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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 10, 2003

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


The Pianist, Tears, Savages, and Useful Idiots

No sooner do I say that I am not going to do something than I have to do it.

Last week I said I wouldn't see The Pianist because I was done with the emotional outpouring that holocaust films, good or bad, always elicit.

So there we were, Wednesday night, and the only thing playing that my wife and I hadn't seen that seemed worth seeing was the very film I had just declared I wouldn't see.

We paid our money. We went inside.

Here's the weird thing. I still haven't seen it.

Because about a half hour from the end, the power went out at the Carousel theaters. So now I have a rain check to see it later -- but I know how the universe works. I'm going to teach a workshop in DC this week, and The Pianist won't be playing in Greensboro by the time I get back.

Still, I have to tell you, this is a gorgeously made and powerfully acted film. It does not feel exploitative the way Schindler's List did. While there is plenty of cruelty, it doesn't wallow in it.

The extraordinary achievement of Ronald Harwood's script is that in the midst of unbearable events, we are still able to see real human relationships. People don't know they're in the midst of "tragedy." They're just trying to get by.

There are moments of genuine grace, like when the hero, walking with his sister to a train that is sure to lead them to their deaths, says to her, "I wish I'd gotten to know you better." His simple words, her simple reply, and I found it devastatingly beautiful. The words that can truly be said to anyone you know when death stares you in the face.

Oddly enough, we were most of the way through the film and we still hadn't seen where his piano playing becomes his ticket to survival. Doesn't matter. It may be called The Pianist, but that's because What Humans Do in the Face of Death wouldn't be a very commercial title.

Adrien Brody's performance is brilliant, but it is quite still. He is the center of the story, around whom everything else revolves; his are the eyes we see through. In his stillness there is great power, but it remains to be seen whether he is a great actor, or merely a great presence on the screen.

Unless, of course, the floodgates open in the portion of the film I haven't seen.

*

Tears of the Sun looks like a war movie, and it certainly can be taken that way. But on the eve of war with Iraq, I think it is also a political movie and, more than that, a moral one. And I think we owe it to Bruce Willis more than anyone else that this movie got made, and that it got made with its meaning intact.

If you want to go see a film filled with action, heroism, dire jeopardy, and lots of explosions, then you're already going to see Tears and you don't need my recommendation.

But if you are also interested in understanding why some wars are not fighting -- even wars in which the U.S. has no "compelling national interest" -- then this movie is a realistic, powerful examination of why we sometimes need to fight dangerous wars when we aren't forced into it by anything except the moral imperative.

We've fought wars in our history that I wish we hadn't fought -- for example, all the military interventions in this century for United Fruit Company. And the Mexican War didn't do us much credit.

But there are also wars that we should have fought and didn't, to our shame. Without ever saying so, this movie makes the case for why we should have intervened in Rwanda.

There are monsters in the world. And, in the words of Edward Burke that run at the end of this film, for evil to triumph in the world, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.

Are we good people? That's what Tears of the Sun asks us to decide.

And what if you don't care about this issue, either? Then perhaps you ought to see this film to be reminded that Bruce Willis is one of our great American actors. He doesn't do accents; he doesn't cry a lot in his movies (though I have no doubt he could, if he needed to).

But his range is still astonishing. As with Jack Nicholson, with whom he bears comparison, Willis seems to have a lot of quirks that show up in almost every performance, and that can fool you into thinking he's limited. The opposite is the truth: Willis can take badly- and over-written roles and make them believable and charming; and when he actually has a script, he creates a living soul.

There are roles Willis can't do. But it's worth remembering that the roles he can do, nobody else could hope to do as well. From supporting roles like the one he played in the brilliant Nobody's Fool to leading roles like this one in Tears of the Sun, Willis brings to his parts what Gary Cooper always brought: a sense of pain and yearning under a surface that is stoic or brash.

That's rare and precious among actors. He does not get the respect as an "artist" that he deserves -- but then, neither did a lot of our best. But their films live on, and we still love them for the memories they gave us, for the heroes that they played.

*

Political books by conservatives seem to hit the top of the lists. Some of them do it because they deal with themes that strike a chord with many thousands of readers.

Some of them do it because their author has developed a following on television or talk radio.

As liberals bend over backward to try to create liberal tv and radio shows to counterbalance the conservative ones, I have to laugh.

