Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette: What do Mrs. Pankhurst and an East End laundress have in common?

By Joanne Laurier
28 November 2015

Directed by Sarah Gavron; screenplay by Abi Morgan

British filmmaker Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is a fictionalized account of the women’s voting rights movement in Britain in the pre-World War I period.

The so-called “suffragettes” were led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The struggle at times became fierce, involving conflicts with police and minor acts of terrorism. The women were often jailed and tortured during their incarceration. The right to vote for women was eventually won in the UK in 1928.

Carey Mulligan

Gavron’s movie begins in 1912. Its protagonist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), is a 24-year-old laundress, working and living in poverty-stricken and oppressed circumstances. Gavron uses the character to epitomize the growing social awareness of women and their involvement in the suffrage movement.

In Suffragette, Maud labors like a slave at work and goes home to minister to husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), who also works at the industrial laundry, but for higher wages. She is a caring mother to her adored young son, Georgie. Marital relations are as good as can be expected for a couple living in abject poverty, even perhaps a little better, provided Maud does not deviate from what is expected of her.

At work, Maud is vigilant in regard to her employer, who, besides working people to their chemically scarred bones, sexually abuses young girls. Maud grew up in the laundry as the daughter of a laundress and sustained years of abuse herself.

An outspoken co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) makes an impression on Maud. The latter discovers that Violet is a member of the local underground suffragette chapter run by the militant Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Edith owns a pharmacy with her supportive husband—the only genuinely encouraging male in the movie—which is used as a front for the meetings of the group.

As Maud begins to express an interest in the fight, she almost immediately finds herself, unexpectedly (and somewhat implausibly), giving testimony at a hearing presided over by Chancellor of the Exchequer and future prime minister David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) on women’s right to vote, an event that does not shift the government. As Maud’s involvement with the suffragettes grows, so does her alienation from Sonny, who eventually locks her out of the house and, because he has exclusive parental rights over Georgie, bars her from their son—the most painful of all her sacrifices. Furthermore, she is hounded by the dogged Irish-born policeman Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who unsuccessfully tries to browbeat her into becoming an informer.

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst

The women are inspired by and unswervingly loyal to their leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a cameo performance), who urges them to stand up to the determined efforts of the government to break their wills. The suffragettes are beaten and imprisoned. In jail, Maud and others go on hunger strike and are brutally force-fed. Even Steed is appalled by their “barbaric” treatment. The movie ends, essentially in mid-air, when one of the suffragettes, Emily Davison (Natalie Press), becomes a martyr for the cause in 1913.

Director Gavron has demonstrated a sensitivity and talent for filmmaking in her previous efforts, This Little Life (2003) about a child born prematurely, andBrick Lane (2007) concerning the Bangladeshi community in London. Unfortunately, the broader the panorama and scope of the subject matter, the weaker and more obviously limited in outlook and approach her work becomes.

Not helping matters, in her latest movie, she has teamed up with screenwriter Abi Morgan, responsible for the deplorable The Iron Lady (2011), a generally sympathetic portrait of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The chief difficulties with Suffragette arise from what is essentially an act of intellectual sleight of hand on the part of the filmmakers. In the end, the film plays fast and loose with history in the interests of pushing a contemporary political agenda.

Both the scenes of Maud toiling in the laundry and her struggling to make a decent life for her small family are moving. Mulligan, who has often seemed rather bland in the past, gives a restrained and convincing performance here as an oppressed woman whose passionate feelings and opinions only slowly rise to the surface.

However, to a considerable extent, Gavron’s scenes of the abominable laundry and London’s East End belong in a different film.

The WSPU, although it may have had support in certain areas from working class women, was a movement whose leadership and social outlook was overwhelmingly middle class. After all, 40 percent, the poorest layers, of the male population could not vote at the time (including Maud’s husband) and the WSPU advocated women having the right to vote on the same terms as men, i.e., they accepted wealth and property limits on the women who would be able to vote. The Independent Labour Party, which advocated universal suffrage, attacked the WSPU on these grounds.

In all likelihood, a woman like Maud Watts would not have gravitated toward the feminist movement as her consciousness awakened, but toward the socialist movement. The pre-World War I period witnessed an immense growth in the socialist parties internationally and the number of female supporters in particular. The number of women in the Social Democratic Party in Germany, for example, jumped from about 4,000 in 1905 to over 141,000 by 1913. One of its most remarkable leaders, of course, was Rosa Luxemburg.


Maud’s story, so to speak, belongs to a different social and intellectual trajectory than the one the filmmakers imagine for her. They clearly did not want to make a film about an aspiring parliamentarian, lawyer or pharmacist because it would not have had the same emotional or dramatic punch.

A more honest film would have shown women like Maud more attracted to the emerging social struggles of the working class as a whole (the British Labour Party, which also supported universal suffrage, was founded in 1906). A class divide separates the interests of Emmeline Pankhurst and those of Maud and Violet. As Pankhurst says in the movie: “We don’t want to be law breakers, we want to be law makers.” (The phrase actually comes from Anne Cobden Sanderson, another campaigner for votes for women.)

To their discredit, Gavron and Morgan are relying on the generally low level of historical knowledge in removing the socialist movement from the historical equation. Suffragette ’s circumscribed timeline is significant. Had it stretched out a few more years, the film’s creators would have had to show the irreconcilable split that occurred within the Pankhurst family itself.

