Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Portrait of an American Marriage via the Soviet Union


It took a while, but The Americans Season One has been completed.  All I can say is that few television shows have built a world that is nostalgic, exciting, a bit comic, and above all else, a story about a marriage. 

The story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings is not just about KGB agents on their various assignments (though certainly it is about that).  It is also about balancing work and family, those issues that in any era, but especially so in the booming 1980s, was becoming more and more relevant.  Philip and Elizabeth work together as both spies and as their cover of travel agents, and the KGB has assigned them to be a married couple, so they dutifully produced two children: Paige and Henry.  As such, we can imagine they spent almost all the time together.  Any relationship that has become so insular, with few if any actual contacts on the outside, must be extremely difficult for them.

They are not American, and in fact they should be working to bring America down.  However, like in all good relationship stories, their individual views sometimes collide.  Philip is more in tune with America, and in the twenty-some odd years of being 'Philip' he has grown comfortable and even pleased by what he sees.  He is still loyal to the Soviet Union, but right from the start we see that Philip also enjoys a little impromptu dance with new boots at the mall, embarrassing Paige.  We see that Philip is the one who is not above killing people, but who come to understand Americans in a way Elizabeth hasn't. 

Take one of the best episodes, In Control.  Here, the chaos of Reagan's attempted assassination convinces Elizabeth that there has been a coup.  It is Philip who tells her that despite all their years of living and studying Americans, she still doesn't get who 'these people' are.   Americans, he basically tells her, don't do 'coups'. 

Philip and Elizabeth are also interesting in a different way.  They are parents, ones who despite themselves sometimes lose sight of what is suppose to be their 'covers' and react to protect their children above all other concerns.  When an older man makes advances on Paige, Philip appears to take the meek solution (soft verbal confrontation), but that guy didn't realize he was messing with a trained killer.  Philip's violent take-down of that man almost leaves one cheering, for one expects any father to lay the smackdown on someone who would go after his little girl. 

Elizabeth for her part, being the harder and more emotionally restrained of the two, has a harder time bonding with her children as opposed to the more easy-going Philip.  After all, when they tell Paige and Henry that they are temporarily separating, Paige especially is angry at Elizabeth, and while Philip is more openly affectionate towards them, Elizabeth's struggle to be a good mom (she is but not as good as her own standards will let her) is one of the issues The Americans presents.

In short, Philip and Elizabeth are good spies who also want to be good parents.  That balance, and the struggle to maintain that balance, is one of the best parts of the series.

We grow to like Philip and Elizabeth, even as their actions are brutal.  They kill, they hurt, they deceive others with more false identities.  The struggles to be true to themselves, to figure out who they really are and what they really are working for (home or Country), along with some really wild adventures, makes The Americans such a fantastic program. 

We also have to complement some extremely brilliant performances.  There are Rhys and Russell of course, who bring these complicated, conflicted, ruthless, efficient, and lovelorn characters to life.  There's Noah Emmerich as their unwitting frenemy Stan Beeman, Annet Mahendru as Nina, the FBI mole in the Rezidentura who is playing a complicated game that even she isn't sure about.  Above all else, there is Margo Martindale's Emmy-nominated performance as the Jennings' KGB minder Claudia, aka Grannie.  As this outwardly sweet old dear, Martindale revels in the darkness, even evil, lurking beneath the endearing exterior.  Only she would have a KGB's innocent and unsuspecting widow murdered and steal her baby to give to the KGB operative's parents, or enact brutal revenge on the man who ordered her once-lover's assassination. 

Seeing Martindale and Russell battle it out (sometimes literally, as when an enraged Elizabeth beats the living crap out of Grannie for torturing them when they suspected the Jennings were a mole) has been a personal highlight.

Now, as always we have the countdown of The Americans Season One episodes from best to worst.

Safe House: 10/10
In Control: 10/10
The Colonel: 10/10
Gregory: 9/10
Mutually Assured Destruction: 9/10
Only You: 9/10
Trust Me: 8/10
The Clock: 8/10
The Oath: 8/10
COMINT: 8/10
Pilot: 8/10
Covert War: 7/10
Duty and Honor: 7/10

Average Score: 8.5

That's higher than what I've given Sherlock so far (a show that is fiercely and fanatically loved by critics and Sherlockians, but which I, try as I do, cannot find worth all the praise). 

