Captain America: Civil War—A waste of resources, technology and human skill

By David Walsh
23 May 2016

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Captain America: Civil War is the latest Hollywood superhero film. It is the 13th film from the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” alone. (There are more on the way.) The new Captain America is now the most commercially successful film of 2016, with its global box office revenue having reached $1 billion this past weekend. It cost approximately $250 million to make.

Captain America: Civil War

The story of Captain America: Civil War involves a dispute within the group of “enhanced” creatures known as the Avengers over whether they should accept United Nations supervision of their efforts to combat threats represented by various “supervillains.” Governments worldwide have become concerned about civilian casualties, “collateral damage,” resulting from the Avengers’ destructive activities.

Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) leads the faction that opposes signing an agreement accepting UN regulation of the superheroes’ conduct. Ironman / Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) heads up those in favor. A terrorist attack that is falsely attributed to Rogers’ friend Winter Soldier / Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the victim of insidious brainwashing years ago in Siberia, becomes the source of further conflicts among the Avengers, hence the “Civil War” in the film’s title. It turns out that someone is deliberately stoking the bitter discord in the group, hoping to fracture it permanently, because of his own personal grievances.

Joe and Anthony Russo directed Captain America: Civil War. The action sequences, and there are many of them, are often difficult to follow. The relationships are simplistic and clichéd. There are a few amusing lines in the nearly two and a half hour film. There is also the nearly inevitable, vaguely anti-Russian angle. Overall, it is impossible to care about anyone and anything in this work.

There are no coherent or significant themes here. Civil War seems to be suggesting that the thirst for vengeance is unquenchable and self-defeating. Every forceful action––even in a good cause––produces new, perhaps accidental victims, and those who attempt to avenge the latter inevitably perpetuate the cycle of violence. If this is meant to apply to the current geopolitical situation, to the wars in the Middle East and the terrorist attacks in Europe, it is less than meaningless, since it conceals the reality of relentless US and European military violence and neo-colonial aggression.

With its fleeting, essentially inconsequential references to the deaths of innocent civilians, the Russo brothers’ effort deserves inclusion among those films and novels that accept––sometimes in allegorical form––the framework of the “war on terror,” but suggest that “good people” (or whatever form of life they may be) can “step over the line” and that there may be a price to pay for the overzealous pursuit of “evildoers.”

If Captain America is taken to be the leader of some sort of pumped up US Special Forces unit, i.e., death squad, then the film is more sinister. Rogers’ refusal to accept any supervision is apparently intended to demonstrate the depth of his independence and quasi-“libertarian” commitment, even his anti-authoritarianism. But he and his team could be looked at differently, as murderous paramilitary vigilantes, if one chose to take any of this seriously …

In any event, the issues and dilemmas facing the characters, the gestures in the direction of “psychology,” are mere scaffolding for a large-scale money-making operation. What passes for film criticism is so prostituted in the US at this point that hardly anyone can state the obvious: that this is a bloated, pointless and dull film, which simply kills (truly murders!) a few hours in the viewer’s life.

Captain America: Civil War

Laughably, Justin Chang in Variety, the trade publication, calls it the “most mature and substantive picture to have yet emerged from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” More cynically, the Hollywood Reporter comments, “Call it ‘civil war’ or call it brand extension; call it a ‘cinematic universe’ or a corporate behemoth––the latest Marvel extravaganza furthers the studio’s cross-pollination of action franchises in a way that’s sure to satisfy devotees. Posing serious questions about violence and vigilantism while reveling in both,Captain America: Civil War is overlong but surprisingly light on its feet.”

These comments are simply a form of product endorsement. The American media, instinctively subservient to corporate interests, treats the studios and their blockbusters as invaluable national assets that are “too big to fail.” It is a truly dreadful situation.

Last July, in a comment on Terminator Genisys (2015), we pointed to the phenomenon of so-called independent filmmakers moving “into the ‘blockbuster’ vortex” as something worth “taking note of.”

The Russo brothers were cited in that article as an example. They wrote and directed their first film, Pieces (1997), while still graduate students at Case Western Reserve University, in their hometown of Cleveland. Joe Russo told an interviewer that this initial movie “was a French New Wave-influenced, non-linear art piece that had no absolutely no appeal to anybody in commercial filmmaking.” He told another interviewer, “It was a genre-bending movie. It was about a heist, but completely absurdist in the style of a [Jean-Luc] Godard film,” and “[W]e grew up on foreign films, art house films. [François] Truffaut was a huge influence on us.”

Thanks to Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, who had a production company together, the Russo brothers made their first feature film, Welcome to Collinwood (2002). It was set in a rundown section of Cleveland and based on Italian filmmaker Mario Monicelli’s memorable comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street ( I soliti ignoti, 1958), about a group of small-time thieves who horribly botch a burglary. William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell, Isaiah Washington, Luis Guzmán, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Esposito and Clooney himself featured in the amusing work.

Captain America: Civil War

(Oddly enough, another “independent” filmmaker who has found himself directing bombastic fare, Alan Taylor [Thor: The Dark World, 2013, andTerminator Genisys], also began his career by directing a movie, Palookaville(1995), loosely inspired by Monicelli’s film.)

