Jason Bourne. You're either not going to see it (your loss) or you've already seen it or plan to see it.
We've watched Matt Damon in this franchise role already, we know he's unforgettably good in it because of that quiet combination of competence, determination, and vulnerability that has stood him in such good stead in films like The Martian and pretty much everything else he's done.
We like Matt Damon. But we are also intrigued by the mythos of the Jason Bourne universe. Even though I find Robert Ludlum to be an unpleasant and unreadable writer, he seems to have created a situation that we find quite thrilling: The man who has been turned into a killing machine, who finds his conscience and tries to unravel his training and undo the system that turned him into a murderer.
We liked it so well that when Jeremy Renner played a different agent in a different assassin program within that same Jason Bourne universe in The Bourne Legacy, we bought it. Or at least I bought it.
There is nothing that I could possibly say to persuade anyone not to see Jason Bourne -- and I hope you will see it. Even if you haven't seen any of the other Bourne movies, this is as good a place to start as any. It tells you everything you need to understand this story.
But it wasn't perfect.
That's because a lot of viewers may feel that there are things about this movie that might be real. And there aren't.
Anybody who has read Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner, knows that the CIA has been so inept at so many of its "clandestine" operations and, for that matter, at the basic task of gathering intelligence about foreign countries, that it cannot honestly be said that America now has or has ever had a professional intelligence service.
This is not because the CIA hasn't tried. I personally know a good number of people who have worked for the CIA, and they are skilled, dedicated men. But the CIA operates under rules that make it hard to gain any experience in the kind of illegal, indecent operations that we're shown in the Bourne films.
When the crazy Kennedy brothers tried to use the CIA as an instrument of assassination and other clandestine operations in the early 1960s, the Agency tried to cooperate, but they failed again and again. Even when the CIA "succeeded," as with the reinstatement of the Shah of Iran back before I was sentient, they only succeeded with the help of much more experienced intelligence agencies from other countries.
Mossad (Israel) and MI6 (Britain) have consistently been better at gathering intelligence and other kinds of operations than our spy service -- but even they don't go around rampantly killing anybody who steps in their path, like the agents or "assets" in this movie. Nobody does. It would make them absurdly public.
The CIA has a wall commemorating all the agents who have died in the line of duty in the whole history of the agency. One Bourne movie could double the size of that wall.
More absurdities: The head of the CIA is usually a civilian, not promoted from within. So when we see Tommy Lee Jones, as the CIA director, actually running an operation remotely, we are in fantasyland.
Pilots in California can run drones halfway around the world, via satellite relays, but we can't just plug into street cameras in every city in Europe. We especially can't plug into security cameras in every building in Europe -- or America, for that matter.
This whole vision of all computer and cameras in the world being linked up in a vast network is a fantasy. It doesn't happen. There are people who would like it to happen, because serving America's security interests would be much easier; but so would controlling Americans' private behavior, and neither Congress nor the courts won't stand for it.
More to the point, the illegal actions taken by agent after agent could not be committed by CIA operatives because, as I said before, I know these guys. Like people in the military, they don't obey illegal orders. They wouldn't obey a senior officer who tried to lead them in a coup, and they would not obey a President, let alone a CIA director, who ordered them to commit murders and assassinations. They can read; they know the Constitution; and they also know the danger of letting some private group within the government have that much unsupervised power.
So none of this could happen. None of this is happening. The entire movie is about trying to take down an operation that the CIA (or any other intelligence agency) could not mount, now or in the foreseeable future.
When you read about the kind of surveillance of communications that various agencies have conducted, it did not involve ridiculous "facial recognitions" applied to barely-existent databases, or computers that can "enhance" a tiny pixelated picture into a recognizable face or a readable license plate.
No, what the agencies surveilling international telecommunications do is have computers look for patterns in phone calls and internet connections. Who is spending a lot of time on this or that perilous website? Who is it that known terrorist sympathizers and supporters are phoning and texting and emailing?
Nobody is reading all the trillions of emails and texts, or listening in on the phone calls, because the CIA or NSA would have to hire half the population of the world to listen in on the other half. It's not possible. They don't look at anybody's emails until someone has a verifiable pattern of communicating with dangerous people.