The Americans is about spies.  It's about family.  It's about how work and family conflict.  Yes, it's also about the bad wigs the Jennings are forced to don (which adds to the charm of the show).

It's also one of the best shows on television, one that simply needs to be watched.  With Breaking Bad and Mad Men ending, perhaps it's time to look over not one but two anti-heroes whom we hate to love. 

Next Episode: Comrades

Monday, July 21, 2014

True Spies


As we close out The Americans Season One with The Colonel, we have stories tied up, some great final hurrahs, and an emotional and heartfelt reunions.  We got some brilliant twists and turns and at the end, when so many other programs would leave us with a cliffhanger, The Colonel leaves us with resolution.

The frosty relationship between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), both of whom are really KGB spies, has soften a bit.  While still not on the best of terms, we see that they do love their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).  One person they don't care for is Claudia, whom they nicknamed Grannie (Margo Martindale), their minder who has been reassigned.  However, she has to see their latest mission through: that of getting the colonel Elizabeth's operative Sanford (Tim Hopper) to meet with them and provide important papers on the Strategic Defense Initiative (which was later dubbed 'Star Wars' by the press). Elizabeth is still convinced that all this is a trap, especially since Sanford is in prison and the FBI holding him.  FBI agents Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Gaad (Richard Thomas) have him, but they have a bigger trap set for the couple they are looking for. 

Using the bug they now know about, they intent to have some hot information for them, and wait until someone comes to pick it up.  Despite Elizabeth and Philip's misgivings on the Colonel, they make plans in case it is a trap.  One of them will flee with the children to Canada, while the other faces the music.  After a lot of discussion Elizabeth makes it Philip has to be the one to flee, while she will meet with the colonel.

Grannie meanwhile has her own scores to settle, but not with Elizabeth for once.  Posing as a slightly muddled sweet old lady, she manages to get CIA Director for Soviet Planning Richard Patterson to let her into his apartment.  After all, what harm could a little old lady do, right?  To Patterson's total shock, she paralyzes him and coldly informs Patterson that she and Zhukov had been lovers, having met in Stalingrad during the war, before coldly slitting his throat. 

A woman is not to be denied.

Despite Elizabeth's plans Philip has left early and left a note telling her she should leave with the children while he takes the meeting with the Colonel.  In turn, Elizabeth will collect the information from the Weinberger bug.  Nina (Annet Mahendru), who will be kept on in the Rezidentura, alerts the Soviets that the FBI knows something, but thinking it involves the Colonel, they send an urgent message to abort the meeting.  However, when Claudia gets the signal and interrupts, both she and Philip are puzzled as to why the FBI hasn't already come out after them.  Immediately they realize this isn't the trap, but that it's the one Elizabeth is going to.  Philip races to stop her, collecting her as she is within sight of Beeman, who while immediately realizing this is the same couple that kidnapped Patterson is completely unaware they are his neighbors/friends.  The FBI attempts furiously to stop them, but Philip's insane driving has them escape.  Elizabeth, however, is hit and is rushed to a safe house.  As she hovers between life and death, Elizabeth finally breaks down, telling Philip in Russian, "Come home".  Philip gives Paige and Henry (who have been staying with the Beemans while waiting for their parents) a cover story about Elizabeth having to care for an aunt who has taken a hard fall and staying with her while she recovers.

At long last with The Colonel we find that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have indeed formed a bond that neither of them intended.  We see in Russell's performance just how much she loves Philip, for in those simple words Elizabeth says so much.  The fact that she reverted to their native language and the fact that she meant it gives this such a powerful undertone of love and forgiveness. 

I also have to hold up Martindale for her performance.  She uses Grannie as a more complex figure, who is in many ways like Elizabeth: devoted to The Cause but who in this one case, like her frenemy, opts to enact a cruel revenge for her lost love.  She still is outwardly the pleasant figure of innocence, but within her is a cold and ruthless persona.  Elizabeth and Claudia are so much alike, with the exception that Grannie does not have children or a husband to bond with (as far as we know and certainly not in America). 