The Russo brothers apparently played a role as well in developing the comic television series, Arrested Development (2003-06), eventually directing 15 episodes between them. After working on a number of other series, the Russos graduated to directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and now this. They are slated to direct two more Avengers’ films, Infinity War,Part I and II, to be released in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

All one can think about is the terrible waste of resources, technology and human skill represented by a film like Captain America: Civil War. The performers, for instance, include many talented individuals, among them Evans, Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Daniel Brühl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard and others. What are these people doing in this film? Is there any major film actor at present who would say “No” to this sort of project?

In any event, the ultimate source of the problem lies in “bad times,” not bad people. What exists at present will be replaced by something very different, its opposite in many respects.

Class Divide: A close-up look at gentrification, inequality in New York City

By Fred Mazelis
29 April 2016

Class Divide is indeed appropriately named. This documentary film by Marc Levin provides a concrete examination, largely through the eyes of the young generation, of life in one of the most unequal cities in the world.

This is the third in a series of films made by Levin on significant social issues. Earlier ones examined the disappearance of New York City’s garment industry, and the lives of families in the city’s suburbs who lost good jobs in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

Class Divide

In Class Divide the setting is the West Chelsea neighborhood in the lower midtown area of Manhattan. The neighborhood had already seen an influx of the upper middle class over the past quarter-century. Since 2009, however, with the opening in successive stages of the High Line, the aerial greenway and park built on old New York Central railroad tracks, hyper-gentrification has arrived.

One luxury high-rise apartment building after another has been or is being built along the High Line, which has become one of New York’s top ten tourist attractions. The new residents, paying millions of dollars for an apartment, are taking advantage of the views and the prestige of the address, as well as the proximity to the trendy art gallery scene west of Tenth Avenue and the new Whitney Museum and night life only a few blocks south. For some of the new owners, the apartments are merely an investment, and little time is spent living there.

Catering in large part to the wealthy newcomers, Avenues, a private for-profit school from kindergarten to the 12th grade, opened its doors several years ago. Tuition is currently more than $45,000 annually. All of the students, even in the lower grades, study either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Avenues enrolls more than 1,200 students, a relative handful of whom (45 students) receive full scholarships. Most of the students at Avenues come not merely from upper middle-class families, but from the top one-tenth or even one-hundredth of one percent on the income scale.

Directly across from Avenues, on the east side of Tenth Avenue, lies the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, a public housing project that is home to 2,500 people. Half of the development dates from 1947 and the other half from 1964. A typical example of New York’s public housing, Chelsea-Elliot is plagued by poor maintenance, a backlog of basic repairs and occasional loss of heat or hot water. Most of its households have annual incomes that are far less than the tuition demanded across the street.

The film holds our attention and works as a documentary largely because the bare statistics are translated into the experiences and the honest and unfiltered views of young people on both sides of the class divide. Interviews with youth from Chelsea-Elliot are interspersed with ones from students at Avenues, and we also hear from adults connected to the school, the High Line, the neighborhood, and the real estate boom that is remaking the area.

Joel, a 7-year-old from the projects, speaks about his hopes for the future, and his fears as well. His mother, Candida, comes from the Dominican Republic. His father, Fernando, is an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who leaves for work every day at 5 am. The family worries that he could be deported. Seven people live in two small rooms.

Juwan, Hyisheen and Brandon are teenagers. Juwan’s mother died when he was eight. Brandon works as a doorman while making plans for the future. Hyisheen does well in school and studies social work in college.

Rosa De Santiago is perhaps the liveliest presence in the film. About 9 years old, she declares that she admires Beyoncé, and has decided, after wondering, “how did pieces of rock get on the Earth?” that she wants to become a professor of geology when she grows up. “I hate money,” Rosa passionately declares. “People fight over money. My mom pawned her jewelry to pay the rent.”

On the other side of the street we meet Yasemin, a high school student at Avenues who lives on the Upper West Side and who worries about inequality. Nick, whose father is a currency trader, hopes to become an architect and looks forward to building for the rich. Luc lives in a building with a “poor door,” with the lower half providing apartments, with a separate entrance, for low-income families.

Also interviewed are Ricardo Scofidio, the lead architect of the hugely successful High Line; Chris Whittle, the “educational entrepreneur” who is one of the founders of Avenues and has been a prime mover in the attacks on public education through charter and private schools over the past two decades; Ken Jockers, from the Hudson Guild social services center in the Chelsea Houses; and Joe Restuccia, a local advocate of affordable housing, who tells us that 40 percent of the city’s low-income housing has disappeared in the last decade.

A real estate broker brags about the huge sums apartments are going for in the West Chelsea area. Showing apartments to prospective buyers, she mentions that the asking price for a penthouse is about $15 million. One buyer is shown a four-bedroom apartment for $10.35 million. When she asks the agent whether the playground outside is “safe,” the reply is, “I can’t guarantee safety.”

An 11-year-old from the projects tells the camera, “They use all our parks, but they don’t even like us.” Only late in the film do students from both sides of the street get the opportunity to meet one another. A group from the projects is taken on a tour of Avenues. We are informed that a single scholarship student from the Chelsea-Elliot Houses has been admitted to Avenues.