And even then, Congress hates it when they do that -- even though they all know that Las Vegas casinos already do exactly the same kind of pattern surveillance and fuzzy searches in order to keep cheaters from getting access to their games.
All I'm saying here is that the CIA is not and never has been either as competent, as far-reaching, as uncontrolled, or as murderous as the Bourne movies assume. The only time it even tried was when the crazy Kennedy brothers treated the CIA as their private toy.
If you want an agency that has lost perspective and done a lot of dishonorable things for private political purposes, that's the IRS. The Kennedys used the IRS to audit their political enemies -- Richard Nixon was audited constantly after Kennedy won the White House, and the abuses continue.
But not the CIA.
Films like the Bourne identity, and TV shows like Person of Interest, give viewers in other countries the idea that the CIA is everywhere, secretly controlling everything.
I remember as a white-shirted missionary on the streets of cities in the state of São Paulo back in the early 1970s, other movies had convinced many Brazilians to shout "CIA" at me and my companions as we walked down the street.
I wanted to laugh -- what self-respecting spy service would use big tall American dudes, who mostly spoke Portuguese with bad accents, to wear a recognizable uniform and call on ordinary civilians in residential neighborhoods? What would be the point? But the image of the CIA as a serious instrument of evil was already widespread wherever American films were shown -- long before any Bourne movies were made.
Jason Bourne is exciting. It's well made. But it is, to put it bluntly, about nothing. There is no government program that turns ordinary people into killers, robbing them of their identities in the process. I know this because it's not possible. (Sorry, Manchurian Candidate.)
There's no CIA director who has built up a private kingdom that kills anybody who comes close to finding out about it (sorry, The Blacklist). Again, not possible.
When we watch Jason Bourne, we're as firmly in fantasyland as when we watch Once Upon a Time. The characters merely dress like regular people.
But it's a terrific movie. Have fun. Then come back to reality.
Person of Interest was already dying before the network pulled the plug, because the show's creators had completely lost their way. We cared a lot about the characters, especially Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel), but what we did not care about, and could not care about, was the absurd "sentient" computer program called "the machine" and its nemesis, an enhanced evil sentient computer program called "Samaritan."
Now, the people surrounding these machines were sometimes interesting -- I think of John Nolan playing Samaritan's prophet and Amy Acker playing the voice of the Machine. But the programs themselves? Not only could they never exist, nor, if they did, have anything like the access to cameras and computers all over the world (which consisted of New York City), but also they're software. Siri and Alexa and "OK, Google" talk to us and listen when we talk to them, but they're just programs. They simulate people, but, let's face it, they do so rather badly, even though it's unlikely that they'll ever get much better at it.
That's because computers and programs will never become intelligent. They are incapable of causal reasoning, except when the assumptions of humans are built into their code, and the result is nothing like human intuition, foretelling, or the other skills we call "intelligence." They run numbers really, really fast -- and come out with results exactly as dumb and misleading as the mistakes and biases of the people who fed them the data and told them what to do with it. That will always be true. Sorry, Terminator series. Sorry, War Games.
So when Person of Interest started treating each week's save-a-civilian plot as a perfunctory duty, quickly discharged, and spend more and more time on stupid pointless efforts to save one machine or destroy the other, it got boring.
That's why my wife and I didn't watch them while the last season of Person of Interest was running last winter and spring. We kept them on our TiVo's hard drive, meaning to watch them "later."
Later came a few weeks ago, because we've had the latest model TiVo for months and hadn't changed over because we had so many shows on the old TiVo's hard drive that we hadn't watched yet. It's time to change, which means we had to watch everything we'd saved -- or say good-bye to it.
We started watching the last thirteen episodes of Person of Interest and got sadder and sadder with each show. You see, when a series has lost its way, the writing gets worse and worse right along with the storylines. Writers can't do their best work when, unconsciously, they know they're writing drivel.
Finally, with six or seven episodes left, we skipped to the final episode. Root was dead, apparently, but kept showing up to represent the voice of the Machine; the story was told out of time order, so we'd think something much more interesting was going on; but basically it was this: Some people were going to die. Some weren't. Guess which. Right. Right. Wrong on that one. And yes, the bad machine is finally blocked. And yes, of course, the "good" machine found a way to save itself. The payphone rings again. Oooooh.
