Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 19, 2017
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Make It Out Alive, Victoria & Abdul, Spielberg
Those of you not yet sentient in 1980 may imagine that the year was notable for the election of
Ronald Reagan, or the Iran hostage crisis, or for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, or
the census, or Indira Gandhi becoming the fourth prime minister of India, or USC beating
number-one-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, 17-16.
But for many of us who were adults in 1980, the event of the year was the violent eruption of
Mount St. Helens in Washington state on May 18th.
I was living nowhere near the eruption, but as ash was carried eastward by the prevailing winds,
much of it was deposited in eastern Washington, where I had (and have) many family members,
and where I was born nearly three decades earlier. So I had particular interest.
The scientists studying volcanos did a superb job of predicting the blast, and because of their
advance warning, there was plenty of time for anybody who didn't want to die to get away
from the coming eruption.
One old fellow who got a lot of media attention was a curmudgeon named Harry Truman, who
refused to evacuate, even though his mountain home was quite near to the volcano. After the
mountain blew, no trace of Truman or his home were ever found.
But he was only the most famous of the people who were too close to the volcano. There were
scientists studying the volcano right up to the moment that it exploded, and professional
photographers risking their lives to get just one more picture as the clouds of ash rose into the air
like a nuclear explosion.
And, incredibly, there were hikers who didn't take the warning seriously. Because, you see,
the volcanologists warned that Mount St. Helens was about to erupt -- but they didn't provide us
with a nice LED countdown like all those ridiculous bombs in movie thrillers.
So the idea that "we'll be back in plenty of time" or "it probably won't be a big enough eruption to
hurt me here" put a surprising number of unlucky or dedicated or reckless people in grave
danger, and 57 of them died.
These events are meticulously reported, remembered, and/or reenacted in an excellent
documentary series on the Smithsonian Channel, called Make It Out Alive. The Mount St.
Helens eruption is merely episode 1 -- there will be other harrowing escapes (or failures to
escape) from other disasters in episodes to come.
If the first installment is any indicator, this is going to be an excellent series. Usually,
reenactments are hokey, but this group of film makers don't try to fake the actual events. Instead,
they intercut between people in or by their cars, trucks, or jeeps and the actual footage of the
danger that they faced.
The result is that we invest in the stories of various individuals, but we never forget that the real
people are not the ones on the screen. As often as not, the show intercuts with interviews with
survivors or the families of those who died, so we get it straight from the people most affected.
Also, there's very little of that horrible technique used by most reality shows, where they spend
the first two minutes after each commercial break recapitulating what we've already seen, and
three minutes of each segment promoting what we can expect to see by the end of the show. This
means that hour-long reality shows, instead of the normal 44 minutes of content after allowing
for commercials, usually have less than 30 minutes of actual content.
Not so for this episode of Make It Out Alive. There's some recapitulation so we don't forget
which storyline we're following, but it takes up little time.
We see a reenactment of researcher David A. Johnston, camped on a mountain ridge six miles
away, making his last radio transmission: "This is it!" Since he was directly in the blast
zone, there was no chance at all of his getting away. It's surprisingly emotional, though, to learn
that the permanent center for continuing to watch Mount St. Helens is named for him: Johnston
The reenactments turn real when we see footage of the would-be rescue workers finding cars
buried most of the way up the windows in ash, and learning that this person we've been following
was found alive, and that one was found dead.
Some were hospitalized for months because of the damage that hot ash did to their lungs --
anyone who was too close to the eruption suffered burns and other damage, and others were
injured in their efforts to escape the aftermath.
Future episodes are being promoted with short films on SmithsonianChannel.com/shows/make-it-out-alive. The shorts have titles like "Why the 1989 San Francisco Quake Was So Disastrous,"
"The Most Powerful Tornado Recorded on Earth," "Why the Yellowstone Supervolcano
Could Be Huge," "Are We on the Cusp of a Global Volcanic Winter?"
Because it's a series, you can probably set your DVR to record every episode. I think they'll be
worth watching, because along with the dismay and grief at the stories of people who did not
survive, there are the encouraging stories of the people who did -- sometimes after heroic effort.
The shows premiere each Sunday night at 9:00 pm Eastern and Pacific.
Judi Dench has already played Queen Victoria, in the charming Mrs. Brown (1997), the
story of Victoria's friendship with a servant named John Brown (Billy Connolly); the servants
and staff mockingly referred to Queen Victoria as "Mrs. Brown" because her fondness for him
seemed wifelike to them.
Perhaps it's impossible to maintain an attitude of complete respect for a sovereign whose foibles
and preferences can be annoying. Especially if she's a fat old woman who can't get out of bed
without a servant hauling her to her feet. But Judi Dench's second turn as Queen Victoria, in
Victoria and Abdul, is even more moving and compelling to watch than Mrs. Brown.
Based in part on a diary kept by Abdul Karim (played luminously by Ali Fazal, whom
American audiences have seen in Furious 7), which was only discovered when his family
revealed it to the public and it was published in 2011, the film follows the diary's account quite
Because Queen Victoria was fascinated with India, Abdul's arrival at court to make a
presentation to her as Empress of India provided her with an opportunity to learn things about
her greatest domain. She had been sadly underinformed about India, and Abdul set some things
straight -- that he was a Muslim, not a Hindu, and his language was Urdu.
He became the Queen's "munshi," her language teacher, and they wrote back and forth in Urdu.
Karim recorded many of the phrases he taught her.
Karim was still in England when Victoria died, and in the film we get the clear idea that the only
person close to the queen who really loved her and mourned her death was this Indian interloper -- for that's how he was treated when Victoria's heir, "Bertie" (King Edward VII), finally had the
power to get rid of him.