One of the most important and valuable insights from the film, in the words of the young people themselves, is that the dividing line between the overwhelmingly white student body at Avenues and the equally overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic population across the street is one of class, not race. As Hyisheen explains, “it’s not racism, it’s classism.” An adult comments, “It’s America, that’s the way it is…not race, but wealth.”

Filmmaker Levin has accurately described a state of anxiety among the young people, on both sides of Tenth Avenue. They are concerned about the class gulf that they navigate every day, and wonder about the future. In the case of one of the Avenues students, as the film recounts, this has tragic consequences.

At the end of the movie we are given an update on the current plans of some of those who have been interviewed. Rosa tried to get admitted to Avenues but did not succeed. Juwan is pursuing his hope of a career in stand-up comedy, and Hyisheen has graduated from college.

Class Divide is clearly a cry of liberal concern. According to the Huffington Post, “Levin did not want to make a political film but rather to put light on ‘how these forces impact real people and how that is sometimes missed.’”

Class Divide

The film succeeds in showing this impact and has many worthwhile and revealing moments, but it also reflects a definite political outlook, one that remains very much within the framework of the social and political status quo.

The term “classism” used by Hyisheen is significant. It is a word that only came into more common usage in recent decades, in line with identity politics. It signifies—analogously to racism as well as to such terms as “ageism”—discrimination against the poor. It strongly implies that nothing can be done about poverty, that it is just another “identity,” along with race, age and gender. Those who object to “classism” usually mean that the poor should be treated with fairness, not that poverty can or should be eliminated. As we hear on several occasions in the film: “This is America,” a phrase that says nothing will ever change.

In another revealing moment, Rosa’s older brother Danny declares himself a conservative, an entrepreneur and a Republican, because the Republicans stand for “free enterprise” while the Democrats “are for the lazy, poor people.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course the poor are not lazy, nor do the Democrats stand for the poor. The Democrats, while always a big-business party, have become in recent decades even more trusted representatives of the financial aristocracy. Danny is merely repeating phrases that come from the Republican right wing but that also reflect the increasingly threadbare claims by Democratic politicians to defend the “less fortunate.”

It is perhaps significant that the film includes this snippet, suggesting that young workers see their salvation in right-wing demagogy. Danny’s comments leave the impression that the choice (in 2016 and beyond) is between the two parties of the ruling class. We never hear from the workers and youth in the Chelsea-Elliot Houses who have no use for either of their parties of the corporate and financial establishment. Their bitter hatred of the system would have introduced a dissonant note in relation to the movie’s overall theme. Although we don’t hear from them in Class Divide, they will be heard soon enough.

We’re not the “good guys”: American drone warfare is terrorizing the Middle East

The Obama administration clings to Hollywood fantasy about the war on terror, even as its whistleblowers call foul

We're not the "good guys": American drone warfare is terrorizing the Middle East
Ethan Hawke in “Good Kill”
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.

Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage.  In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.

Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears inNational Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake.  In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.

“I Was Under the Impression That America Was Saving the World”

“When we are in our darkest places and we have a lot to worry about and we feel guilty about our past actions, it’s really tough to describe what that feeling is like,” says Daniel, a whistleblower who took part in drone operations and whose last name is not revealed in National Bird. Speaking of the suicidal feelings that sometimes plagued him while he was involved in killing halfway across the planet, he adds, “Having the image in your head of taking your own life is not a good feeling.”

National Bird is not the first muckraking documentary on Washington’s drone wars. Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned, Tonje Schei’s Drone, and Madiha Tahrir’s Wounds of Waziristan have already shone much-needed light on how drone warfare really works. But as Kennebeck told me, when she set out to make a film about the wages of the newest form of war known to humanity, she wanted those doing the targeting, as well as those they were targeting, to speak for themselves.  She wanted them to reveal the psychological impact of sending robot assassins, often operated by “pilots” halfway around the world, into the Greater Middle East to fight Washington’s war on terror. In her film, there’s no narrator, nor experts in suits working for think tanks in Washington, nor retired generals debating the value of drone strikes when it comes to defeating terrorism.

Instead, what you see is far less commonplace: low-level recruits in President Obama’s never-ending drone wars, those Air Force personnel who remotely direct the robotic vehicles to their targets, analyze the information they send back, and relay that information to the pilots who unleash Hellfire missiles that will devastate distant villages. If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset, and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East.

These previously faceless but distinctly non-robotic Air Force recruits are the cannon fodder of America’s drone wars.  You meet two twenty-somethings: Daniel, a self-described down-and-out homeless kid, every male member of whose family has been in jail on petty charges of one kind or another, and Heather, a small town high school graduate trying to escape rural Pennsylvania. You also meet Lisa, a former Army nurse from California, who initially saw the military as a path to a more meaningful life.

The three of them worked on Air Force bases scattered around the country from California to Virginia. The equipment they handled hovered above war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan and Yemen (where the U.S. Air Force was supporting assassination missions on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency).

“That is so cool, unmanned aircraft. That’s really bad-ass.” So Heather thought when she first saw recruitment posters for the drone program. “I was under the impression,” she told Kennebeck, “that America was saving the world, like that we were Big Brother and we were helping everyone out.”

Initially, Lisa felt similarly: “When I first got into the military, I mean I was thinking it was a win-win. It was a force for good in the world. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history.”