That's all? It was as empty and soulless as the fizzle at the end of Lost.
Good TV series are hard to find. I recently binge-rewatched all of the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and found that only a few storylines had scenes worth seeing again -- basically, scenes with Jon Snow, scenes with Jaime Lannister, scenes with Cersei and the High Sparrow, and anything with Sandor Clegane and Brienne of Tarth.
The storylines of favorite characters like Tyrian Lannister, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen were so tediously empty of content, week after week, that only a few moments of each of their storylines were worth rewatching. Basically, most of their scenes were placeholders, to keep us aware of them until the scenes that actually mattered came long later.
But there were those few moments ("Hold the door!", "I am Arya Stark," "I believe in you," and Daenerys burning down the council house), so the whole season still holds up very, very well as the long feature film that it is.
By contrast, I recently rewatched part of The Two Towers -- the middle film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and wow. It is so awful. Dialogue as hard to listen to as the worst scenes of Titanic. The difference is that much of the writing in The Two Towers is actually beautiful -- whenever they actually use words of Tolkien's -- but the directing is so melodramatic, so uncomprehending of anything like human dignity, mastery, and courage, that good actors delivering good lines well are still edited into scenes that make me want to put a pillow over my face so I don't have to witness their humiliation.
Peter Jackson shot some brilliant battle scenes and lots of gorgeous New Zealand scenery. The CGI settings are great. The casting was superb and the actors do the best they can.
But not for one instant did Peter Jackson understand anything about Tolkien, about the story and characters of Lord of the Rings, or about how to sustain a dramatic arc in a story. His contempt for The Lord of the Rings is obvious in every scene where characters are talking to each other.
Most humiliating are the bizarre and pointless additions Jackson, in his ignorant vanity, larded onto Lord of the Rings -- precursors of the even more horrible things he added to The Hobbit in order to stretch a thin adventure story into three hopelessly bad full-length films.
The makers of Game of Thrones have given George R.R. Martin's brilliant fantasy novels a far better film adaptation than Peter Jackson and his minions gave to Tolkien's. And the scenery, the CGI, the battles, the costumes -- everything Jackson did right -- are just as good if not better in Game of Thrones.
Sometimes it takes time to see what a film really is. I think all of us who loved Lord of the Rings as a work of fiction allowed Peter Jackson to hide behind our knowledge and love of Tolkien's story. But now, years later, Jackson has nowhere to hide. I still love the books; but where I once thought Jackson made only a few (horrible) mistakes, I now realize that there is no moment in the movies in which the actors are not grossly misused by the clumsy, tone-deaf director.
By contrast, every actor playing a leading role in Game of Thrones is given many chances to do brilliant, unforgettable scenes, and to develop their characters through long, complicated arcs. Come on, tell the truth, Game of Thrones fans: Don't you find Brienne beautiful by now? Hasn't the shallow Sansa Stark become something remarkable? Don't you take real delight on Bronn, in Samwell Tarly, in Lord Varys, in Dolorous Ed and Grey Worm and Lady Lyanna Mormont?
Has there ever been a more compelling performance than that of Tom Wlaschiha as the Faceless Man Jaqen H'ghar?
There are good reasons not to watch Game of Thrones -- if you don't like a lot of gratuitous nudity; if you really hate fantasy, especially with dragons and zombies; if you don't have time or brainspace to get involved with a series that requires you to remember four or five dozen characters by face and name.
But if you haven't watched Game of Thrones, you don't know how brilliant a multi-part, multi-year television series can be, when the showrunners don't make any stupid mistakes.
It's not just because they're working with George R.R. Martin's brilliant material. After all, Peter Jackson had Lord of the Rings and he blew it on almost every level.
But it helps that they're working with Martin's books, and with Martin himself.
It was past time for Person of Interest to be buried; it died the season before. But I think Game of Thrones will stand as something permanent and monumental.
So on Monday, after getting back from a meeting in Statesville, my wife and I went to the theater at Friendly Center and saw Bad Moms.
We already knew it was by the raunchmeisters who created the unwatchably crude Hangover movies, so we were not surprised that the language had more F-words and other crude language than it had prepositions.