These efforts at liberal "answers" to conservative talk shows always fail, and probably always will, for one simple reason:

The conservative audience is hungry to hear somebody describe the world they believe they live in.

The world in which only a few people protested the Vietnam War and most people supported it.

The world in which Communism really was a cruel, pernicious, terrifying blight on the earth that threatened to swallow up country after country.

The world in which families generally do better when they have both a mom and a dad who are faithful to each other and to their children.

The world where religious people generally try to live up to commandments that promote kindness and trust.

You know, the real world.

The one that you never hear about in the mainstream media, which promotes the idea that families are all dysfunctional, that religions are all evil (especially Christianity), that Communism was never a danger to America and not all that bad anywhere else, and that in Vietnam America was the bad guy and it was a good thing when we decided not only to go home early but also to cut off all aid to our erstwhile allies and leave them to the mercy of their enemies.

You know, the collective hallucination of the American Left, in which we are all compelled to live despite the evidence of our own experience and reason.

Conservatives are so hungry to hear from someone who lives on planet Earth that they'll go out of their way to listen to talk radio and watch television commentators and, yes, buy and read books that reassure them that they're not fantasizing the history they remember living through.

But liberals aren't hungry. They get their vision of the world reinforced every time they watch the mainstream media or read the local daily or listen to NPR or watch most movies or most tv shows. Their views are taught to children in the public schools as a matter of law or policy. They've got West Wing during prime time, for Pete's sake.

Why would they waste the time to let Phil Donahue or Al Franken give them more of the same?

But just because I find the morally conservative vision a lot closer to reality doesn't mean that every "conservative" book is worth buying.

There are some writers to whom I long to say, Please, I beg you, get off my side.

Such a one is the insufferably egocentric (yes, more than O'Reilly) Michael Savage, whose long, epithet-filled diatribe called The Savage Nation is simply an embarrassment to read. Especially when I agree with him.

He's the kind of guy who does drive-time radio that makes already-angry drivers whose brains are completely exhausted slap their steering wheels and say, He's right about those blankety-blank Blanks.

He's a guy who needs enemies and anger. He's not a community builder, he's a tearer-down of communities. He teaches nothing, but exploits feelings of helplessness and frustration.

When you read The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language, and Culture you're only one dissertation away from a Ph.D. in dumb.

Get off my side, Michael Savage. You're an embarrassment to those of us who'd actually like to try to rescue civilization.

But there are the good conservative writers. Like, for instance, Mona Charen, whose book Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First is surprisingly measured as she documents, point by point, precisely why the liberal version of recent history is false.

It's an especially useful book as our children's generation takes to the streets in a "peace movement" even more hypocritical and empty-headed than the one most of us watched from a distance during the Vietnam War -- until the end of the draft.

Charen has done her research, and wherever it overlaps with either my personal experience or my extensive reading in the news and histories of the events she talks about, she's accurate.

Her sternest words are for (in the words of W.S. Gilbert) "the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this and every country but his own."

And "useful idiots" is the term Lenin is reputed to have used to describe writers and leaders in the free world who, without realizing it, served the purposes of international Communism as surely as if they were getting their daily instructions from the Kremlin.

Which, of course, some of them were.

The most heartbreaking story is when noted actor Paul Robeson visited Russia in 1948 and was allowed to meet with his friend Itzhak Feffer, a Jewish Communist poet who had been arrested, along with many other Jews, by an aging Josef Stalin. The government had fattened him up a bit, but Feffer had no intention of going along with the charade.

"They're going to kill us," he said to Robeson. "When you return to America, you must speak out and save us."

But when he returned home, Robeson continued to support the party line -- that it was only malicious anti-Communist slander that Feffer and other Jews were imprisoned.

Soon Feffer was gone, along with many other Jews who disappeared into the Gulag, never to be heard from again.

How do we know this happened? Because near the end of his life, Robeson, full of remorse, told the story himself.

Unlike Savage's worthless diatribe, Useful Idiots meets the standards of legitimate historical writing for a popular audience (as opposed to historywritten for scholars only). She may not attempt to suppress her scorn for those who have "revised" history so shamelessly over the years, but this book is not about name-calling, it's about setting the record straight.

Meanwhile, watch out for those who listen to Savage regularly. I think he's trying to start a war.


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