With the outbreak of World War I, Emmeline and one of her daughters, Christabel, threw their full support behind British imperialism in its conflict with the “German Peril.” Within days of the declaration of war in August 1914, the British government agreed to release all WSPU prisoners and paid the organization £2,000 to organize a patriotic rally under the slogan “Men must fight and women must work.” Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst campaigned tirelessly for millions of young men to be sent into the slaughterhouse of the war. Later, a fervent anti-communist, Emmeline Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party and was chosen as one of its parliamentary candidates.

The film makes much of the WSPU slogan, “Deeds, not words.” There is nothing inherently radical or progressive about such a motto. The character of a movement is determined by its program and social orientation. Many ultra-right organizations would subscribe—and have subscribed—to “Deeds, not words.” In fact, it is worth pointing to the political evolution of Norah Dacre Fox, a leading member, and from 1913 the general secretary, of the WSPU. Fox was one of the organizers of the 1914 pro-war rally and a ferocious anti-German chauvinist. According to The Times in 1918, Mrs. Dacre Fox supported making “a clean sweep of all persons of German blood, without distinction of sex, birthplace, or nationality. … Any person in this country, no matter who he was or what his position, who was suspected of protecting German influence, should be tried as a traitor, and, if necessary, shot. There must be no compromise and no discrimination.” Norah Dacre Fox (later Norah Elam) went on to become a prominent figure in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

For many of the upper-middle class women involved in the WSPU, as for many of their present-day counterparts, the “fight for women’s rights” boiled down to a fight for a bigger share of the professional, political and income pie. There is inevitably a sinister and reactionary logic to any movement based on ethnicity or gender. Many contemporary feminists support the imperialist war drive against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria today—and tomorrow, Russia—on the spurious grounds of “women’s rights.”

Sylvia Pankhurst in 1909

By contrast, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) led East End women in the direction of socialism. She broke from the WSPU in 1914, eventually launching the Workers’ Socialist Federation. She founded the newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Dreadnought. From her own experiences with women like Maud Watts, Sylvia came to the conclusion that the problem was capitalism.

Sylvia Pankhurst supported the Russian Revolution of 1917 and went to the Soviet Union in 1920-21 where she met Lenin and heard Trotsky speak. (While in London, she received a letter from Lenin in August 1919, urging no delay in “the formation of a big workers’ Communist Party in Britain.”). Coming into conflict with her mother, she agreed with Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote in 1914: “Bourgeois women’s rights activists want to acquire political rights, in order to participate in political life. The proletarian woman can only follow the path of workers’ struggle, which in the opposite way achieves every inch of actual power, and only in this way acquires statutory rights.”

No one on the official “left” today, utterly consumed by identity politics and issues of sex and gender, cares to remember the scorn that socialists like Luxemburg, Eleanor Marx, Luise Kautsky, Clara Zetkin and others heaped on the affluent “women rightsers” of their time.

In that period, it was elementary to view the issue in class not gender terms. Eleanor Marx, for example, wrote: “We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in struggle against the exploiters.” And: “The real women’s party, the socialist party … has a basic understanding of the economic causes of the present adverse position of workingwomen and … calls on the workingwomen to wage a common fight hand-in-hand with the men of their class against the common enemy, viz. the men and women of the capitalist class.”

And it was Eleanor Marx who noted that “We see no more in common between a Mrs. Fawcett [the leading light of the women’s rights movement in the late 19th century] and a laundress than we see between [the banker] Rothschild and one of his employees. In short, for us there is only the working-class movement.”

Or Clara Zetkin: “For the proletarian woman, it is capital’s need for exploitation, its unceasing search for the cheapest labour power, that has created the women’s question …

“Consequently, the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be—as it is for the bourgeois woman—a struggle against the men of her own class … The end-goal of her struggle is not free competition with men but bringing about the political rule of the proletariat. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the proletarian woman fights against capitalist society.”

It should be added that even though Suffragette does have a working class woman as its heroine, it tends to demonstrate contempt for the working class as a whole. The innumerable close-ups of Mulligan’s face speak to the deliberately narrow and confined focus. Virtually all the men in the film are monstrous. In addition, all of Maud’s co-workers, with the exception of Violet, as well as her female neighbors shun and blackguard her for taking up a fight. So while Maud is one of the deserving poor, the rest are portrayed as hopelessly backward and beholden to King and Country.

And what of the fruits of feminism? A study by a UK think tank in 2013 concluded that “fifty years of feminism” has seen the gap between the wages of the average man and woman narrow, while the differences between working class and upper class women “remain far greater than the differences between men and women.”

Morgan-Gavron’s Suffragette attempts to avoid and misrepresent the fact that working class women were thrown into the vortex of political life as part of a class and it was the inescapable logic of the movement of the whole class that imbued them with their “class-conscious defiance.” (Luxemburg)

“Pi” the Movie


My mind is always working on problems related to the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. Yep, that’s me. Even my days of dance and rave had a metaphysical quality. As I grow older and closer to death, however, I find myself more distant from answers about That Which Is than ever before. I know nothing; have little relationship with the One I used to know. At best I am an agnostic. In the dark times I am a nihilist.