The Colonel is also thrilling in that it is completely cat-and-mouse, and Joel Fields and The Americans creator Joe Weisberg put the viewer one step ahead of the characters.  WE know what they don't, and the pleasure comes from the tension of when THEY will learn.  There is action (Elizabeth's rescue in particular being a highpoint), but within all that there is a true human core to all the proceedings, which makes both The Colonel and The Americans such a great experience.

The Colonel balances the emotions, particularly with regards to parental feelings over children, with the thrills of a good espionage story.  As a season finale, it closes a lot of storylines, gives us a few more (Paige's growing suspicion about her parents in particular) and has a great mix of action and emotion.


Season One Overview

The Bride Cries, The Groom Spies


It's every girl's dream to be married (except the girls I send messages to on Match or Christian Mingle: they are in their own words, 'selective', yet wonder why they are alone, but I digress).  It's almost sad, though, seeing the wedding at the center of The Oath, given not only that it is built on lies, but that love will tear them apart (to quote a great 80s band, the late-and-still-missed Joy Division). 

Martha (Alison Wright), the unwitting mole of KGB agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), who has fallen in love with Philip's cover of 'Clark', now finds herself Clark's blushing bride.  He has proposed to her as part of a plan to plant a bug in Agent Gaad's (Richard Thomas) office to find out if they are being set up.  One of Elizabeth's (Keri Russell) recruits, who has a gambling problem, claims that he has turned a high-up military official in the Reagan Administration.  Both Philip and Elizabeth smell a rat, but after they hand over the documents her mole gave her to Claudia aka Grannie (Margo Martindale), Claudia tells them the information is too sensitive to be part of a trap and orders them to proceed.  Elizabeth, already hating Grannie for all she's put her through, wants her out.  A lovestruck Martha, who believes 'Clark' is working for the U.S. counterintelligence, agrees to plant the bug as a pen in Gaad's office.

Meanwhile, Viola (Tonye Patano), the Weinbergers' housekeeper who was forced to plant the bug in the Secretary's office, has been feeling guilty over her actions.  A sermon has convinced her to disclose her information to both Gaad and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).  Her description of the couple who forced her to plant the bug appear to match the description they have of Richard Patterson's kidnappers from the previous episode.  Now with this information, the FBI plans their own trap.  Elizabeth goes into a mild panic when her mole Sanford Prince (Tim Hopper) is arrested, but quickly learns it is for failure to pay child support.  She still thinks this is the trap, with everyone unaware the FBI knows about the Weinberger bug.  In a shocking turn, Nina (Annet Mahendru), convinced Stan either knows who killed Vlad or that Stan himself did it, goes to her boss and confesses her treason, offering to become a double agent.

The Oath has a pathos at its center with the wedding of Martha and 'Clark' (surprisingly not surnamed 'Kent').  Martha loves 'Clark' and wants to make a life with him.  'Clark'/Philip/Misha would have the opportunity to have what he has wanted from Elizabeth (a wife, a real wife), yet he still harbors something for Elizabeth.  As Elizabeth, masquerading as 'Clark's sister', she wonders during and after the ceremony if saying the words, if having a wedding ceremony would have affected how their relationship turned out.  It's clear that Elizabeth and Philip, despite themselves, still harbor feelings for the other that reflect marriage. 

There is also something both comical and tragic in having Claudia and Elizabeth pretend to be 'Clark's' family.  In a certain sense, they are his family, as they are the only connection to his roots. 

However, The Oath doesn't skimp on other aspects, particularly the FBI investigation as it is coming to a conclusion as The Americans has one more episode this season.  Story threads that were almost forgotten (such as the spy clock we haven't seen in a while) are now roaring back to the forefront.  How the tangled personal lives of the Jennings' or how they will get away with things will make the finale either a great success or a disaster.


Next Episode: The Colonel

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Spies


As much as I love The Americans as a show, the escalating nature of revenge killings is slowly starting to wear me down.  Covert War dwells on retribution, a tit-for-tat in the Cold War, but eventually the storylines will have to move away from all that.