And that was hardly surprising.  After all, you’re talking about the “perfect weapon,” the totally high-tech, “precise” and “surgical,” no-(American)-casualties, sci-fi version of war that Washington has been promoting for years as its answer to al-Qaeda and other terror outfits.  President Obama who has personally overseen the drone campaigns — with a “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House — vividly described his version of such a modern war in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University:

“This is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. We were attacked on 9/11. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces… America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

That distinctly Hollywood vision of America’s drone wars (with a Terminator edge) was the one that had filtered down to the level of Kennebeck’s three drone-team interviewees when they signed on.  It looked to them then like a war worth fighting and a life worth leading.  Today, as they speak out, their version of such warfare looks nothing like what either Hollywood or Washington might imagine.

“Excuse Me, Sir, Can I Have Your Driver’s License?”

National Bird does more than look at the devastation caused by drones in far away lands and the overwhelming anxiety it produces among those who live under the distant buzzing and constant threat of those robotic aircraft on an almost daily basis. Kennebeck also turns her camera on the men and women who helped make the strikes possible, trying to assess what the impact of their war has been on them. Their raw and unfiltered responses should deeply trouble us all.

Kennebeck’s interviewees are among at least a dozen whistleblowers who have stepped forward, or are preparing to do so, in order to denounce Washington’s drone wars as morally unjustified, as in fact nightmares both for those who fight them and those living in the lands that are on the receiving end. The realities of the day-in, day-out war they fought for years were, as they tell it, deeply destructive and filled with collateral damage of every sort.  Worse yet, drone operators turn out to have little real idea about, and almost no confirmation of, whom exactly they’ve blown away.

“It’s so primitive, raw, stripped-down death. This is real. It’s not a joke,” says Heather, an imagery analyst whose job was to look at the streaming video coming in from drones over war zones and interpret the grainy images for senior commanders in thekill chain. “You see someone die because you said it was okay to kill them. I was always shaking. Sometimes I would just go to the bathroom and just sit on the toilet. I mean just sit there in my uniform and just cry.”

Advocates of drone war believe, as do many of its critics, that it minimizes casualties. These Air Force veterans have, however, stepped forward to tell us that such claims simply aren’t true. In a study of what can be known about drone killings, the human rights group Reprieve has confirmed this reality vividly, finding that, in Pakistan, in attempts to take out 41 men, American drones actually killed an estimated 1,147 people (while not all of the 41 targeted figures even died). In other words, this hasn’t proved to be a war on terror, but a war of terror, a reality the drone whistleblowers confirm.

Heather is blunt in her criticism. “Hearing politicians speak about drones being precision weapons [makes it seem like they’re] able to make surgical strikes. To me it’s completely ridiculous, completely ludicrous to make these statements.”

The three whistleblowers point, for instance, to the complete absence of any post-strike verification of who exactly has died. “There’s a bomb. They drop it. It explodes,” Lisa says. “Then what? Does somebody go down and ask for somebody’s driver’s license? Excuse me, sir, can I have your driver’s license, see who you are? Does that happen? I mean, how do we know? How is it possible to know who ends up living or dying?”

After three years as an imagery analyst, after regularly watching unknown people die thousands of miles away on a grainy screen, Heather was diagnosed as suicidal. She estimates — and the experiences of other drone whistleblowers back her up — that alcoholics accounted for a significant percentage of her unit, and that many of her co-workers had similarly suicidal thoughts. Two actually did kill themselves.

As Heather’s grandfather points out, “She had trouble getting the treatment she needed. She had trouble finding a doctor because they didn’t have the right security clearance [and] she could be in violation of the law and could even go to prison for even talking to the wrong therapist about what was bothering her.”

In desperation Heather turned to her mother. “She’d call me up and she’d cry and she’d be upset, but then she couldn’t talk about it,” her mother says. “When you hear your daughter talking to you on the phone, you can that tell she is in trouble just by the emotion and inflection and the stress that you can hear in her voice. When you ask her, did you talk to anyone else about it? She’d say no, we’re not allowed to talk to anybody. I have a feeling that if someone wasn’t there for her, she wouldn’t be here right now.”

Like Heather, Daniel has so far survived his own drone-war-induced mental health issues, but in his post-drone life he’s run into a formidable enemy: the U.S. government. On August 8, 2014, he estimates that as many as 50 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided his house, seizing documents and his electronics.

“The government suspects that he is a source of information about the [drone] program that the government doesn’t want out there,” says Jesselyn Radack, his lawyer and herself a former Department of Justice whistleblower. “To me, that’s simply an attempt to silence whistleblowers, and it doesn’t surprise me that that happens to the very few people who have been brave enough to speak out against the drone program.”

If that was the intention, however, the raid — and the threat it carries for other whistleblowers — seems not to have had the desired effect. Instead, the number of what might be thought of as defectors from the drone program only seems to be growing. The first to come out was Brandon Bryant, a former camera operator in October 2013. He was followed by Cian Westmoreland, a former radio technician, in November 2014. Last November, Michael Haas and Stephen Lewis, two imagery analysts, joined Westmoreland and Bryant by speaking out at the launch of Tonje Schei’s filmDrone. All four of them also published an open letter to President Obama warning him that the drone war was escalating terrorism, not containing it.