The other night I had a dream. I had purchased tickets to a movie called “Pi.” When we got to the theatre we were refused entry because the theatre had been rented for the night by a group of men with beards. Yesterday after I woke I searched for the movie “Pi” and realized that I had a copy of it. I recalled seeing it when it was released in 1998 and we watched it last night. “Pi” is all about math, religion, mysticism and the relationship of the universe to mathematics. Some interesting messages in it for me. Take a look at the film. Well worth the time.

“Liquid Sky”: This glam early-’80s sci-fi masterpiece that predicted the AIDS crisis could disappear forever

The influential film’s original stock is deteriorating, right when it should be poised for a revival

"Liquid Sky": This glam early-'80s sci-fi masterpiece that predicted the AIDS crisis could disappear forever

A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

Unlike Ridley Scott’s film, “Liquid Sky” was shot through with a kind of self-deprecating, New York Jewish humor. A rumpled, hapless professor (the lanky Otto von Wehnherr) is on the trail of the alien spacecraft and bumbles his way through the jaded world, where few believe or even care that there might be visitors feeding on the heat of human sexual climax. They’re fixated on their next score, or on Chinese take out.

The film, released in the summer of ’82 at media-heavy film festivals, beginning in Montreal, quickly became a minor sensation. This was the height of the second British cultural invasion (Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran) which was of a piece with Carlilse’s androgyny and gear. It played at the Waverly Theater in New York City for about four years and Carlisle became a star, posing in and out of male drag for (warning: link NSFW) one of Playboy’s strangest photo shoots.

Carlisle briefly moved to Hollywood and got an agent, but was confused that the only parts offered to her were supporting roles in films like “Crocodile Dundee.” She returned to New York somewhat broken. “I went into psychoanalysis.” By then, Rock Hudson had announced he had AIDS and the disease was soon a household world. Carlisle didn’t feel responsible for her and Tsukerman’s vision, but it haunted her nonetheless.

“I went to school to become an art therapist to help people who were dying,” she said. “I actually was so moved by it I changed my life. I said, I have to do something other than pursue acting.”

However, neither Carlisle nor Tsukerman let go of Margaret. Carlisle wrote a novel based on her character and Tsukerman began piecing together material designed to document the making of the film, whose status as both a prescient New York story and a fashion touchstone has grown over the years (a Liquid Sky boutique on Manhattan’s Lafayette Street operated for a while). The soundtrack by the un-trained Tsukerman — loud, atonal but funky — inspired the more abrasive elements of the Electroclash movement of the late ’90s.

Innovative and influential as it is, one would assume that Liquid Sky is in the queue to become part of the permanent collection of the Criterion Editions or even MOMA, but in reality the original 35 mm film stock is decaying. “We need money,” Carlisle says. Tsukerman is racing time to raise the funds to restore the film, planning both a crowdfunding endeavor and completion on the documentary. Meanwhile there’s a sequel in the works — its working title is  “Vagina Warriors.”

“We’re writing the script,” says Tsukerman. “We’ve stayed friends.” Carlisle is guarded about the story, but will say, “Margaret comes back and she changes other women.”

Meanwhile, in an age where society is exploring the nature of gender more rapidly than ever in history, a film like “Liquid Sky” certainly deserves a second life. “I hear it a lot,” says Carlisle. “People say that it changed their life. Especially people who were marginalized. They felt like they were not understood by anyone and then they saw this film and said. ‘Oh, no, there’s more like me out there.”

Marc Spitz is the author of “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” (Da Capo Press). Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz.

Force of Destiny—a thoughtful film about surviving cancer

By Richard Phillips
16 November 2015

Written and directed by Paul Cox

Force of Destiny, veteran filmmaker Paul Cox’s latest feature, is an intimate work about what happens when an individual is diagnosed with terminal cancer and how the ensuing struggle impacts on the victim and his or her immediate friends and relatives.

Cox, who has made over 40 documentaries and features during his four-decade, career is one of Australia’s few independent directors. His most enduring works—Lonely Hearts (1982), Man of Flowers (1983), My First Wife(1984), Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987), A Woman’s Tale (1991), Innocence (2000), Nijinsky: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001)—are emotionally authentic and leisurely paced, low budget films. These stories are mainly drawn from Cox’s own personal experiences (with the obvious exception of the Van Gogh and Nijinsky films) and focus on the life and times of close friends—actors, artists and working-class people—individuals looking for solace in a harsh world. And so it is with his latest film.

Force of Destiny

The central figure in Force of Destiny is Robert (David Wenham), a middle-aged sculptor living a comfortable but modest semi-rural existence somewhere outside Melbourne. A relatively successful artist, he is pre-occupied with his work until he is given the shattering news that he has terminal cancer and will die if he does not receive a liver transplant within six months.

Robert’s former wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie), his daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) and various friends do everything they can to assist. Hannah proposes to move back into the sculptor’s house to care for him, an offer he appreciates but rejects.

Still in denial, he is irritated by the fuss being made about him and stubbornly insists that he is capable of dealing with whatever lies ahead. Poppy, his daughter, is one of the few people he feels comfortable with. While not every patient is suitable to receive a liver transplant, Robert is put on the waiting list. Unfortunately there are no appropriate livers available for the sculptor—the organ must be taken from someone recently deceased—and in the months that follow his health rapidly deteriorates.

