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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 17, 2011

Every Day Is Special

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


Sandler, Rumsfeld, and WolframAlpha

I like Adam Sandler. Even when he's in terrible movies he continues to radiate a weird but pleasant combination of impishness and utter sincerity.

When he's in a film with an excellent script, his performances rise to the occasion. Unlike fellow comedians Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey, Sandler is quite capable of acting without mugging. He never gets that air of desperation that usually makes the other two unwatchable for me.

At his best -- for instance, as John Clasky, a chef trapped in a hideous marriage, in Spanglish, Sandler is nothing short of brilliant. His powerful stillness allowed him to share the screen with Tea Leoni at her manic best and hold his own; and when he looked in the eyes of the luminous Paz Vega, the chemistry was powerful and real.

He was astonishingly good in the art film Punch-Drunk Love, though many of his fans had no idea what they were seeing. ("When does it get funny?")

But both of those films were not under Sandler's own control -- they were not really "Adam Sandler films."

It's a different story when Sandler holds the reins. Regardless of who is directing, if Sandler has that Executive Producer credit that declares he is the boss, then something very strange happens.

That impishness that is Sandler's stock in trade is real. Unfortunately, it's the impishness of an eleven-year-old -- presexual but eager to shock in a juvenile way. When Sandler is in charge, the movie invariably has large doses of bad taste -- though it is far more innocent than the bad taste of, say, the Farrelly brothers (There's Something about Mary) or the sickeningly malicious and unfunny Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat).

Most of the time, Sandler's bad taste is actually funny. The problem is that he injects it into movies that also have a real romantic-comedy storyline.

Take 50 First Dates. If you just follow the relationship between Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, along with Blake Clark as Barrymore's father, you have a marvelous screwball comedy with quite a touching love story. But even though Sandler did not have that executive producer credit, it still bears the earmarks of Sandler's penchant for bad taste: The characters played by Rob Schneider, Sean Astin, and Lusia Strus simply don't belong in the same movie. They are funny -- I'm not denying that at all. But their obvious slapstick unbelievability destroys the fragile credibility that makes genuine screwball comedy work.

Even so, I was able to get past the bad taste and really enjoy 50 First Dates. I have watched it several times and continue to laugh and yet be moved by the deep sweetness of the love story. But I still dislike having to shift gears every time we get to the bad-taste slapstick comedy parts that keep interrupting the romantic comedy.

When Sandler makes movies that are nothing but bad-taste slapstick, I have no complaints. I may not enjoy most of them, but it's like hearing the pre-teen kids making way too much noise at their party in the rec room. You know they're tearing the place apart, but you're not going to stop them; let kids be kids.

I only get frustrated when the movie has that awkward mix of graceful and appalling. Take Sandler's Mr. Deeds. He actually brings off a credible remake of a Frank Capra/Gary Cooper classic (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). John Turturro's supporting performance is brilliant. It's almost a great comedy. But Sandler also has to inject his bad-taste humor into the film in ways that defeat the innocence of Longfellow Deeds; Sandler seems unable to realize how such things undercut the effectiveness of his own performance.

Which brings me to Just Go with It, a remake of Cactus Flower (1969), the Walter Matthau/Ingrid Bergman vehicle (based indirectly on a French farce) that won Goldie Hawn her best supporting actress Oscar.

I didn't expect Just Go with It to be faithful to Cactus Flower, and it isn't, though it keeps the basic premise: A womanizing bachelor doctor pretends to be married so his paramours don't expect anything more than a fling, but when he really falls in love he has to produce the "wife" that he's "divorcing" so the love of his life will stay with him. His nurse/assistant pretends to be his wife, and as they try to bring off the deception, the bachelor realizes that the real love of his life is the woman who knows the truth about him and loves him anyway.

But in Cactus Flower, what Walter Matthau loves about Goldie Hawn is her youthfulness and whimsy (rather like what Steve Martin loves about Sarah Jessica Parker in the luminous L.A. Story). In Just Go with It, what Adam Sandler loves about newcomer Brooklyn Decker is her somewhat overdone voluptuousness ... and, yes, her youthful whimsy. But it's the bikini vision that undoes him. Which is fine -- this is an Adam Sandler movie, and some bad taste is always to be expected.