But we also knew that it starred four of my favorite actresses -- comic and otherwise: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, and Christina Applegate.
The story centers around Amy (Mila Kunis), who works desperately hard as the only grownup in a dot.com company, while getting paid as a part-timer; she also takes care of her children and her husband, running the kids to all kinds of classes and practices and games, while doing all the cooking, while her husband "exhausts" himself with a "fulltime" job and relaxes at home.
Meanwhile, all the moms in the PTA at her children's school are under the thumb of Christina Applegate as Gwendolyn, the Hitlerian dictator of the PTA.
Now, in the real world, no PTA president has anything like the control over a school that Gwendolyn has, but ... there are plenty of other charming exaggerations to let us know that this is a comedy of manners and not reality.
So Amy puts up with some absurd mistreatment from Gwendolyn -- until she finally draws the line when Gwendolyn bans pretty much every edible ingredient from the PTA bake sale, and tries to get Amy to be one of the PTA gestapo to enforce the rules. Amy says no. She quits. She's no longer in the PTA.
Gwendolyn sets out to punish her, but she doesn't get it: Amy's world is already in the toilet, because she has caught her husband in an internet affair with a real woman, having Skype sex on laptops. Amy kicks him out, and in one of the best comic therapy sessions I've seen in film, therapist Wanda Sykes gives a delightfully accurate assessment of the value of remaining in a marriage with this clown.
Amy gets together with friends, they self-medicate with alcohol, and pretty soon the three of them are engaged in a revolution. They're going to stop trying to be perfect moms. They're going to be "bad" moms -- that is, they admit they can't do everything and so they stop trying to please other people. They're also going to let their children have an actual childhood instead of forcing them to be overachievers.
The trouble is that Amy's daughter, Jane (beautifully acted by Oona Laurence), is insanely worried about qualifying for an Ivy League school. So when Amy stops facilitating her daughter's obsessiveness, Jane hits the roof and goes to live with Dad.
Dad is such a slacker we know this won't work. Meanwhile, though, the war between Amy and Gwendolyn escalates until Amy is running against her for PTA president.
Remember that we're working at a reality level only slightly higher than Porky's or Revenge of the Nerds; but it's still a lot of fun seeing how this war plays out. Christina Applegate is not just the stock villain we expect. The movie ends up not hating anybody -- not the husband, not the PTA president, and not Amy's boss.
I loved the movie. So did the small Monday night audience of women seated above and behind us, who laughed far, far more at Bad Moms than we heard the audiences laugh at Ghostbusters or Absolutely Fabulous.
Three comedies about women, starring people who have been funny before -- but Bad Moms is the only one that lived up to the label "comedy" by being actually funny.
Remember, the language is vile, and there is a lot of graphic conversation about sexual matters, along with a brief but important flash of nudity on a computer screen. My wife really hated that stuff, but she admitted that the movie was funny and the performances were excellent. "I just couldn't recommend it to any of my friends," she said.
And I thought over my mental list of her closest friends and I had to agree. "You're right, not a one of them."
I felt a little guilty that, because she's married to me, my wife -- as upright and morally decorous a human as you could hope to find -- has been exposed to an alarming amount of raunchiness in the movies and TV shows I've induced her to watch over the years. And I respect her for having chosen close friends who are not tainted with her husband's jaded tolerance for filth in entertainment.
Don't go to Bad Moms and then complain that it was offensive. It's supposed to be. For comedy, you should see The Secret Life of Pets. It's really funny and you won't be offended (I think).
But if you can tolerate bad language and candid talk about practical sexual matters, then this is a really funny movie with delightful performances by a great cast.
Here's how, back in the 1960s, we were taught about the European discovery and conquest of the whole world starting with Columbus.
First, the Portuguese send out ships that discovered how to sail around Africa in order to get the precious spices of the Indies. But around the same time, Columbus sailed west and even though he did not reach the Indies, he discovered us! America! We weren't here back then, but finding America was the jackpot. It changed the world.
Well, it did. But the influx of Aztec and Inca gold and silver, while it momentarily made Spain a powerful force in Europe, also had such devastating inflationary effects that Spain was soon broke, gradually lost its empire, and became a backwater.
