Tricky Dick–His Own Fantasy World

Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that  presents  the  lesser-known  story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political  career are  adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.

The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction.  But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here.  For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to  Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator.  Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California,  a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss.  Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.

Four years after JFK had become president, with the US  in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.

As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He  isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors  and prepares for a second term.

In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.

It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has.  Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it.  The parallels with today are frightening.

Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur)–Reigning Supreme

 

Based on the global best-selling novel “La Reina Del Sur,” by internationally-acclaimed author Arturo Pérez-Reverte,  Queen of the South, a bilingual telenovela crime drama, has become one of the most popular series of all time for USA and its sister network, Telemundo. Queen of the South, now in its fifth season, is a winner. Thank you, USA, for continuing  to add gritty, noir-ish series  to your program roster!  

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

At one point, forced to flee Mexico, Teresa finds herself in Dallas, Texas where her street-smarts move her rapidly into the highest ranks of the Vargas cartel,. The cartel is embroiled in a fierce rivalry between Epifanio Vargas and his estranged wife, Camila (the attention-stopping Veronica Falcon).  A knuckle-biting set of episodes in each season highlights how Teresa is bound by a cat-and-mouse game in order to survive. She has to rely  on her own strategic thinking and instincts to stay one step ahead of  the feuding Vargas cartels and avoid capture and death.

Veronica Falcon as Camila Vargas

A violent, intense drama in the genre of “narcos” , Queen of the South is highly original in providing two great lead performances by the pair of queens fighting over who shall rule the cartels of Culiacan.

Note:  The violence is disturbing, with rape and brutal “interrogation” techniques.  The writing, however, is superb and almost never sags in pace, characterization, and plot.

Available on Netflix Streaming.

Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!