Force of Destiny

During these dark and difficult times, Robert meets and falls in love with Maya (Shahana Goswami), a marine biologist from India whose uncle is also dying from cancer. The sculptor’s new-found love and several visits to India give Robert an inner strength despite his failing physical condition. Just when it appears that he will die, a liver becomes available and the transplant is successful.

While Force of Destiny is not entirely autobiographical, the story’s general framework and dramatic underpinnings are drawn from Cox’s personal situation. The 75-year-old filmmaker was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009 and given six months to live. He was at death’s door when he eventually received a transplant. During post-operative care he met and fell in love with Rosie Raka, another liver transplant recipient and now his partner.

To decide to make Force of Destiny and commence the arduous process of raising the funds for it, followed by the physical demands of the shooting and editing schedules, involved a good deal of courage on Cox’s part. Effectively dramatising the complex emotional issues facing those living on the edge of a life-and-death abyss is a major artistic challenge. Such an endeavour could easily produce an introverted and mawkish work.

Cox has avoided such pitfalls. He has produced an honest, hopeful work and one with strong and committed performances from his cast, several of whom regularly work with the filmmaker. David Wenham, a fine actor, who appears in virtually every scene, is understated and thoroughly convincing. There is real chemistry between him and the three key women in the sculptor’s life.

The filmmaker’s sensitivity to the plight of ordinary people and their inner emotions is a characteristic feature of all Cox’s work. Some of the movie’s most powerful moments are several short scenes in the public hospital cancer ward where working-class patients are stoically, and with real heroism, battling the disease. One of these deeply-effecting vignettes involves an old man visiting his wife. He brings her flowers and gently sings to her. Another scene involves a mother on her death bed. She prepares to see her daughter for the last time, applying lipstick and makeup in an attempt to give some colour to her thin and pallid face.

Force of Destiny is not without its weaknesses, however, and lacks the emotional complexity of Cox’s Lonely Hearts and A Woman’s Tale, which were made in the early 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

Robert’s trips to India are somewhat confused—it is not clear when and how he travelled there—and the scenes with Maya’s dying uncle give the movie a mystical edge. These sit uncomfortably with Cox’s naturalistic style. Visual sequences accompanying Robert’s unconscious thoughts and dreams—surreal images of medical procedures and internal organs and old photographs and film clips—are also problematic. While some of this material is striking, Cox overuses the technique and it loses its dramatic impact.

Notwithstanding these drawbacks, Force of Destiny is an optimistic work and one that brings real humanity to its subject matter.

Force of Destiny premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival but has not yet been given an extended local release in Australian cinemas. Cox continues to fight his own difficult battle with liver cancer and recently learned that the disease had returned and infected the transplanted liver. Despite this, the veteran filmmaker has been energetically promoting the film, appearing at single “special event” screenings in selected cities across Australia over the past three months. Cox’s film deserves wider distribution.

The author also recommends:

Veteran filmmaker Paul Cox discusses his latest feature
[16 Nov 2015]

Truth: The victimization of CBS’s Dan Rather and Mary Mapes

By Fred Mazelis
4 November 2015

Directed by James Vanderbilt; written by Vanderbilt, based on the book by Mary Mapes

Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, provides a fictional account of events that occurred in 2004, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election eventually won by Republican George W. Bush.

In September of that year, the CBS television newsmagazine “60 Minutes II” broadcast a story alleging that Bush had used family influence to gain entry into the Texas Air National Guard as a way to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

Mary Mapes, a CBS News producer and a colleague of the network’s long-standing anchor Dan Rather, had uncovered documents exposing Bush’s history in the National Guard. The newsmagazine and the network as a whole came under a massive attack focused on the claim that the documents were a forgery.

CBS quickly caved in to the campaign driven by the extreme right. Rather was forced to apologize on the air for the fact that the documents had not been properly authenticated. Mapes was unceremoniously fired, and several other producers were forced to resign.

Rather himself announced his retirement immediately after Bush’s reelection, effective several months later. While by this time the American media’s filthy role had been displayed on countless occasions, perhaps never before had it claimed the scalp of such a prominent figure, an icon of television news.


The film is based on Mapes’s 2005 memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power. It tells the story from her viewpoint, but not falsely or unrealistically.

Although the events are public knowledge, Truth’s account maintains a certain level of suspense, depicting both the somewhat frantic search for the evidence about Bush’s past, and then the unraveling of the investigative scoop as all the attention is shifted away from the content of the story itself. In fact, as Rather and Mapes have pointed out, the charges about Bush are true and have never been answered.

The film begins with a tense and angry meeting between Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and the lawyer whom she has retained to advise her in preparation before her appearance in front of CBS’s “independent” review panel. We then see the events in flashback beginning about six months earlier.

Mapes, who became well known for breaking the infamous Abu Ghraib scandal earlier in 2004, is engaged with her team of investigative journalists in tracking down the story of Bush and his National Guard assignment. Along the way, Mapes regularly consults with Rather, portrayed by 79-year-old actor-director-producer Robert Redford. Her investigative team consists of several others, including Michael Smith (Topher Grace) and Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid). The main source for the Bush story comes from retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach).