General Zhukov (Olek Krupa), friend and mentor to Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) has been assassinated in Moscow by orders of FBI head Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas).  Upon learning this from Grannie/Claudia (Margo Martindale), along with the man who ordered the hit, CIA Director of Soviet Planning Richard Patterson (Paul Fitzgerald), Elizabeth swears she will kill Patterson.  Both Grannie and Elizabeth's estranged husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) insist that she not do this, but at the moment she is too blinded by rage to think clearly.

She does have enough foresight to play to Patterson's weak spot: beautiful women who are one-night stands, so she abducts him, intent on torture and execution.  Philip reluctantly agrees to help her take him.  However, Patterson is more than a match for Elizabeth, for he targets her own weak point.  He points out that no one who has been killed is 'innocent', then asks if there is anyone she has ever loved or cared about.  Despite herself, the conflicting emotions of both Zhukov and Philip overwhelm her, forcing her to leave the room before she breaks down in front of Patterson.  Philip urges her to not go with her plan and comforts his distraught wife. 

Agreeing to that, she and Philip return Patterson alive.  However, Elizabeth and Grannie now all but declare war on each other.  Elizabeth is convinced Grannie told her about Patterson in order to have an excuse to get rid of her, and doesn't believe that Grannie and Zhukov had been lovers.  Elizabeth tells Grannie, "This isn't going to end well for you, old lady."

In a subplot, Nina (Annet Mahendru) who is the FBI's mole, has found herself promoted.  While she still doesn't believe that her operative/lover Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) didn't have a hand in the murder of her friend Vlad, she does learn about the bug that was placed in Secretary Weinberger's office.  Philip, for his part, now must go through the awful ritual of meeting the parents of Martha (Alison Wright), his unwitting mole. 

I love how well Martindale and Russell work together.  These two loath each other but also see that the other is a formidable foe not to be underestimated.  Both have similarities that they'd rather not admit to: that of being women who find their devotion to duty conflicts with their own passions.  Russell in particular again showcases her range and that Felicity is now far from memory.  Her angsty freshman now has become a cold, calculating operative.

However, Russell shows us the cracks of her conflicted life.  She genuinely wants Philip as a person to return home, her disappointment about him moving to an apartment instead of back home almost well-hidden.  When she does crumble at Patterson's interrogation, we see that she now is being confronted by the fact that as devoted as she is to The State, she cannot deny her own human frailties.  Similarly, we see with Matthew Rhys the issues that get to Philip.  He is shown with their children, and he is openly affectionate and protective of them, as if he were the more maternal of the pair.  He also shows his discomfort when meeting Martha's parents.  It goes beyond merely 'meeting the parents' to in some vague way, moving past Elizabeth (which he isn't prepared to do).

We even get moments of lightness and comedy, such as when Elizabeth and Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) go to the 1980s version of clubbing (a disco) and when Stan is surprised to see his son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) in drag, unaware of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and briefly fearing his son may be gay.

Therefore, with everything going for Covert War, why was I not as enthused as I was with other episodes?  I think again all the "I'll kill one, you kill one" business is starting to wear me down, not emotionally but story-wise.  Eventually we are going to have to turn away from all this, and we are getting hints of this with the discovery of the bug from long ago.  That to me shows that like Claudia, The Americans is playing a long game, which is good. 

Covert War was a solid episode and much better in hindsight.  Hopefully though, we'll put a stop to the cycle of violence that is starting to become old hat.


Next Episode: The Oath

Saturday, July 19, 2014

With This Ring, I Thee Dead


Love can be dangerous.  It can motivate you to do terrible things, and whether it is the metaphorical love (love of country) or the literal love (love for a person), love itself can have devastating results.  Only You shows that love can quite literally kill.

The FBI, believing that the death of Agent Chris Amador was committed in a growing turf war between them and the KGB, are determined to find who committed the crime (without realizing that Amador basically brought it upon himself).  Amador's partner, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) pursues the investigation with a righteous fury, though one element he calmly leaves out.  He doesn't mention that he killed Soviet Embassy employee and secret KGB agent Vlad in misguided retaliation.  He goes so far as to deny he had anything to do with Vlad's death to his mole/mistress, Nina (Annet Mahendru), who is devastated at her friend's death, especially since she knows Vlad joined the KGB merely to please his family and was desperate to get out of it. 