The Portuguese, meanwhile, were completely lost in this America-centered storyline. While the Portuguese did colonize Brazil, we don't have a border with Brazil, so ... not important. Not in early 1970s American classrooms.
Now, of course, our schools don't teach history at all, except for a broad narrative that wherever Europeans conquered or colonized, they wrecked everything. This is, of course, only a tiny part of the truth, though it gave rise to Obama's Great Apology Tour of 2009.
What Europeans did was establish the global and industrial economy that, in the long run, allowed enormous population gains in the poorest regions on Earth because, thanks to European achievements and advances in science, technology, and trade, people everywhere could get enough to eat.
So I saw Roger Crowley's history, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire and thought: Here's a chance to find out what happened after the Portuguese rounded Africa. This book might fill a gaping hole in my education, in my understanding of history.
And it does -- brilliantly. When you realize how small and insignificant Portugal was in 1500, hanging on by its fingernails to the westernmost coast of Europe, bordering only on the newly unified Spain, it's a miracle of sheer audacity that the Portuguese did anything at all.
First, they explored scientifically. None of Columbus's dumb luck, discovering a continent because all his guesses and calculations were wrong. The Portuguese spend generations carefully exploring and charting the coast of Africa, so that each voyage improved their knowledge of sources of food and water along the coast.
Then came the breakthrough -- instead of continuing to voyage south, gaining small increments of further information, they realized that they were spending too much time fighting contrary winds. So they sailed out into the open Atlantic and then used favorable winds to sail east when they were already south of the southernmost tip of the continent.
This was the scientific method, gathering information carefully and systematically, then making bold leaps and guesses and testing them in the real world.
That's where the normal story, as told in our schools, ends. Sure, we could see on old maps that Portugal maintained a system of colonies every bit as farflung as Britain's -- Angola and Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea on the coast of Africa, Goa on India's Malabar coast, Macao in China, a bit south of Hong Kong, and Portuguese Timor in the chain of islands that would become Indonesia.
Wherever the Brits (and the Dutch) went in building their oriental and African empires, the Portuguese had been there first. And for the first century of their world empire, domination of the spice trade made Portugal fabulously wealthy, exactly the way that oil has made so many lands rich today.
Every one of that list of colonies lasted at least until the middle of the twentieth century, but we barely heard about them because the British colonies all spoke English, so it was easier for American tourists to visit them. Heck, we couldn't even pronounce Macao (or Macau, as it is more often spelled; "muh-COW"). Yet Macao remained a European colony until 1999 -- the last European-controlled territory in China.
For me, though, the great mystery was Goa. Britain conquered and united India into its most massive colony -- but there was that lone Portuguese territory, standing alone.
And Conquerors tells how it became Portuguese, and why its conquest changed the world.
While many historical figures play important roles early on, the latter part of the book is pretty much the story of one man: Afonso de Albuquerque. Commissioned by King Manuel to command all Portuguese endeavors in the Indian Ocean, he was hampered by Portuguese rivals, by Manuel's frequent changes in orders, and of course by resistance from those who had controlled the spice trade between Europe and the Indies for centuries.
Most of these traders were Muslim merchants, and Albuquerque took advantage of the fact that these rich Muslims had done little to win the friendship of Hindus. (In fact, the first Portuguese expeditions to reach India had the fanciful idea that the Hindus were actually Christians of some obscure eastern sect.)
King Manuel's overall vision was to use the wealth of India to finance the destruction of the Mameluke rulers of Egypt, who had long used their profits from the spice trade to fight against Christians and maintain their hold on the Christian Holy Land. To Manuel, it was a sacred obligation to take back the lands that Muslim invaders had seized in the 700s.
After all, if Spanish Christians could finally drive Islam out of Iberia, why shouldn't Portuguese Christians come through the back door and destroy the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee financially, by seizing control of the spice trade, and then militarily, by invading from the Red Sea.
European Christians had not forgotten that every land ruled by Muslims had been "converted" by bloody warfare, and that most Muslim lands had once been Christian. Since Muslim Turks had conquered Constantinople as recently as 1453, and continued to press forward in the Balkans and eastern Europe, defeating expansionist Islam at its source and liberating the Christian lands conquered by Muslims seemed all the more urgent.