The presence of such actors as Redford, Blanchett, Keach and Quaid is significant. They are undoubtedly working for less than their usual fees, and their work here must reflect a general sympathy for the protagonists. As the New York Times quoted Redford, “These guys had to live with being shut down for years and years. The idea of playing a role in a project that would open things up and give them their day in court, which I thought they well deserved, was very appealing to me.”

Mapes gains the cooperation of Burkett, but he at first refuses to tell her his source for the documents, photocopies of correspondence from the future president’s superior in the Air National Guard decades earlier. Finally he gives her a name.

The story begins to unravel, amid a vitriolic Internet campaign led by right-wing bloggers who claim the letters could not have been typed in the 1970s. Burkett admits that he has lied, and the documents cannot be authenticated. The CBS brass, all too willing to placate the Bush administration and panicked in the face of right-wing charges against the so-called liberal media, capitulates quickly.

Cate Blanchett in Truth

Blanchett is effective as the central character. Her background is filled in somewhat sketchily, with brief scenes with her husband and young son back in Dallas, and a later anguished telephone call with her father, a right-wing Bush supporter who has publicly denounced her amid the controversy. This is the same father who ruled tyrannically over his children when they were growing up. Mapes at one point explains that she has gotten into investigative journalism because “I don’t like bullies.”

One of the film’s most effective scenes is that of Mapes’s appearance before the review panel. While carefully avoiding any discussion of her own political views, she challenges the committee by inquiring whether she is being asked, “Am I now or have I ever been a liberal?” An impassioned defense of investigative journalism before this panel seals her fate, but, as she tells her attorney, “I am what I am.”

A weaker element is Truth’s portrayal of Rather. Redford does as much as he can with a fairly limited role. The veteran newscaster is depicted as almost above the battle, an icon standing for the ideals of American democracy and press freedom. At one point Mapes insists, in front of some colleagues, that he repeat the one-word closing that he used in the past: “Courage.” This is all overdone, and amounts to little more than a defense of a vague liberalism. In fact, the whole episode, whatever the sincere motives of Mapes or even of the highly paid Rather, reflects the general bankruptcy of American liberalism, and the shift from an earlier period in which big-business control of the media was not entirely in contradiction with principled journalism.


Valentine’s Truth has nevertheless hit a raw nerve is some circles, and this is an indication that it has something to offer. A CBS spokesman declared, in an account in the Times, that it was “astounding how little truth there is in ‘Truth.’ ” Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News who is chillingly portrayed by Bruce Greenwood in the movie, declared of the film, “It takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes.”

The hypocrisy is overwhelming. Heyward and his fellow television news executives were more than willing to overlook the Bush administration’s lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, not merely inadequately sourced intelligence but outright fabrications that sent many hundreds of thousands to their deaths and many millions into internal and foreign exile and misery.

The same executives who postured as defenders of journalistic integrity appointed a panel to sit in judgment of Mapes and her staff, among whose prominent members was none other than Richard Thornburgh, a former US attorney general under the elder George Bush, in 1988. When Thornburgh later ran for the US Senate from Pennsylvania, his campaign manager was the same Karl Rove who was running the younger Bush’s 2004 campaign.

US politics has been increasingly characterized by the methods of the criminal underworld in recent decades. The clumsy operations of Richard Nixon’s inner circle have been replaced by more sophisticated methods, backed in some cases by unlimited spending. It cannot be entirely discounted that Mapes and Rather were not merely careless in the case of the National Guard story, but were entrapped in a dirty tricks operation like later ones directed against the liberal ACORN community-based organization and, most recently, Planned Parenthood.

The media, with only limited and occasional hesitation, has become a full participant in a conspiracy against democratic rights. While the film steers clear of bigger historical questions, this lesson, on the gulf between pretensions and reality within the US media establishment, is spelled out quite effectively in Truth.



Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies: An episode from the Cold War

By David Walsh
24 October 2015

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies deals with an episode from the Cold War: the arrest of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in New York City in June 1957 and his subsequent exchange for U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers some five years later.

Bridge of Spies

Lawyer James Donovan represented Abel in court and played a major role in the eventual spy trade in early 1962. The film’s script, co-written by British playwright Mark Charman and American filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, is based in part on Donovan’s 1964 memoir, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers .

An opening title explains that the film begins in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), under surveillance by the FBI, goes about his business in Brooklyn, which includes amateur painting and retrieving hidden messages. FBI agents raid his apartment—quite illegally as a matter of fact, as they have no search warrant or “probable cause.”

James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a prominent New York attorney whom we first see defending a life insurance company against a legitimate claim, is called on by the local bar association to represent Abel. He protests that his criminal law days are far behind him, but his sense of duty is appealed to and he accepts the task. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” he quips. Donovan is selected in part because of his role in the Nuremberg war crime trials, where he served as an associate prosecutor on the staff of Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, and as general counsel to the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) during World War II.

Abel makes an instantly favorable impression on Donovan. (In his memoir, the lawyer wrote that the Soviet agent “was an extraordinary individual, brilliant and with the consuming intellectual thirst of every lifetime scholar. He was hungry for companionship and the trading of thoughts.” Donovan was Abel’s only visitor during his imprisonment of almost five years.) Abel is calm, collected and highly intelligent. When Donovan notes that “You don’t seem terribly alarmed,” the Soviet spy replies, “Would it help?” This line will recur several times.