As usual, though, there are two movies here. There's a wonderful screwball comedy in which Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston (as the nurse/assistant he ends up in love with) have terrific chemistry, and Nicole Kidman (as Aniston's college nemesis) is a brilliant complication. Aniston's kids are well within the screwball-comedy love-story portion of the movie, and they're delightful; and Brooklyn Decker is not just a bag of well-arranged skin -- she can act, and her performance is wonderful.

I loved that portion of the movie.

Unfortunately, it kept getting interrupted by a stupid, dirty-minded movie involving Sandler's character's brother, played well, though repulsively, by Nick Swardson. Not for one moment is his character believable -- not at the level of the good movie that Sandler, Aniston, and Decker are in. Like Rob Schneider in 50 First Dates, whenever he is on the screen, the movie plummets into unbelievability. Not the actor's fault! -- the flaw is in the script.

Likewise, the relationship between Nicole Kidman's character and her closeted gay husband is nothing but coarse and unbelievable gags. The slapstick movie that they represent has an audience -- I'm just not part of it.

But the screwball comedy that Sandler, Aniston, Decker, and the kids are in is delightful. Sandler really is a good enough actor to hold his own with a superb actress like Aniston.

I don't begrudge Sandler his bad-taste comedies. I even enjoyed Big Daddy and The Waterboy. I just wish he'd recognize that he doesn't need to use that bad-taste comedy as a crutch -- he can make great films without it. But he will never make a truly great film with it.

So do I recommend Just Go with It? It depends on your ability to endure bad taste that keeps interrupting the good movie you're watching. My wife and I didn't walk out; we really enjoyed the good bits; but I'm afraid there were few pleasures in the bad-taste part. You see, neither of us is eleven years old anymore.

*

Donald Rumsfeld was one of the main whipping boys of the Bush administration. (The others were Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and, of course, President George W. Bush himself.)

I remember how Rumsfeld was ridiculed by the mainstream media for this statement at a 2002 press briefing:

"[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

"But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

Supposed intellectuals mocked him for his "obscurity" and his "butchery of the language," but I recognized it as an impeccably clear and completely grammatical explanation of one of the fundamental problems of epistemology, or how we know things; he articulated a principle which every serious military leader must be aware of in order to avoid disaster. It's the things you don't even realize you don't know that will bite you.

I already knew that most of Rumsfeld's critics were clowns whose intellectual pretensions were unbuttressed by actual intellectual skills. What I hadn't understood was that Rumfeldt really was what his critics only pretended to be: An extremely intelligent, thoughtful person.

It reassured me to know that someone this smart was in charge of the Defense Department during such a crucial time in our history. And now that I've read his candid, honest, and extremely perceptive memoir, Known and Unknown, I believe that no one should be allowed to hold high executive office without having read it.

I've heard leftwing twits sneer at the book for being "self-serving." This is nonsense. Rumsfeld candidly admits his mistakes. But where he was charged with mistakes that either were not mistakes at all, or that were unpreventable mistakes, or that were mistakes but were not his, it is perfectly legitimate for him to set the record straight. And Rumsfeld is careful to document his actual statements and positions using memos and journal entries from the time.

When he uses hindsight, he admits as much; but the real astonishment is how often he can document that he warned about coming errors long before they happened. No, he didn't know that nuclear weapons would not be found in Iraq -- nobody knew that -- but he did warn the President and his top advisers that they shouldn't hang the whole war in Iraq on WMDs, because WMDs were not needed to justify the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime as a sponsor of terrorism and a direct threat to the United States. (And, I might add, I also said the same at the time -- and can document it.)

But historical questions like that, while fascinating, are not the reason this book should be required reading. It's Rumsfeld's keen analysis of how government works -- and doesn't work.

For instance, take his analysis of why Condoleezza Rice was a fairly lousy National Security Adviser (my characterization, not his).

Her only administrative background was as Provost at Stanford. In that academic setting, her job was to keep everyone working together harmoniously, to smooth over differences and create consensus, however ephemeral it might be.

But that is the opposite of what the NSA needs to do. The NSA is not the decider, the President is. The NSA's job is to draw together the pertinent information about foreign policy and national security issues and then present the clearly defined alternatives to the President, who makes the decision.

Rice, to Rumsfeld's frustration, served Bush rather badly by running the National Security Council as if it were Stanford, smoothing out differences and presenting a fake consensus to the President as if it were the unanimous opinion of the council.