(In case you weren't confused enough, the prince who later became King George VI after the
abdication of Edward VIII was also nicknamed "Bertie" by the family. This is the sovereign
played by Colin Firth in The King's Speech. They were both called Bertie, but were not the same
The film shows that all the social climbers who were waiting impatiently for the aging queen to
die kept interpreting Abdul's behavior as if, like them, he was motivated by ambition. The
film shows otherwise, and the friendship becomes quite moving, a painful reminder of the
loneliness of power.
Ali Fazal does a beautiful job of playing Abdul Karim, but the film belongs to Judi Dench. In a
small domestic drama of this sort, it can be hard to find a compelling story, but the screenwriters
succeeded gloriously, and director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Queen, High
Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters) may have done his best
work yet in Victoria and Abdul.
Having just listened to Eddie Izzard's memoir (Believe Me), I paid special attention to him in
the role of Bertie, the Prince of Wales. Though we know Izzard as a comedian, in this movie
he is the villain -- and not funny at all, except in a bitterly ironic way.
Izzard plays him, not as a monster, but as an aging man who has lived all his life with the
expectation -- no, the knowledge -- that he will be king; but his mother, who doesn't much like
him, continues, stubbornly, to not die.
Since this is exactly the position that Prince Charles is in right now, Izzard's portrayal may
help us understand how much better a human being Charles seems to be than his predecessor as
Ultimately, Victoria and Abdul is a human story; whether you care about British royals or not,
this is a very entertaining, illuminating, and moving film. If you can enjoy movies that don't
have any explosions or f-bombs or LED displays counting down while the hero struggles to find
the right wire, then this may be one of your favorites of the year.
Whenever I hear the films of Steven Spielberg being discussed, invariably somebody refers to
Spielberg as a "genius."
For years, however, I have not been able to regard him that way at all, because of serious flaws in
almost all of his films. His tendency to soften his endings, even when he's working with "true"
material, leaves a sour taste in my mouth, especially when he's given undeserved credit for his
"honesty" or accuracy.
However, my critical attitude toward Spielberg had reached a point where I was forgetting what
he achieved, what his movies have meant to audiences and to other film professionals, and how
hard it is to do all the things that Spielberg has done well.
A recent HBO documentary called, simply, Spielberg (Susan Lacy, director), is nearly two-and-a-half hours long -- and on HBO, there are no commercials. But it never felt long to me as I
watched it, because Spielberg's life is fascinating, along with his film work.
There's no scandal-sheet attention to his romantic relationships -- we come away with nothing
but high regard for his first wife, Amy Irving, and his current wife, Kate Capshaw.
We learn that Capshaw converted to Judaism in order to marry Spielberg in a traditional
wedding, and this coincided with, and perhaps caused, Spielberg's turn toward his long-ignored
Jewish roots, marked by Schindler's List.
It's good to be reminded that Spielberg committed his personal earnings from that movie to
create the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah
Foundation), which took on the project of interviewing as many survivors of Nazi concentration
camps as they could find before old age took them.
Since then, the Shoah Foundation continues to record and document the testimonies of survivors
of other genocidal events in places like Rwanda, Nanjing, and Armenia.
It isn't his philanthropy that earns Spielberg his place in American art and culture -- it's the
movies. And I had forgotten some really important things about Spielberg's work.
For one thing, Spielberg is a superb director of actors. While some much-touted directors are
just camera guys, Spielberg works brilliantly with his cast -- especially the children.
Some adult actors have been troubled by Spielberg's attention to minute details -- one actor
commented to another that in one shot, at least, he felt like a puppet instead of an artist.
But the result is perfect, nuanced moments that tell the film's story with astonishing clarity.
And when Spielberg works with children, they are so authentic in their performances that we
can get the impression that these kids can act! (Sometimes it's even true: Henry Thomas and
Christian Bale, for instance.)
Since we see the events of many of Spielberg's films from a child's viewpoint, this is a vital
aspect of his directing.
The documentary also reminded me that before Jurassic Park (1993), computer graphics had not
been used with the kind of power and reality that were developed for Spielberg's dinosaurs.
The documentary talks about how Spielberg was talking with special-effects experts, who
listened to what he needed in order to film the Michael Crichton novel; they were with him all
the way, thinking, For this we'll use a puppet, for that a robot, for this a....
And then Spielberg ruined everything by saying, "And they have to run."
They couldn't make a robot dinosaur that could run realistically -- or at all.
That's when somebody finally showed him a high-resolution computer animation of a
dinosaur skeleton running -- and, watching it, we feel the same kind of excitement Spielberg
must have felt: Yes, this is it, this movie can be made.
Now we take such things for granted, but we got these computer-graphics images because Steven
Spielberg knew exactly how the story should be told and he didn't give up until he found a way to
bring it off.
In the HBO documentary Spielberg, one of the greatest pleasures is seeing the group of young
directors who hung out together: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma,
Steven Spielberg. They have been called "the Film School Generation," and they helped boost
each other's careers.
Lucas, for instance, shot second unit for Coppola's The Godfather, long before he took us to a
galaxy far, far away, and if the others were a little critical of how outrageously popular
Spielberg's movies became, they knew that he had earned his success.
So yes, I'm still highly critical of Spielberg's storytelling when, with rare exceptions, he seems to
go for the emotional payoff even if he has to deny the truth of the story to get it.
But because of Spielberg, I've moved that flaw back into perspective. Because Jaws, and
Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the original cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic
Park, and Empire of the Sun.
And if you would make a different list of favorite Spielberg movies, I'm neither surprised nor
offended. During his film-making career, nobody has been more culturally dominant, more in
touch with the audience, and more artistically accomplished than Steven Spielberg.
Check out the HBO documentary Spielberg. If nothing else, it's a great exercise in forty years of