Donovan’s reasoning holds that Abel is not a traitor, like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (executed a few years earlier as Soviet spies), because he is not a US citizen, but merely an honorable “soldier” working for his homeland.

Bridge of Spies

Meanwhile, the CIA has developed the U-2 spy plane and a group of former Air Force pilots have been brought in to fly the aircraft, including Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The U-2 flies at high altitudes, CIA officials explain, and takes pictures with its large-format cameras. The pilots are instructed to go down with their planes and are provided with poisoned needles that will kill them instantly.

Back in the US, the argument for Donovan’s defending Abel is that America needs to show that every accused individual, even a “communist spy,” will receive due process. In fact, as Donovan quickly learns, this is far from the case. The judge, Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews), makes it evident in conversations with Donovan and the prosecutor that he expects and plans to facilitate a rapid conviction. He dismisses Donovan’s argument that the FBI raid was illegal and generally ensures the case goes smoothly for the government. When Donovan’s eventual appeal, on the grounds that evidence had been seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, reaches the US Supreme Court, it is rejected in a 5-4 decision.

Donovan urges Byers not to sentence Abel to death (the first count, conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union, was a capital offense), on both humanitarian and practical grounds—a US agent might be captured at some point and Abel alive would be a bargaining chip. In the end, the judge sentences the Soviet spy to decades in prison.

While Abel is serving time in Atlanta federal penitentiary, Gary Powers is shot down over the USSR in 1960 and interrogated. In a Soviet courtroom, he is sentenced to three years in prison and seven years hard labor. (American officials mistakenly believed that at an altitude of 70,000 feet the U-2 would be out of range of Soviet radar and ground-to-air missiles. They were wrong on both counts. Moreover, they stupidly sent Powers on a spy run on May 1, a holiday, when there was much less air traffic than usual.) The CIA becomes anxious that Powers will spill the beans.

Act II takes place in Berlin, where Donovan is sent by the CIA, although in an unofficial capacity, to negotiate with the Soviet and East German governments for the exchange of Abel for Powers, as well as the release of an American student being held by the East German Stalinists. The local CIA operatives hover over Donovan as he carries out his diplomatic effort. The East Germans cause difficulties for both the US and USSR, as they want the Americans to recognize their state as a sovereign nation. It is not giving anything away, since the events are part of the historical record, to reveal that Donovan succeeds in his mission, which ends on a bridge connecting West Berlin and East Germany.

There are entertaining and admirable qualities in Bridge of Spies. Rylance is truly excellent at conveying Abel’s intelligence and steadfastness. The film is most substantive and least trite in scenes where he is present.

By the time of his arrest, the real Abel had been through a good deal. He was born William August Fisher in the UK in 1903 (perhaps named after Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel?) to ethnic-German Russian revolutionary émigrés. His father was a collaborator of Lenin at one time. The family returned to the USSR after the revolution and Fisher-Abel went to work for Soviet intelligence in 1927.

Bridge of Spies

He barely survived the great purges of the late 1930s. His brother-in-law was accused of being a Trotsky supporter and Fisher-Abel was dismissed from the NKVD for a time. During World War II, he participated in significant intelligence operations against the Germans. In 1948 he was sent to preside over Soviet spying in the US. Following his arrest, he refused to cooperate with the FBI, or tell them anything, in the face of charges that carried the death penalty.

Hanks as Donovan is less successful, because the role is conceived in a more conventional and less insightful manner. Hanks here is directed to be the middle-class American Everyman, pursuing a common sense course through rough seas. His performance is perfectly pleasant, but does not especially have the ring of truth. James Donovan’s name was not picked out of a hat. He was an influential, well-connected (to Wall Street, to the intelligence apparatus, etc.) figure, who later ran for the US Senate as the Democratic Party candidate in New York. Video available online shows him to be a crafty and probably fairly ruthless figure.

The American elite itself, in the Kennedy era, had a somewhat different relationship to the traditions of the country. While pursuing its imperialist ambitions implacably, the political and media establishment still had the confidence to uphold, or at least pay lip service to certain democratic norms. Donovan, in his memoir, observes that his decision to defend Abel, supposedly the most hated man in America, was generally supported by his colleagues, “business friends and lawyers all over the United States.” A former president of the American Bar Association, for example, wrote him: “Defense of an unpopular cause is one of the things that make our profession a calling.”

Donovan concluded his brief to the Supreme Court in the following words: “Abel is an alien charged with the capital offense of Soviet espionage. It may seem anomalous that our Constitutional guarantees protect such a man. The unthinking may view America’s conscientious adherence to the principles of a free society as an altruism so scrupulous that self-destruction must result. Yet our principles are engraved in the history and the law of the land. If the free world is not faithful to its own moral code, there remains no society for which others may hunger.”

There is no need to paint Donovan as either a saintly defender of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the face of a lynch-mob popular mood, which the film tends to do, or as a cynic merely going through the motions as part of a secret plan laid out by the CIA and the American state. Donovan was, it seems, both a defender of American elite interests and a sincere believer in a defendant’s basic constitutional rights.

As is often the case with a Spielberg film (especially about American life), subtle and sharp scenes, where characters and situations are presented in an unsentimental and genuinely objective fashion, alternate with sequences shot as though through a Norman Rockwell painting, which exude a debilitating complacency and national-patriotic glorification that are both unpleasant and unconvincing.