This isn't to say Stan isn't going through issues himself, both the pain of losing his friend and his guilt over Vlad's death.  He turns to an unexpected source for comfort: his neighbor, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys).  Philip has been staying at a hotel ever since he and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) 'hit the pause button' on their marriage.  Stan drunkenly confides his determination to find Amador's killer (whom he doesn't know is standing mere feet from him), but also gives him a valuable and hereto unknown clue.  A ring Amador wore was not found with his body.

This alarms Philip, who tells Elizabeth, who then in turn contacts Gregory (Derek Luke), who had been tasked along with his crew to get rid of both the car and the body.  A serendipitous turn of events comes Stan's way when someone tried to pawn that ring.  The wrecker yard owner doesn't know the names of those who left the car in his yard, only that they are black.  Examining mugshots, Stan discovers that one of the men identified as having brought the car is the same one Beeman and Amador had been followed by earlier on another case.  The FBI quickly finds Curtis (Curtis Lyons), who doesn't like the idea of being charged with treason.

Again, things appear to be spinning out of control.  Into this situation comes Claudia (Margo Martindale) to try to stop the FBI from discovering their agent Gregory.  She offers him an escape: exile in Moscow, where he will live if not in comfort at least protected.  The Jennings' cover MUST be protected at any cost, Grannie makes clear.  Gregory has no desire to go to cold Moscow for many reasons.  One of them is Elizabeth, with whom he has had an off-on affair with for many years.  Gregory's stubbornness on the matter has Grannie and Philip contemplate killing Gregory and let him take the wrap for Amador's death.  Philip may have ulterior motives to go along with this scheme.  Elizabeth is conflicted on the matter: in love with Gregory, loyal to The Cause as embodied by Grannie, and still torn over what she feels for Philip, she goes from wanting Gregory go to Moscow to hoping his wish to be taken to Los Angeles instead.  In the end, Gregory decides to commit suicide by cop, with Elizabeth seeing this on the news.

Only You has so much going for it, primarily in the conflicted emotions and undertones of Philip and Elizabeth.  They are basically arguing their marriage through Gregory, the bitterness from both sides at various points clouding their judgment and exposing the raw human emotions underneath.  Marriage is also at the center of their mirror opposites, the Beemans.  Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) in her own way is like Philip: she wants out of the life she finds herself in, but like Elizabeth she is committed to her cause (her marriage to Stan, which may already be too far gone to save, given Stan's growing fascination/obsession for Nina).  The Jennings and the Beemans troubled marriages form the backbone of The Americans, and to see this played out with the espionage aspects makes it all a fascinating viewing habit.    

This is not to suggest that the actual plot doesn't build up to something grand.  Almost everyone in Only You seems to be at cross-purposes, making this such a tragedy.   The twists and turns as Stan continues his investigation and the Jennings race to stay one step ahead all build on each other, creating intense tension. 

The performances are also so strong.  Russell and Rhys work so well both together and apart as our conflicted couple.  Luke sadly was underused in The Americans as Gregory, who loved deeply but not too well.  He also showed a slightly arrogant side when he constantly rejects Grannie's offer (though given how ruthless, even evil Martindale has made Claudia, he might be wise to be suspicious).  The idea of being in Mother Russia doesn't quite appeal to him, which is odd given his great dream was to remake America in Soviet image.  Still, in his scenes with Russell the passion he has for Elizabeth come through and they work so well together.  I'll make another mention of Martindale, for she is fast becoming a favorite character: her sweet and endearing exterior masking a monstrous being.

About the only part I didn't care for was the ending, which had to have a musical montage as Gregory is felled in a hail of bullets.  I thought that was a trifle cliché.  Still, that is a minor point.  Only You can make one love The Americans...