In effect, she deprived President Bush of the chance to do his job -- deciding things -- by pretending that there was no controversy and no decision to be made. Though she undoubtedly had nothing but the best intentions, she was usurping authority that belonged to the elected official, not the appointed one.

Rumsfeld does not make her a villain -- that would be Richard Armitage in the State Department, who seems to have constantly leaked anti-Rumsfeld falsehoods and misrepresentations to the media, which was only too happy to play along with the miscasting of Rumsfeld as a warmonger who was trying to rule the whole administration.

The opposite was the case. Rumseldt knew the limits of a Defense Secretary's authority and responsibility, and stayed within them. The State Department, on the other hadn, while staffed with many sincere foreign service officers who are trying to serve their country well, nevertheless has become something of a nation unto itself.

Instead of representing the will of the elected President to the world, they tend (and this is obvious in administration after administration of both parties) to represent the opinions of the elites of Europe and other high-prestige countries, and of the academic elite within our country.

The State Department is notorious for capturing weak Secretaries of State like Hillary Clinton, and when a Secretary of State like Colin Powell already leans a bit in their direction, they draw him farther away from the President he's trying to serve.

The result is that the State Department can often have a tacit position that is diametrically opposed to the presidentially chosen foreign policy of the United States. They fight the President's policy with well-aimed leaks, and they fight it by passive resistance.

For instance, Rumsfeld could not get the State Department to live up to the assignments they had been given in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most State Department projects in-country were never properly staffed and were usually misguided and ineffective. Yet Rumsfeld never maneuvered to let the Defense Department take them over; he only stepped in when it was obvious that State would never do a job that had to be done by somebody.

The point, though, is not that Rumsfeld was always the good guy -- he never claims to have been. The point is that the tendency of the State Department to resist Presidential policy is something that must be constantly taken into account by a strong Secretary of State (Rumsfeld points out several) and by the President.

There are incidents that make the reader realize just how difficult good government can be. For instance, the close cooperation of Uzbekistan was absolutely vital to our war effort in Afghanistan. Then there was a revolt inside Uzbekistan, which the Uzbek government put down. However, the ultra-leftwing "human rights" lobby, which is always eager to attack the U.S. and its friends, while whitewashing truly monstrous regimes of the Left, misrepresented the incident as the government firing upon peaceful demonstrators.

Lacking good intelligence, in both senses of the word, a couple of U.S. senators rushed to Uzbekistan and castigated our vital ally in front of the cameras; Condoleezza Rice also lectured the Uzbek government without first finding out what actually happened. Uzbek's leaders, having narrowly averted an armed revolt, did not appreciate their undiplomatic condemnations.

It took only a little while before Uzbekistan rescinded permission for American forces to use Uzbek territory in support of the war in Afghanistan, after which Uzbekistan moved closer to the Russia of Tsar Putin I.

This tendency of American senators to conduct their own foreign policy for private political advantage (John McCain was one of the offenders), and of American diplomats to rely on anti-American sources like the human rights lobby, led to a disastrous and completely avoidable loss of an ally in the middle of a war.

But you shouldn't imagine that Rumsfeld's book is nothing but a rehash of who did what during the Bush administration. On the contrary, it's a true memoir of his entire life, and what a life it has been.

It's easy to forget that back in the 1960s, Rumsfeld was a powerful congressman -- only when I read the book did I remember hearing about "Rumsfeld's Raiders," a group of young Republican representatives who overturned the old guard and worked to install Gerald Ford in the minority leadership -- putting him in line, though none of them knew it then, to be Richard Nixon's appointee as Vice President and his eventual successor.

As Rumsfeld listed the policies he supported, I realized that just as I have long called myself a Daniel Patrick Moynihan Democrat (a breed that I fear may have completely vanished, except for me), if I had remained a Republican, I would have been a Rumsfeld Republican -- liberal on Civil Rights, for instance, and moderate on many other issues where the Republican Party is now so far off the deep end to the Right that they provide a perfect balance for the Leftwing loons of the Democratic Party.

Rumsfeld, in other words, is a remnant of the great days of Moderates in both parties, a group that was essentially eliminated by campaign finance reforms that put control of political funding in the hands of one-issue PACs.

