“The Aftermath” (2019) — Unforeseen Consequences

Hamburg is in ruins five months after Germany surrenders in 1946.  The Aftermath opens with scenes of German residents  starving and displaced in bombed-out neighborhoods.  Now, they must face Brits and Americans bossing them around their native land, requisitioning their most luxurious homes for their own use during the occupation. Some Germans are so resentful they’re still willing to die defiantly in the name of Hitler.

We don’t often see  a film centered on the immediate aftermath of World War II from a German perspective.  Yet The Aftermath is not only for history buffs and those who enjoy historical romance.  Here we are introduced to the overt tensions between the German people struggling to make a new life under the watchful eye of the same people who they tried to destroy and who destroyed their city.  The war’s immediate aftermath exacerbates unhealed wounds on both sides:  for the victorious and for the defeated.

Enter British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), accompanied by his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightley), who  is livid that her husband  has offered to share the home they have requisitioned with its rightful owner Herr Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) and his troubled teenage daughter, Freda. Otherwise, the Luberts would face grim conditions in a refugee camp.

Alexander Skarsgard and Keira Knightley

Tensions between the two  families inevitably build to a crisis in the midst of the rubble by the Allied forces. And in addition, Colonel Morgan, fundamentally a decent officer who wishes to treat the Germans with dignity, is overwhelmed with the obligation to rebuild the city, and is morally distraught by what he witnesses.  This has left Morgan emotionally numb.

All of the characters in The Aftermath are wounded in some way and it is fascinating to watch them clash and interact, repulse and attract.  All are deeply flawed but worthy of sympathy.

This sleeper of a war drama, The Aftermath,  is primarily a tale of lives skittering across the surface, unblessed, and at risk of drowning.

Note:  Available as a Netflix DVD now and on HBO July 1, 2020. For viewers who feel that subtitles are a bit cumbersome: The subtitles for the brief dialogue in German are in a much smaller font than for the English.  This is especially difficult in reading white letters against a light background.

“Mrs. America”–A Closet Feminist?

Mrs. America is the history-packed and binge-worthy nine-episode Hulu series created by Dahvi Waller (of “Mad Men”). We see a dazzling sweep of history from the early 1970s  to 1982 as the  fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment unfolds.  Still unpassed, the ERA would create a  constitutional ban on discrimination against women.  Its failure to win approval was due in large measure to the  brilliant political strategist Phyllis Schlafly. Cate Blanchett embodies captivating contradictions as Schlafly, the antiheroine in Mrs. America.

The story of her STOP ERA movement was in many ways an origin story for the culture wars still raging today, a  playbook for how we got to be the polarized nation we are.  We see the   beginning with Schlafly’s brilliant use of grassroots mobilization–mailing lists, manipulating recorded speeches for the media, and moving supporters across state lines to protest what had been seen as a benign and popular constitutional amendment.  The issues were many: gendered pay equity. LGBTQ rights, access to abortion, racism, protections against sexual harassment (i.e., #MeToo) and domestic abuse.

While Mrs. America is foremost a docudrama about Phyllis Schlafly, a parallel plot involving two fictional characters:   Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) begin as women who believe that their  most important job is to be a wife supporting her husband’s ambitions and a mother. For someone like Phyllis Schlafly, a privileged, highly educated woman (who had run for a political position in Illinois), to come along and say, “We’re going to protect your status,” was an irresistible elixir for many.   

Mrs. America is complicated and richly multi-dimensional on several surprising levels.  Schlafly basically built a gilded cage and got locked inside it herself.  Here’s an elegant intellectual and ambitious woman who was rejected by the Washington establishment in spite of the fact that she wrote brilliant position papers on nuclear disarmament which Henry Kissinger adopted as his own,.  Almost in a retaliatory way, Schlafly takes up a cause that has some traction,–pro-family, pro-choice, anti-ERA and anti-gay rights– to build her base. And  she uses that base to magnificent effect: building email lists that senators and presidential candidates beg for, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  Both of whom she supported enthusiastically but did not garner their explicit anti-ERA support after they secured the nomination and, in Reagan’s case, the presidency.

There’s no denying the homemakers that comprised Schlafly’s army are sympathetic, because they’ve lost status when compared to working women. And Schlafly senses that longing for visibility and acceptance.  Benign sexism was the petri dish in which she cultivated her Eagle Forum movement, recruiting churches as a source for her mailing lists and memberships.  Grassroots politics became a stunning juggernaut for influencing voters:  “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins” Phyllis preaches to her choir.  Her followers became a fervent cult of acolytes and certainly not stay-at-home housewives.  The irony is palpable.

