the most competent autocrat in all of history. He is famed for his military genius, but he didn't always follow his own maxims, and in the end his defeats were pretty much his own fault. Wellington is on record as having said that he was glad that he never had to face Napoleon in the field until Waterloo -- but even in that battle, Napoleon's mistakes were more telling than any opponent's genius.

No, what made Napoleon remarkable was that in many lands, he was seen as a liberator, a shining light -- and he tried to live up to that image. Before he became the commander of France's armies, he was a true believer in the French Revolution, and if early on he was sometimes distracted by his Corsican patriotism, he soon committed himself to republican ideals -- and did so before it was clear that they were going to prevail.

So he had political courage and vision as well as military talent, and even if his becoming emperor is often seen as a betrayal of the republican ideal, he never lost his commitment to most of the principles of good republican government. When he created a new aristocracy, he never allowed them to become an oppressive ruling class as in the ancien regime; nobody in his empire was above the law.

It's also worth remembering that Napoleon was no more French than Alexander the Great was Greek. He always spoke French with a strong Corsican accent; even his name was Italian, since his family originally came from Tuscany. He was Napoleon Buonaparte until he deliberately dropped that Italian "u" in order to seem more French.

Nor was Napoleon one of those military leaders who loved to compete in sports (even the fragile Winston Churchill was a terror on the polo field). When the other boys in his military academy were engaged in competitive games, he was in his room poring over books, reading (and remembering) everything he could get his hands on -- about war, yes, but also about politics and everything else.

He even wrote a novel and several short stories, putting him with Churchill and Disraeli as national leaders who were fiction writers before they succeeded in politics. (Only Disraeli was actually successful in writing fiction, however, and only Churchill became rich from his writing career.)

Napoleon's biggest flaw as a ruler was his over-reliance on his generally untalented family (the only exception being his brother Lucien, an effective politician and committed republican even before Napoleon). But this was understandable because Napoleon faced the same quandary as all absolute rulers: He depended completely on other people giving him accurate information and carrying out his orders faithfully even when he wasn't watching.

Unfortunately, his assumption that his family would be loyal was usually quite wrong. And Napoleon's personal generosity with people who had betrayed him was usually repaid as Julius Caesar's similar trait was repaid -- with further betrayals.

In this age of incompetent politicians being elevated because they reflect the insane ideologies of the day, it is refreshing to read a biography like the brilliantly written Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, which I listened to as an audiobook narrated by John Lee.

I had read books about Napoleon's military campaigns before, and therefore I sometimes found Roberts's accounts of battles too hasty and a bit oversimplified. Yet in the main, these are handled exactly right -- enough detail to understand why Napoleon won (or lost), but not so much detail as to become confusing or boring.

Where Napoleon: A Life shines is in the account of Napoleon's personal life and, more importantly, his political life. While his devotion to women who didn't really love him was a bit pathetic, what really mattered was the brilliance of the laws and institutions he created. Not every idea of his worked, of course -- in this he resembles the only comparable figure in recent history, Winston Churchill -- but enough of them worked that Europe was transformed.

Hitler left behind him nothing but ashes ... and Volkswagens. Napoleon left behind him a world that could never return to what it had been before, and almost all the changes were for the better.

Nor could responsibility for the carnage of war be laid at his feet, as in the case of Hitler. Napoleon entered into a war already under way, and repeatedly tried to end it by negotiation with untrustworthy opponents.

This is an interesting book about one of the great figures of history. While it's good to read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel to see how great forces and underlying natural causes help to shape history, Napoleon: A Life offers a powerful corrective. Without Napoleon, it's hard to imagine that European history (and therefore world history) could have unfolded in anything like the pattern that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries.

Great forces are important in history, but so are great men and women, and there are few figures in all of human history who exerted anything like the direct and indirect influence of Napoleon. He changed the world he lived in, and goes on changing our world today; and his image and memory continue to be influential as well.

As we approach the election of 2016, in what is probably still the most powerful nation on Earth, the tragedy is that even if we had anyone with the brilliance and vision of a Napoleon or Churchill, it is almost certain that we would not elect him. Because any candidate who has actually accomplished anything is sure to be destroyed by the ideological purists in both parties, who are the constant enemies of good government.

Napoleon was able to cut through all that nonsense because he achieved prominence, and then dominance, through military power and, finally, a coup d'etat. That is not at all the road that any American president can or should take; but with the current pattern of American politics, where stupidity rules on both extremes, and moderation is a death sentence to political ambition, it is hard to be hopeful that anyone with real ability or wisdom or integrity will rise to power in America again.

In short, America today resembles, not Napoleon's France, but rather the doddering empires that he toppled -- ossified into self-defeating patterns that guaranteed their destruction when faced by a talented, visionary opponent with a relentless army.

If you don't have time to sit down and read all 976 pages of Napoleon: A Life, do consider downloading it from Audible.com or buying it on CD. Lee's reading of the book is excellent, and if he sometimes mispronounces words and names in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, his French is superb and his reading is clear and expressive.

Listening to a long book is relatively painless, since you can do it during time otherwise wasted: while running errands or taking long car trips. Putting Napoleon: A Life into your memory will help clarify and refresh your understanding of how politics works at the highest levels, and what foreign policy is always about: force and the threat of force. Anybody who doesn't understand that (like our current president) is doomed to ineffectiveness, and puts his own nation in great danger from those who do.


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