And just last month, Chris Aaron, a former counterterrorism analyst for the CIA’s drone program, spoke out on a panel at the University of Nevada Law School. In the relatively near future, Radack recently told Rolling Stone, four more individuals involved in America’s drone wars are planning to offer their insights into how the program works.

Like Heather and Daniel, many of the former drone operators who have gone public are struggling with mental health problems. Some of them are also dealing with substance abuse issues that began as a way to counteract or dull the horrors of the war they were waging and witnessing. “We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. Everyone drank. There was a lot of coke, speed, and that sort of thing,” imagery analyst Haas toldRolling Stone. “If the higher ups knew, then they didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere.”

“Imagine If This Was Happening to Us”

In recent months, something has changed for the whistleblowers. There is a new sense of camaraderie among them, as well as with the lawyers defending them and a growing group of activist supporters. Most unexpectedly, they are hearing from the families of victims of drone strikes, thanks to the work of groups like Reprieve in Great Britain.

In mid-April, for instance, when Cian Westmoreland was visiting London, he met with Malik Jalal, a Pakistani tribal leader who claims that he has been targeted by U.S. drones on multiple occasions. Clive Lewis, a member of Parliament and military veteran, released a photo on Facebook of the meeting. “It’s possible that one of the two men I’m [standing] between in this picture, Cian Westmoreland, was trying to kill the man on my right, Malik Jalal — at some stage in the past seven years,” Lewiswrote. “Their story is both amazing and terrifying. At once it shows the growing menace and destructive capability of unchecked political and military power juxtaposed with the power of the human spirit and human solidarity.”

As that sense of solidarity strengthens and as the distance between the former hunters and the hunted begins to narrow, the whistleblowers are beginning to confront some distinctly uncomfortable questions. “We often hear that drones can see everything by day and by night,” a different drone victim of the February 2010strike in Uruzgan told filmmaker Kennebeck. “You can see the difference between a needle and an ant but not people? We were sitting in the pickup truck, some even on the bed. Did you not see that there were travelers, women and children?”

When the president and his key officials look at the drone program, they undoubtedly don’t “see” women and children. Instead, they are caught up in a Hollywood-style vision of imminent danger from terrorists and of the kind of salvation that a missile launched from thousands of miles away provides. It is undoubtedly thanks to just this thought process, already deeply embedded in the American way of war, that not a single candidate for president in 2016 has rejected the drone program.

That is exactly what the whistleblowers feel needs to change. “I just want people to know that not everybody is a freaking terrorist and we need to just get out of that mindset. And we just need to see these people as people — families, communities, brothers, mothers, and sisters, because that’s who they are,” says Lisa. “Imagine if this was happening to us. Imagine if our children were walking outside of the door and it was a sunny day and they were afraid because they didn’t know if today was the day that something would fall out of the sky and kill someone close to them. How would we feel?”

Pratap Chatterjee is the author of “Halliburton’s Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War”. He is the managing editor of CorpWatch.

Midnight Special: “Shining the light” on unfreedom in America

By Joanne Laurier
15 April 2016

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

is a traditional folk song, popularized by the legendary Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in a 1934 recording made in Angola Prison in Louisiana. Its refrain speaks of the light from a passing train beaming into the balladeer’s jail cell, a metaphor for the hope of escape from a life behind bars.

The image of illumination from an external source bringing salvation is a key motif in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, a disturbing science fiction thriller that conveys deep anxiety about the state of the world.

Each of Nichols’ previous efforts, Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), in distinct ways, tapped into intense levels of psychological and social stress. In his latest movie, Nichols uses a disaster parable, but in an ambiguous, quasi-mystical manner, thus rendering the denouement largely ineffective.

Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst

Midnight Special opens in a cheap motel room in Eldorado, Texas, where the sunlight has been blocked from entering by cardboard taped over the windows. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper, have just rescued Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from the clutches of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the guru of a religious cult housed on a ranch in rural Texas.

It is apparently urgent that the rescuers both evade Calvin’s gunmen and reach an unknown destination in a few days’ time. As Alton, who wears swim goggles, must shield his eyes from the light, the trio travel in darkness. It is soon clear that the boy is endowed with special powers.

Alton has been introduced by Lucas to comic books in which super-heroes vanquish society’s foes. He diligently pores over them as if they were a guide to the use of his own extraordinary gifts.

Meanwhile, the FBI raids the ranch, which has been under surveillance because Calvin’s sermons have somehow been encrypted with data by Alton that supposedly endanger national security. “You all don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you?” exclaims Calvin to the government operatives. There is no code or secret the boy cannot penetrate.

Roy, Lucas and Alton careen along dark, empty roads in foreboding terrains. They eventually pick up Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). At a run-down gas station Alton’s uses his abilities to dissolve a spy satellite into fiery streams. (FBI: “What could cause a satellite to go out of orbit?”) The eight-year-old is number one on the most wanted list of the FBI, NSA, Homeland Security and the military, and they collectively step up their efforts to capture him.