It was with that frame of mind that the Portuguese came into the Indian Ocean, mercilessly destroying Muslim trade and killing Muslims wherever they could. Incidentally, this implacable policy made it possible for the Portuguese to ally themselves with Hindus in India and pagans of every stripe along the coast of Africa.
Albuquerque, after seeing how unreliable the original trading station at Calicut was, accomplished the heroic feat of conquering the island city of Goa and fortifying it as the centerpiece of Portuguese Indian Ocean trade. He won the loyalty of the common people by preventing his soldiers from looting the city (except for the Muslim traders' houses), so instead of becoming implacable enemies, the Hindus became reasonably cooperative subjects.
Though Albuquerque was followed by much weaker and more corrupt commanders, and some of his conquests on the Arabian and Malay peninsulas did not last as long as the colony of Goa, he, more than any other individual, was the architect of the Portuguese Empire in the east.
Conquerors pays some attention to the contemporary view that European discoverers were interlopers, and he certainly does not soften any of the Portuguese atrocities. But Crowley spends little time on condemning men of the 16th century for not being as "enlightened" as people of today. They were who they were; his story is about what they accomplished under truly extraordinary circumstances.
Compare Albuquerque's conquests and fortresses and colonies, some of which lasted for centuries, with Britain's first feeble attempts at colonizing Virginia, facing far less formidable enemies. Albuquerque's enemies fought him with cannons of their own, some of them made or manned by Europeans -- after all, Venice's wealth depended entirely on controlling the flow of Indian spices from Egypt into Europe. They didn't want to destroy Muslim trade.
Yet Albuquerque's outposts endured, right from the start; there was no "lost colony" of Goa.
I listened to the audiobook, read by Jonathan Davis. Unfortunately, while Davis is a good narrator, he had a terrible time with Portuguese pronunciations. The most maddening one was the name "Albuquerque." The way we pronounce the name of the city in New Mexico (named for a different Albuquerque, by the way) is far closer to the Portuguese pronunciation than Davis's annoying "AL-boo-KIRK."
No, no! "Que" may be a simple "k" sound in words derived from French, as in bisque, pique, torque, oblique, and so on. But in Portuguese, when "que" comes at the end of the word, it rhymes with "key." Even Mozambique, which Americans pronounce "Mo-zam-BEEK" is "Mo-zam-BEE-kee" in Portuguese. It was never a French colony; it's absurd to pronounce its name as if it began as a French word.
I wish that were the only annoying pronunciation, but Davis was only taught a few rules of Portuguese pronunciation, and some of them he completely misunderstood. For instance, he never caught on to the Portuguese nasals, like the São in São Paulo, so every nasal is wrong.
He also internalized the "rule" in the dialects of Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro that final "s" after a vowel becomes "sh."
But as far as I know, that pronunciation may not have arisen at the time Albuquerque lived. It certainly is not part of the São Paulo dialect that I learned. And even if that pronunciation already existed, it would not result in the oft-repeated "Francisco" being pronounced "Fran-CHEE-sko." No, it would be "Fran-SEE-shko."
If you don't speak Portuguese, this won't bother you much; if you do, the constant mispronunciations will make you a little insane.
But the history itself, and the way Crowley wrote it -- with just the right level of detail to make the stories come to life -- worked anyway, for me at least. For those of you who care about filling in the details of an important but overlooked corner of world history, this book is essential reading.
For years, I have stubbornly maintained my registration as a Democrat, because I still believe in the principles that brought me into the party of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976.
But at the Democratic National Convention, when a woman was applauded for killing her own baby, I finally reached the end of my ability to be part of the Democratic Party.
They used to pretend that while they supported the "right to choose," they thought abortions were regrettable and should be rare.
But now, they have shown their true colors. A woman who bragged about killing the baby in her womb was applauded and cheered for this utterly selfish, barbaric act.
I can't join the Republican Party -- what would be the point, since Sean Hannity would drum me right out again as a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only), because I don't hate immigrants or love guns.
But to me, the Democratic Party has turned into the child-eating ogre. They have aligned themselves as anti-family, anti-reproduction, anti-baby. To me, that makes them enemies of life. They are not my people.