This has driven both parties to the extremes, since that is how you get money from the PACs; moderates don't form PACs, and so they don't influence the parties the way they used to when rich moderates could contribute unlimited amounts to big-tent middle-of-the-roaders.

The result of those "reforms" was the complete capture of the political parties by the lunatic fringes of American politics. That is why both parties routinely stake out positions that would have been regarded as insane by the parties of the 1950s and 1960s.

Rumsfeld's account of his life becomes an education in what politics and government used to be, and what they are now. Rumsfeld wasn't just an insider in George W. Bush's administration -- he was even more of an insider in President Ford's. In both administrations he was sometimes frustrated by presidential decisions -- but he faithfully supported them, because that was his job.

As he says more than once, it's the elected President who decides policy, and if an appointed official can't in good conscience support a decision that didn't go his way, it is his solemn duty to resign, rather than remain in the administration to obstruct the policy or oppose it by leaking hostile stories to the media.

Not only is Known and Unknown full of valuable information and insights, it is also very well written. Rumsfeld is a clear thinker (as his public utterances over the years have shown), so the experience of reading the book is a pleasure.

Remember, too, that my review of his book is full of my opinions; he states his conclusions and observations far more moderately than I do (as a reviewer, being blunt is my job). He is almost always generous to his opponents, and respectful of their views even when his own views were quite different. There are only a couple of cases where he leaves no room for a kindly interpretation of someone's behavior.

Rumsfeld was always more moderate than his critics' fantasies about him. Where he is charged with warmongering, his memos from the time reveal him to be the opposite, determined to commit American military might only in circumstances where goals were limited and achievable, and troops could be brought home quickly.

If there is one achievement for which Rumsfeld should be celebrated, it is this: When President Bush assigned him to remake the military into a flexible instrument of American power that could be projected quickly and effectively into many different kinds of situations, Rumsfeld made it happen.

The Defense Department is far more responsive to civilian control than the State Department -- but there is still vast institutional resistance to change, fueled by defense industry lobbyists and by congressional defense mavens. Rumsfeld did a superb job of working past these obstacles to cancel useless weapons programs and change the military from the massive division structure of the Cold War to the flexible brigade-centered structure of today.

Some retired generals hated him for the changes he made -- but they were the changes the President asked for, and they were the changes America needed in order to deal with the threats we face today. It is Rumsfeld's new military that has dealt so effectively (compared to every other such war in history) with the assymetrical warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; I doubt that without the changes he made and the leadership he advanced, our military would have been able to perform half so well.

Does it sound like I've found a political hero? I suppose I have; Winston Churchill and Patrick Moynihan have been dead a long time, and I thought I'd never find another. Even if you don't agree with Rumsfeld's politics, though, you cannot help but benefit from reading his book to get an inside look at the administrations he served.

*

One of the best things about the Internet is that people sometimes create wonderful sources of completely useless but fascinating information. For instance, if you go to http://www.WolframAlpha.com, and simply type your first or last name into the box (or anybody's name, for that matter), it will return data about how common or rare the name is -- including a graph of how frequently it has been given to children in various decades.

I was relieved to learn, for instance, that fewer than 200 people a year are given the name "Orson"; zero would be the appropriate number, I think (though I'm glad that I have the name, since it belonged to my beloved grandfather). The last time the name was popular was before 1905.

"Edna" used to be far more popular, but it has faded until now most people with the name are over 50 years old. "Emily" was following a similar trajectory, fading through the 1920s to 1960s; then it had a sudden resurgence in the 1970s until it is now the sixth most common female name, being given to about 15,000 people a year.

With boys' names, Andrew (15th most common in recent births) had a resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s, peaking in 1987; the names Mark and Scott were very popular from 1950 to 1970 (the Baby Boom!), but faded rapidly. People named Mark average 50 years old; Scotts average 39; but Andrews average 23 years of age.

Isn't this information completely useless? And yet isn't it lots of fun to have?

You can compare names, or explore last names. One in 114 people in America is named Smith, the most common surname, while the 12th most common surname, Anderson, belongs to one in 354 people. (Johnson is second most common, and Williams is third.)

I could not get the program to recognize "Card" as a name at all, however. I think that definitely suggests that it is rare.

The cool thing is that WolframAlpha has all kinds of other information. Just type stuff in and see what happens. A great site.


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