Nichols sets Midnight Special, like much of his work, in America’s decaying, depressed wastelands. The imagery and sparse narrative for the most part exude dread and paranoia. In one scene, as the father races to catch up with Alton’s abductors, his facial expression is set in laser beam-like focus. (Nichols: “Mike Shannon [is] behind the steering wheel—he can’t do anything, he’s powerless. To me, it’s a much more intense thing to watch than a well-executed chase scene.”) Roy is obsessed with protecting Alton, whose eyesight and hearing are so sensitive they need to be disabled, from an off-kilter society and its militaristic guardians.

In a chilling scene, the diminutive boy is shackled and seated in a blindingly white room. He is being interrogated by a large group from the FBI, NSA et al. (Adam Driver plays the NSA’s lead agent.) “Are you a weapon?,” they bark at him.

Jaeden Lieberher

All in all, Nichols depicts a social landscape in which sinister religious lunatics jockey for power with even more sinister agents of spying and repression. Meanwhile, in the background, the general population faces narrowing economic prospects and various states of non-freedom. Everyone nervously awaits miraculous deliverance.

In creating, with considerable skill, these drab and claustrophobic circumstances, Nichols gives himself the possibility of exposing something important about American life. But the vagueness of his ideas and themes is a big problem. In response to a question from interviewer Alissa Wilkinson about his interest in people “who have strong systems of belief,” Nichols replied that “faith in the unknown” was present in Midnight Special.

He continued: “And then you have faux-systems of belief. You have either the government’s belief in the boy or this religious group’s belief in the boy. They all come from the wrong place—they come from what that group wants out of the boy. … The only ones that are even attempting to try to understand are his parents, and this group of people with them. So it’s a movie about the nature of belief, what’s real belief and what’s this fake, dogmatic belief that a lot of times we’re raised with.”

Nichols seeks to puncture “faux-systems of belief” in the powers that be and the existing order. He is attuned to certain political realities, such as global spying, torture, black sites and military occupation (At one point, like a prisoner in Guantanamo, Roy wears an orange jumpsuit.). But the director’s opposition is fragmented, individualistic and operates almost exclusively on the emotional plane. His criticisms are blunted.

Moreover, the answer to the unfolding disaster of American society in Midnight Special—if one takes the film at face value—is some sort of elevated, extra-planetary existence, which exists nowhere at all. In another example of wishful thinking, Alton possesses the ability to unscramble the plans and dismantle the weapons of the authorities. Fortunately for the FBI, CIA and NSA, he is a super-hero belonging to another time and place.

Midnight Special attempts to “shine a light” on an angst-ridden population hemmed in by limited opportunities and persecuted by a repressive establishment. In the end, however, Nichols’ minimalistic approach expresses his general bewilderment and pessimism more than anything else. He therefore opts for the deus ex machina finale, i.e., for a supernatural power that intervenes in a seemingly hopeless state of affairs.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—Doom and gloom, with capes

By Carlos Delgado
6 April 2016

Directed by Zack Snyder; written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the latest superhero film from Warner Bros. Entertainment, the studio behind the “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batmanfilms, 2013’s Man of Steel and other recent films set in the DC comic book “universe” (the pompous word used to describe the company’s intellectual property catalog).

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The new film makes use of a number of comic book heroes and villains beyond the titular duo, and is largely aimed at kickstarting a multi-film series with DC characters to compete with Disney’s lucrative Marvel franchise. The Marvel films have grossed over $9 billion at the global box office.

The film comes at a worrying time for Warner Bros. The production company, one of the oldest in the American film industry, has suffered a string of box office failures, including the recent Pan, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Jupiter Ascending. The company is under increasing pressure from shareholders to produce a mega-profitable film series to replace the revenue stream from the now-dormant Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises.

The price tag of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, including production and marketing costs, approaches half a billion dollars, and some analysts believe it would need an $800 million box office to recoup its investment. According to one media analyst quoted in Variety, a box office return of less than $1 billion would be considered a “disappointment.”

It would be very difficult for any work of art, produced under these circumstances, to be anything more than a crass, stillborn commercial product. As it is, Batman v Superman is an interminable mess. Its themes, if it can be said to have any, largely reflect the mercenary outlook of the filmmakers and the studio that produced it.

The film opens with a ground-level perspective of the devastating battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that served as the climax to Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the billionaire alter-ego of Batman, watches helplessly as the alien combatants soar through the skies of Metropolis, toppling buildings and wreaking havoc in their wake. Clouds of dust and shell-shocked bystanders are featured prominently, clearly intended to evoke the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Wayne rushes about, rescuing bystanders from the wanton destruction, while gazing angrily up at the sky. This event apparently sows the seeds that eventually lead the two superheroes to battle. We are told that Wayne resents Superman’s alien abilities, that he believes no one man should wield so much power. That such a sentiment would be expressed by a multi-billionaire is treated entirely without irony.

For his own part, Batman stalks the night as an extralegal vigilante, beating up criminals and branding them with a bat insignia, apparently with the approval of many in the local police force. News of Batman’s brutal activity reaches the office of the Daily Planet, where Superman, disguised as reporter Clark Kent, expresses distaste for the cruelty of his counterpart’s crime-fighting approach. This is the substance of the disagreement between the two characters that is rehashed again and again in the course of the 151-minute runtime.