In Memoriam


Next Episode: Covert War

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Series of Most Unfortunate Events


What can one say about an episode where divorce is the LEAST tragic moment in it? Safe House is one of the most devastating hours I have seen, one that shocked me, moved me emotionally, and did what no episode of Doctor Who or Sherlock has managed (the fanboys/girls be damned). 

Safe House made me almost burst out in tears. 

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have to do one of the hardest things they've done in their lives.  It isn't kill someone for Mother Russia.  It isn't to bring about sabotage in the United States.  It's telling their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) that they are separating.  Pushing the pause button, Philip tells them.  Both of them are naturally devastated by this news, Paige in particular, blaming Elizabeth for the break-up and Henry too withdrawn to say much.  The Jennings try to keep a brave front when at a get-together at the Beeman's house, where loose lips of both Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) let out the story that for the deaths of the FBI agents from Mutually Assured Destruction, they are going to perform an extracurricular assassination of new Rezindentura head Arkady (Lev Gorn), whom they blame for the crime.

Philip, however, doesn't learn this at the party.  He learns this as 'Clark' from Martha (Alison Wright), FBI Agent Gaad's (Richard Thomas) secretary and Philip's unwitting mole.  Perhaps out of frustration, perhaps not, Philip and Martha make intense love.  A little too intense for Amador, who has become fixated on his former girlfriend and finds this man leaving her apartment.  Amador breaks out a pocketknife, but in the struggle ends up stabbing himself.  Philip takes him to a 'safe house', where Elizabeth realizes who he is.

Stan immediately becomes concerned when Amador doesn't show up for work.  He goes to his apartment and finds he hasn't been there.  Stan deduces correctly that the KGB has him, but is wrong about the reasons.  In retaliation, Gaad has authorized Arkady's killing when he goes for his usual run.  Arkady, however, unbeknown to the FBI, burned his hand and cannot make his usual run.  His running partner, Vlad (Vitaly Benko), goes anyway, and while the FBI calls it off, fearing Amador will be killed over this, an angry Beeman orders the runner abducted, unaware at first it is the wrong man.

Things spin completely out of control.  Amador will not divulge the target of the FBI's assassination, and in his delusional state thinks Elizabeth was one of his many one-night stands.  Arkady, meanwhile, is puzzled as to why someone would call, threatening to kill a low-level Embassy employee like Vlad, a cultural attaché.  Things are more confused because Amador believes that by now Arkady is dead (which is why he gave them the name), but when Elizabeth contacts the Rezidentura, Arkady, very much alive and well, answers.   Vlad, for his part, is terrified by his abduction and intense questioning by Beeman, insisting he knows nothing about this Amador.  Only Nina (Annet Mahendru), Beeman's KGB mole/mistress, appears to be putting things slowly together: her lover's partner is the man the FBI is looking for, the one for whom they have taken Vlad for.  However, by this time it is too late: Chris Amador is Dead.  In desperation, the Jennings dump his body.

In another unfortunate and tragic result of all the confusion and erroneous conclusions, an enraged Beeman calmly gives Vlad a hamburger, asks him if he's KGB (to which Vlad meekly admits to), and then calmly shoots Vlad in the back of his head.

The tangled and confused lives of all the characters collide in horrifying ways in Safe House, where we see how one incident that was misinterpreted (Philip believing Amador was there because he had discovered Philip is KGB) built up and up into a full-blown crisis.  Each decision both the FBI and KBG made, while in certain ways correct, led to more confusion, chaos, and death.  If only one person had made one simple decision (Gaad not ordering the assassination, Vlad opting not to run, Beeman not abducting Vlad, Amador not taking a knife to Philip, Stan not killing Vlad, the Jennings not withholding the morphine until Amador talked), the circumstances could all have turned out much different.

As in life, a single misinterpreted moment, word, or action, can lead to so much tragedy.  If European leaders had not reacted to passionately to Archduke Ferdinand's assassination by setting off threats to each other, World War I might have been avoided.  This situation is smaller but no less chaotic and tragic.  Beeman was right when he thought the KGB took Amador, but he could not have known that it was Amador's jealousy and fixation on Martha that forced Philip's hand.  Similarly, Beeman's emotional reaction to finding his friend's body caused an innocent to be killed.  Vlad had nothing to do with Amador, but in the fog of war things become so distorted that Beeman at that moment might not have even cared if Vlad WAS responsible.  He was KGB, KGB took his best friend, case closed.

