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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.