Henry Cavill as Superman

Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), here presented as a young tech mogul in the mold of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, invites Wayne and Kent to a party where he attempts to fan the flames of dissension between the two. For reasons that go entirely unexplained, Luthor carries on a personal vendetta against the costumed heroes.

Ultimately, Luthor’s machinations succeed, and the two superheroes are manipulated into fighting one another, pitting Superman’s alien abilities against Batman’s technological prowess. A shoehorned subplot brings Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) into the fray, and the three ultimately set aside their differences and join forces to battle Luthor and a “Doomsday” monster he has created.

This is a very poor film. The characters are lifeless and flat, with scarcely more development and backstory than one would find printed on the back of an action figure box. The winding, convoluted plot is not grounded in anything resembling human emotion or motivation, but is largely a flimsy framework on which to hang various action set pieces and effects spectacles. The action scenes themselves are poorly choreographed and hard to follow, and Batman v Superman’s painfully grim and somber tone often lends the proceedings a laughable quality.

All in all, it’s a fairly standard effort for director Zack Snyder, whose previous efforts include the ridiculous, hyper-violent 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen.

The cast includes such talented performers as Amy Adams (as Superman’s lover and perpetual damsel in distress, Lois Lane), Jeremy Irons (as Batman’s world-weary butler Alfred) and Holly Hunter (as a US Senator). These are capable actors who have crafted moving performances in the past. Here they struggle mightily to bring life to the material.

One wonders how any actor could be expected to credibly recite dialogue such as this:

“I don’t know if it’s possible for you to love me and be you.”

“In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.”

“The world only makes sense if you force it to.”

Or this gem of an exchange between Superman and Lois Lane:

Superman: Superman was never real; just a dream of a farmer from Kansas.

Lois: That farmer’s dream is all some people have.

Have the filmmakers ever listened to human beings actually talk? One cringes with embarrassment for the actors involved.

To be sure, Batman v Superman has been widely panned by critics. Yet, the venom with which critics have attacked it is a bit puzzling. After all, there is no plot convolution in this film more absurd than in the recent Marvel film The Avengers, and the pretentious musing about the nature of “gods” and “heroism” recalls the cheap philosophy of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films, all of which were hailed as “masterpieces” by numerous critics.

Though the film aims to be nothing more than mindless entertainment, the filmmakers are still forced to acknowledge, if only in passing, the deepening global crisis in order to retain some shred of credibility. Batman v Supermancontains bleak images of urban and industrial decay, scenes of mass protest, references to drone warfare and US military machinations. The central conflict between the squeaky-clean, status quo conservatism of Superman and the fascistic brutality of Batman mirrors, in its own crude fashion, the crisis in the US elections.

And yet, these issues quickly fade into the background, and we are left with only a lazy misanthropy and a preoccupation with violent spectacle. Whatever anxieties the film’s creators may have about the state of the world, their commercial and career obligations come first.

In addition to Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, Batman v Supermanshows or provides glimpses of the Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman, Darkseid and other minor characters. Plans are already in place for individual films starring each of these characters, with release dates scheduled for as far off as 2020. Studio executives are exceedingly optimistic about audiences’ ability to tolerate films of this kind for the foreseeable future. Judging by the scoffs, audible expressions of confusion and derisive laughter that accompanied this reviewer’s screening, that optimism may very well be misplaced.

Eye in the Sky: The liberal war on terror

By Joanne Laurier
31 March 2016

Directed by Gavin Hood; screenplay by Guy Hibbert

Eye in the Sky is a political-military thriller in which British and American officials weigh the consequences of a drone strike in Nairobi, Kenya. Directed by South African-born filmmaker Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, 2005, Rendition, 2007), it is a fast-paced movie resting, unfortunately, on a grossly manufactured and unlikely set of circumstances.

The film’s central character is Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a fierce British military intelligence officer, who has been tracking a radicalized UK female citizen and her husband, both leading members of Al-Shabaab, a Somali jihadist group. From a military base in southern England, Powell identifies, via a US drone camera feed, these top Islamist figures arriving in Nairobi and being transported to a compound in a poor, crowded neighborhood patrolled by armed rebels.

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

When a cyborg beetle—a small surveillance device controlled by a Kenyan intelligence unit—relays imagery of the terrorists preparing a suicide bombing mission, Powell wants to upgrade the order from “capture” to “kill.”

Despite her eagerness to call for a missile strike, she must seek permission from her superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final screen performance), who is observing from London in a room with various government ministers and legal advisors. The British foreign secretary (Iain Glen) is attending an arms trade fair in Singapore.

Meanwhile, at a US Air Force base in Nevada, two young American drone pilots, who are concerned about collateral damage from such a strike, wait apprehensively for Powell’s decision. Both the US secretary of state, who is in Beijing playing ping-pong with Chinese officials, and a US government legal consultant are amenable (to say the least) to destroying the “targets,” despite the presence of one US and two British citizens.

The major obstacle is an adorable Kenyan child, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling bread near the targeted house. From Singapore, the foreign secretary observes that should the suicide bombers be allowed to kill scores of people, it would be a public relations gain for England, but if the military were to wipe out the compound, injuring or killing the youngster—especially if the video of the action were to be released by a WikiLeaks-type outfit—it would be a public relations disaster.