Safe House works so well not just because this was such a tightly-written story, but because in between all the brinksmanship we were allowed flashbacks and hints of Chris' life outside both the FBI and his own swagger.  We learned of his military service in Vietnam, his family life (one of the messages on his answering machine was that of his mother, asking him to come to a family reunion) and his mad love for the ladies.  Beeman could not have known that it was one woman, one he worked with every day, who inadvertently triggered the situation.

Safe House also gives us insight into the Jennings' lives.  The sex scene with Martha and Philip/Clark appeared to be a release for Philip's pent-up frustrations over losing Elizabeth.  Martha, who has genuinely fallen in love with 'Clark', is giving him what Elizabeth, cold and methodical but also deeply hurt, cannot or will not give Philip, who in turn yearns for Elizabeth to give him what Martha so freely offers: not just sex but true love. 

There isn't one bad performance in Safe House: from Rhys' emotionally wounded Philip to Wright's lovelorn Martha to Emmerich's avenging angel Stan and Benko's terrified Vlad to Russell's professional Elizabeth to Taylor's angry Paige and Sellati's withdrawn Henry.  I know Hernandez left The Americans for greener pastures (his role as Agent Jasper Sitwell in both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but seeing his character killed off in such a brutal and so needless manner doesn't diminish the impact.

The genius of Safe House is that the story is so tight technically and yet so emotionally resonant.  We see that one bad choice/wrong conclusion led to more and more, climaxing in the deaths of two people who didn't have to die.  That's the tragedy of it all, and that's what I responded to. 

An episode that is both intellectual and emotional?  Only in The Americans...

In Memoriam


Next Episode: Only You

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Love Her Or Leave Her


It is truly difficult to come into America, the new film by conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, without prejudice for or against the subject matter.  In short, D'Souza presents a case that America (the nation) is indeed an exceptional one versus the idea that America (the nation) is one built on greed, imperialism, and brutality.  Those who hold that America (the nation) is not a source for good (i.e. Iraq and earlier Vietnam, support for Israel over the Arab Palestinians, income inequality and its outpouring of Occupy Wall Street, slavery, the Trail of Tears, et. al.) America (the film) may enrage them.  For those who think America (the nation) is not the source of all evil, America (the film) will be as manna from Heaven.  An honest reviewer will do ones best to keep his/her own views on the subject from influencing what he/she thinks of how effective the film itself is.

America presents its case for American exceptionalism and the importance of America throughout the world as a force for good using interviews, historical reenactments, and archival footage, all which serve the film well when it stays within its subject.  In the times that it does wander off (linking future President Hillary Clinton to anti-American radicals) America still makes a case for its arguments, even if they appear more as tangents than the central point. 

D'Souza first goes over the lists of indictments against the United States: theft of property from the Native Americans (along with genocide), from the Mexicans, from African slaves, and from the world itself, along with theft through the American capitalist system which takes other's 'fair share' while at the same time having those at the One Percent not pay 'their fair share'.   He first visits Americans who have this worldview, such as the ironically-named Charmaine Whiteface of the Sioux nation who equates Mount Rushmore with having Hitler staring down on her land (it being a symbol of oppression) and a Dr. Trujillo, who believes that if the 'Tierras Perdidas' or 'Lost Lands' (such as California to New Mexico and up to Colorado) had stayed in Mexico, then that nation would have been a much better or richer nation with all the resources within it.  If I'm not mistaken, Dr. Trujillo also dreams of having the American Southwest be reannexed to Mexico.  There are also brief interviews with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Noam Chomsky, both fierce critics of how both America came to be and how America is today.      