The scenes in prison between Abel and Donovan, along with a number of the courtroom sequences, as well as the CIA training sessions for Powers and his fellow pilots, are played realistically and accurately. Here Spielberg’s genuine sense of pacing and overall film rhythm and composition come into play. The filmmaker, however, finds it difficult to resist idealizing and falsifying middle-class family life. Whenever Donovan returns home, his wife’s occasional complaints notwithstanding, the spectator is encouraged to bathe in the warmth of the imagery. The work comes to a halt, artistically speaking.

Moreover, in general, the first half of Bridge of Spies is immeasurably stronger than the second. The filmmakers paint Abel in very sympathetic colors. Presumably they then felt the conscious or unconscious need to compensate for their audacity in depicting a Soviet spy as a complex human being by composing a banal and stereotyped picture of East Berlin and Soviet and East German officials. These scenes are something out of a propaganda film. Every border guard is a menacing brute. Every official is sly or cruel, or both. The film’s coloring changes to somber greys and blacks in East Berlin (only to brighten up when Donovan is back in New York, where the trees are suddenly and unaccountably adorned with leaves, although it is February!).

Numerous films made during the Cold War—including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, even Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and Topaz, not among his more creditable works, and others—were more skeptical about America’s “free world” claims than Bridge of Spies. The filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves for miseducating a younger generation.

As a result, Bridge of Spies sheds relatively little light on a critical epoch. It chooses not to go near any of these questions: What was the Soviet Union, and why did it elicit such loyalty and devotion as Abel’s? What was the real character, beneath the superficial, self-serving phrases, of the Cold War? What were the contradictions of American liberalism, and what has it come to today?

The legacy of anti-communism still weighs heavily on these social layers. Artistic and intellectual progress will be difficult until such prejudices and the social views bound up with them, the defense of the so-called free enterprise system in the US and its geopolitical interests around the world, are broken from.

Spielberg’s film points toward the present as well as the past. In fact, the filmmakers’ concerns in Bridge of Spies about contemporary American life become obvious first. The FBI and CIA act thuggishly, the judge has no interest in elementary democratic rights, the media stirs up backwardness and fear.

Although he appears guilty, Abel is essentially railroaded to prison. As law professor Jeffrey Kahn observes, in The Case of Colonel Abel, by the time of his indictment in August 1957, “Abel had been held by federal agents in solitary confinement and total secrecy for forty-eight days, two thousand miles from the place of his initial arrest, without meaningful access to counsel, and without having appeared before any judicial officer for any reason.”

Spielberg and Hanks make clear in interviews that the “war on terror” and the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere are on their minds. Hanks told an interviewer from film website “As soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well then you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing and that’s not what America stands for. … As soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, well, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. That’s not what America was about. This is what Donovan took with him from the get-go. You can’t deny it.”

Spielberg explained to Entertainment Weekly that he had only recently learned about the existence of “a man named James B. Donovan, who was an insurance attorney but formerly an associate prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, who was called into service to show the world that we represent everybody. Everybody gets a fair shake. Those moral themes resonated with me, especially having come off Lincoln .”

Torture, police-state measures, militarism, violations of constitutional norms, state violence are precisely what official America is about today. The filmmakers are distant from the realities and their anxieties, while no doubt sincere, are all too tepid. The situation has advanced very far.

Likewise no doubt, although tensions had not reached their present level whenBridge of Spies was being prepared, the issue of US-Russian relations weighs heavily on the writers and director. The film is an appeal for cooler heads to prevail, for negotiations and diplomacy, for compromise. Again, the concerns are genuine, but there is a severe underestimation of the depth of the social and economic forces driving the American ruling elite toward its rendezvous with disaster.

Coming Home: A small, sincere film about big, complex times


By David Walsh
20 October 2015

Directed by Zhang Yimou; written by Zou Jingzhi; based on the novel by Geling Yan

Of course, the “Chinese question” is a critical one. The attentions of the conscious elements of every social class globally are more and more focused on China, its economic development and unfolding crisis, its role in geopolitics, the awakening of its multi-million-strong working class.

For significant insight into contemporary Chinese social relations and the country’s history … Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home is not the film to see. It has value, but a different value.

Zhang, one of China’s most prominent and prolific directors, has made more than 20 feature films. Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern(1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and Not One Less (1999) are among his most satisfying works.

The filmmaker’s considerable talent and sincerity are not to be doubted. All of his films, even the least important, have intriguing qualities. The cynical and corrupt Chinese regime has alternately repressed and (in recent years) cultivated Zhang, who has also directed stage, opera and ballet productions and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He has had to navigate between the needs and demands of China’s authorities on the one hand, and the siren song of the global film industry on the other … and all of this without much of a historical or social compass. Small wonder that Zhang’s body of work is uneven and full of major artistic and intellectual gaps.

The events of Coming Home, based on a novel by Chinese writer Geling Yan, who was born in Shanghai in 1958 and now lives in the US, are spread over a number of decades.

In the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution period, a political prisoner, former college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), who was jailed during the Maoist regime’s so-called Anti-Rightist campaign a decade earlier, has escaped his “rehabilitation” labor camp in remote northern China. He attempts to visit his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen).