Nonetheless, more ruthless heads prevail …

In Eye in the Sky, talented actors (and producers such as Colin Firth) lend weight to a movie that is reasonably well-constructed on its own terms. However, the problem is precisely those “terms,” that is, primarily the legitimacy of the “war on terror.” So, such performance skills serve for the most part to sugar-coat a big lie.

The false presentation of reality involves important plot contrivances. The filmmakers early on remove the possibility of capturing the apparent suicide bombers. Why? There are only a handful of them and they are taking their time making videos and loading their vests with explosives. There is no reason why this should be any more than a Kenyan police matter.

Instead, an atmosphere of hysteria is concocted in line with the scare-tactic scenarios used by proponents of the “war on terror” for the last 15 years or so. In 2005, for example, the ultra-right columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Weekly Standard, set out the following circumstances, in order to justify torture: “A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking. … If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? … Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.”

This is all a fantasy. No such circumstance has ever arisen, nor will it. This is the argument of those itching for authoritarian rule and the power to dispose of political opponents by the most brutal means.

Eye in the Sky, of course, does not see itself in that light. However, its central motif is nearly as bogus. Such pumped-up dramatic situations serve to shut down the brain and activate the nervous system along Pavlovian lines. Furthermore, the insertion of a beautiful, innocent Kenyan girl increases the ante. There is an odor of manipulation on every side here. (Andrew Niccol’sGood Kill, although flawed, is a far more scathing film about drone warfare.)

The central questions never broached nor presumably considered by the filmmakers are: Who are these terrorists and where do they come from? What are the social conditions in Kenya and East Africa as a whole? What is the history of the region? What are the British and American military and intelligence doing there? In Eye in the Sky, there is no history and no explanation.

First of all, it should be noted that in every major terrorist attack thus far, it has emerged that the jihadist elements had ties to the Western powers and their security forces at one time or another, or were manipulated or under close observation by those security forces.

Al-Shabaab came into being in Somalia in 2006 and has been formally aligned with Al Qaeda since 2012. The organization’s ranks are filled with impoverished youth and led by operatives with ties to US-backed Arab regimes.

In addition, the Kenyan government has proven a loyal partner in Washington’s drive to maintain its grip over the Horn of Africa. The region is at the center of the new colonial scramble for Africa, where the criminals are returning to the scene of their crimes. And the bloodiest of the old colonial masters in East Africa, from the end of the 19th century, was the British ruling class, whose suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s was the one of the most notorious models of imperialist counterinsurgency, on a par with the savage wars in Vietnam and Algeria.

According to Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British colonial government detained vast numbers of people in camps or confined them in villages ringed with barbed wire. “From 1952 until the end of the war in 1960 tens of thousands of detainees—and possibly a hundred thousand or more—died from the combined effects of exhaustion, disease, starvation and systemic physical brutality.”

How is it possible for a director—from South Africa, no less—to treat seriously a significant political crisis in a former colonial country without reference to this recent history? How could Hood—with a straight face—possibly portray a panoply of British officials as behaving in the most sensitive, even-handed manner toward the Kenyan people?

Eye in the Sky

Almost inevitably, given this degree of intellectual surrender, the filmmakers end up adopting the viewpoint of the powers that be, the US and UK political establishment, the principal source of global terrorism.

The filmmakers offer certain oppositional gestures. They may not be insincere gestures, but they are weak. Eye in the Sky contains a lengthy debate about the rights and wrongs of killing or maiming Alia. (This seems fantastical given the level of destruction perpetrated by the Western powers in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.) Moreover, the various higher-up government officials in both the US and Britain are not portrayed in an attractive light, while the novice drone pilots are represented as having a conscience. (What does ring true is the apprehension the decision-makers feel about the possibility of the exposure of their war crimes, which Hood, however, tends to alchemize into humanitarianism.) The final images are presumably meant to be disturbing, as is Col. Powell’s relentlessness. But this is really not much.

In an interview, the director asserts that “the questions that Guy’s [Guy Hibbert’s] script has beautifully raised are supported by the fact that he’s not reaching for an argument—these are the arguments and discussions that are happening among policy makers, lawyers, the military, human rights organizations … I hope it brings what seems like a mysterious subject to the general population, and we de-mystify it.”

This is simply not true. The difficulty is that the filmmakers are so at one with global bourgeois-liberal public opinion that they accept as their starting point an entire series of pernicious assumptions that shape and warmly envelop Eye in the Sky from its first moment to its last.

“I Saw the Light”: A biography of country singer Hank Williams

By David Walsh
26 March 2016

Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light is a film biography about country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953), who died at the age of 29.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many of the downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional bouts of sobriety. He was often in considerable pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought––over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” appropriately about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his version of “Lovesick Blues” (first performed in a Tin Pan Alley musical in 1922) was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952, and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from very bad to even worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35, began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer.

I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying too much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s: “Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

Hiddleston as Hank Williams

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York City—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show (of all things!) in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He himself drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief adult life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the bigger, more revealing forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving––or had already left––the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African-American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African-American fans. The final sequence in I Saw the Light includes newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of important dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in the US and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population that has been so politically disenfranchised and suppressed must find some outlet for its feelings and sufferings?