D'Souza's contention is that America is seen, particularly by some Americans, as a source of imperialism, oppression, and greed, thanks in large part to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.  As the architect of what D'Souza calls "American Shame" (who has found ardent disciples in people like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who gave it a shout-out in Good Will Hunting), D'Souza holds that far from being an accurate record of history, Zinn's book has the purpose not of chronicling American history, but of trashing America.  He then turns to another chronicler of America, Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America (which has re-enactments of the French nobleman's American tour).  Using De Tocqueville's words, D'Souza paints another portrait of America from De Tocqueville's impressions, one that while not shying away from the negative (such as De Tocqueville's conclusion that slavery is injurious to both slave and master) the impression that he got of America was of a much greater and more positive nation.

D'Souza also throws in a few things that give a different portrait of history; some of these historic tidbits are (or should be) well-known, such as the story of Madam C.J. Walker, daughter of slaves born in poverty who became the first female African-American millionairess through a line of beauty products aimed at the black market (and whom I think would make for a fascinating biopic).  Some are surprising, such as that of William Ellison, a black man who not only owned slaves but who actively supported the Confederacy.   Point by point D'Souza takes the arguments against America and refutes them.  We finally get to Saul Alinsky, whose own hard-left anti-American views shaped D'Souza argues, not just Barack Obama, current President of the United States, but also the next President of the United States, Hillary Clinton.

Seriously, why bother having an election? She's going to win, by a landslide.

In the end, Dinesh D'Souza argues, far from being the new Evil Empire (as another interviewee, Ward Churchill, believes), America was good, is good, and continues to be good.

The biggest problem with America is that one may find it difficult if not impossible to see it without one being blinded by one's own viewpoints.  People who loath someone like Ted Cruz (who also appears in the film discuss the reasons for the Mexican-American War) will be fiercely opposed to anything in America.   Those who see America as that imperialist, oppressive nation that invades countries and uses far too much while taking other's 'fair share' both within and without its borders will I think not see the forest for the trees.  Rather than examine whether D'Souza can mount an argument for American exceptionalism those who disagree with him will instead insist he is wrong merely because they disagree with his worldview. 

Looking at the film itself, I would say D'Souza makes most of his cases.  Certainly the idea of African-Americans holding slaves themselves was something A People's History of the United States doesn't cover, or the fact that Native Americans were decimated not primarily due to being hunted down but because of disease.  D'Souza doesn't act as a cheerleader for what happened to Native Americans, but he does point out that while the Sioux have been offered compensation in the form of billions of dollars for the Badlands, they have refused, instead demanding the return of the land (which just ain't gonna happen).

I also want to admit a personal bias myself.  As someone of Mexican descent, I have no wish, desire, or hope to have Texas 'restored' or 'returned' to Mexico.  My mother left Mexico to the United States not because of America's evil or determination to oppress her but because she knew she had no future in Mexico (my father, I should point out, is a native-born American).  

What America fails to do is to follow up on some arguments.  Dr. Trujillo's belief, for example, that Mexico would have become wealthy if it had managed to hold on to California et. al. is predicated on the notion that the Mexican government would have been like him: benevolent, forward-thinking, and progressive.  However, given that Mexico has millions thanks to Pemex, the nationally-owned oil company, D'Souza never follows up by pointing out that despite the wealth in resources Mexico does possess, the nation is a mess.  My own view is that were California, Nevada, and even Texas still within the Mexican state, far from Dr. Trujillo's great vision of a powerful and rich Mexico, the country would be even more of a wreck than it already is. 

America also fails to hold up in its view that future President Clinton II would be some sort of left-wing radical (although in the film's defense, the archival footage of Alinsky is pretty creepy).  This I would argue is more D'Souza's opposition to both Barry and Hillary rather than a solid case against the current and future President as Alinsky disciples determined to follow through on their Master's vision of destroying America from within. 

Apart from that I think America is a film that those who hold to the idea that 'America is Good' and 'America is Evil' should watch.  It is well-made to support D'Souza's viewpoints, and whether one agrees with them or not is not finally the issue.  I am a firm supporter of having the discussion, of having the debate.  Is Dinesh D'Souza right, or merely right-wing?  One cannot dismiss his contentions out of hand merely because one disagrees with them.  Instead, they should be examined, matched against what the record books say, and taken from there. 

Has America succeeded because of its industry or because of conquest?  I welcome the debate, and any true American will welcome it too.

The 45th
President of the United States