Filthy, exhausted, chilled and soaked in the rain, Lu reaches the apartment building where Feng and Dandan reside. He knows the police are watching the front entrance, so he makes his way over the roof of a neighboring house and down the stairs. Lu reaches the door of the family apartment, but it is locked. He meets his daughter in the stairwell and gives her a message that his wife should meet him at the local railway station the following morning.

Feng arrives at the station at the appointed time, and the husband and wife espy each other from a distance, but Dandan, out of political piety and because she aspires to a lead role in her dance troupe, has informed the authorities about her father’s presence. He is seized. During the struggle, Feng falls and injures her head.

Another decade goes by, and with the end of the Cultural Revolution, the former “rightists” are all considered rehabilitated. (In December 1978, 550,000 people were conclusively pardoned by the Beijing regime.) Lu comes home, but his wife suffers from a form of amnesia, both physical and psychological, and fails to recognize him. In fact, she mistakes him at times for a local Communist Party official who blackmailed her into sex in exchange for seeing to it that Lu did not receive a death sentence.

Lu moves into a storefront nearby and develops a relationship with the damaged Feng, as a friend, a piano tuner and, eventually, a letter reader. In a clever, ironic twist, a box of Lu’s letters to Feng arrives, thousands of letters over two decades, scrawled on scraps of paper, which he was never able to send. Lu ends up reading his own correspondence to his wife, who has no idea he is the author. He continues to attempt by various means, including music in particular, to awaken Feng from her amnesia.

Lu also tries to patch up his wife’s relations with their daughter. Since Dandan—who never had the dance career she aspired to and now works in a textile factory—turned in her father, Feng has refused to let her in the house. The daughter exclaims, “She forgets everything, but remembers all my faults!”

Again, if one is seeking insight into the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or any other episode in China’s post-1949 history, Zhang’s Coming Home is not the place to go. The director has apparently only made use of the last thirty pages of Geling Yan’s lengthy novel.

Zhang is relatively frank about his reasons for excluding the bulk of the book. Trevor Hogg of Live for Films reports that the director told a roundtable at the Toronto film festival in 2014 that the novelist had based her work on the experiences of her grandfather, who “was put into jail [in the 1950s]. … However, a large part of the novel couldn’t be into a film because they [the events] were too sensitive and political so I used the ending part of the novel as the beginning part of the film and created a lot of new stories.”

Indeed, in 2007, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department listed the Anti-Rightist movement as a topic to be restricted in the media and in books. This is not surprising. Millions of people, critics of the regime from both the right and the left, and probably many who were not critics of any kind, were caught up in the persecutions. The Chinese Trotskyists, representing the interests of the working class, were jailed in the early 1950s, and either executed at the time or imprisoned until 1978.

The events of the late 1950s are still taboo in part because any discussion of them would inevitably bring up Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward, a product of the regime’s Stalinist-nationalist autarchic program. The regime forcibly and irrationally collectivized agriculture into self-sufficient communes, and organized farmers and workers into military-style production units. The massive famine and economic crisis that ensued killed tens of millions.

Zhang’s film has weight because of its understanding of and sympathy for a trio of human beings swept up in tragic events. Coming Home is a less picturesque, colorful and coldly elegant film than early works such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. It is almost self-consciously smaller in scale, more emotional and “warmer” in both look and feel. At times the film verges on the sentimental (its treacly score does not help), but the director’s and performers’ undoubted honesty and commitment keep it on course for the most part.

The dramatic situation in the film—a husband and father who feels responsible (rightly or wrongly) for the family’s protracted tribulations; a wife and mother who has been seriously damaged in the process (and regrets that she could not do more for her persecuted husband); a daughter racked by guilt for her earlier betrayal—is a serious and intriguing one. To his credit, Zhang does what relatively few filmmakers dare to do at present: he aligns himself and his actors to the intense emotional demands of the piece. Most North American and European directors are far too cool, cautious and calculating for that.

Along these lines, Zhang expresses admiration for Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose works criticized Japanese post-war society from a generally left-wing point of view. Kurosawa had his failings, but he never shied away from representing the most towering dramas and confrontations. Zhang told the same Toronto roundtable last year that the Japanese director “is a true film master and my respected hero. … Kurosawa has always been my role model. Two particular types of his movies are impressive in my opinion. One is action movies that tell Japanese culture in a grand way. The other is the kind of movie that deals with ordinary peoples’ lives. These types of movies have influenced me; that’s why I myself do these two kinds of movies.”

Zhang’s attitude toward the history in Coming Home is not entirely clear. Presumably he opposes the far-reaching repression of the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Cultural Revolution. One would tend to believe that his outlook is relatively undeveloped and historically uninformed. From the formal point of view, one might categorize it as liberal-individualist. Nothing in his various public comments would contradict that.

But art, as Trotsky once noted, “is basically a function of the nerves and demands complete sincerity.” In opposing the national-bureaucratic crudity and cruelty of the Maoist officialdom, which had nothing to do with socialism or the historic interests of the working class, Zhang is perfectly capable within the limits of a sharply focused work of mobilizing considerable humanity and sincerity. Coming Home has struck a considerable chord in China, setting records for a domestic art film, probably for a variety of contradictory reasons.