A lot of the people who made up the counterrevolution to the women’s movement were the same people who led the backlash to the civil rights movement. The segregationists became the anti-feminists. The Ku Klux Klan supported her financially but secretly.  The overriding theme for the anti-ERA movement was  a fear of change to traditional womens’ status.

Schlafly ran for Congress in 1952, wrote four books on nuclear weapons strategy as well as  “The Conservative Case for Trump” (published the day after she died in 2016).  She helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican presidential nomination and wrote a syndicated column that ran in more than 100 American newspapers for 30 years.  Schlaffly also had been a national-security expert on Soviet Union politics for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The irony of Phyllis Schlafly is that she created a battalion of  affluent housewives,  empowered them to leave their homes to attend conventions, and turned into political activists who understood the power structure in Washington. Certainly no mere stay-at-home moms.  We see the ascendancy of the far-right with Phil Crane (later co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation), Paul Manafort and Roger Stone asking for her political prowess to gain women voters. 

Bella Abzug and Schlafly even used the same campaign slogan in their congressional runs: “A Woman’s Place Is in the House”… the House of Representatives for Abzug,   For Schlafly’s followers it was the suburban home, but not for Schlafly herself who seemed to be rarely at home.

In the 1970’s the ambition had to be disguised for her cohort to follow.  Her husband, fifteen years her senior,  played by John Slattery of “Mad Men”, only reluctantly accepts her growing fame.  Perhaps one of the more poignant aspects of her not-easily-categorized personality is the fact that she understood the power of the polemic, of a binary either-or polarization that would evoke outrage and zealotry.  Schlafly was a master of the message, however brazenly a lie, and a master of bringing followers together without division and infighting for a bigger share of the power.

Perhaps the climax is twofold and viscerally bloodletting:  Schlafly in a scene at the end—victorious in defeating the ERA but betrayed by the male politicians who learned and gained from her.  And Alice, an erstwhile friend, who deplores why Schlafly became so “mean” in pursuit of a  winner-takes-all strategy.

Note:  The battle over ERA realigned the Republican and Democratic parties.  Not one Republican Congressman supports abortion and the Republican-controlled  Senate will not take up the ERA proposal, after the Democratic-controlled  House approved rescinding the deadline—previously 1982—for ratifying the ERA.  So far the thirty-eight states needed for ratification have occurred, with the latest—Virginia—passing the ERA this year, almost forty years  after the initial failure to acquire the necessary votes.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood  is a dramatization of the real-life friendship between the beloved Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) and the investigative reporter,  Lloyd Vogel (a pseudonym for Tom Junod.). Vogel (played by Emmy winner Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), is a journalist known for being cynical and abrasive. He is given the assignment to profile the beloved PBS television host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Fred Rogers (the incomparable Tom Hanks), But he is determined to reveal that no one can have such a good and warm-hearted nature.

A feel-good story of kindness and integrity triumphing over cynicism, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a chronicle of the groundbreaking show which became a cultural touchstone for more than two generations of children. [The show ran on PBS from 1968-2001, with a total of  895 episodes.]  Rather the US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of.    This  takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling.  (For an excellent documentary of the history and development of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, see my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, March 17, 2019.)

There is a dual plot. Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency prove to be an anodyne to Vogel’s unhealed wounds.  This forces the reporter to reconcile with his own painful relationship with his father (played by an astounding Chris Cooper, most recently in “Little Women”).   What children and their parents find endearing about Fred Rogers soon affects Vogel deeply:   the psychological healing when Rogers probes Vogel’s feelings about his parents the same way he taps into children’s.  The surprise for viewers is how much both the personalities–Rogers and Vogel–play off each other and gain strength from their relationship. 

Tom Hanks channels Fred Rogers in a jaw-dropping performance, including his vocal range, body language, and facial expressions. The viewer gets a powerful, touching tribute to Fred Rogers and the impact he had on so many children’s lives.  Matthew Rhys’s performance as Vogel matches the accomplished brilliance of Hanks.  The death scenes for both Vogel’s mother and father are  memorable and moving, with a theatrical sensibility of the stage, –stripped clean of any background noise or special effects–and a nuanced, impossible-to-forget performance by Chris Cooper.  The entire ensemble cast couldn’t be better

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”.   He tells millions of children all over the world that he likes them just the way they are.   His demonstration of the impact of kindness, –and courageous and positive ways of thinking and dealing with our emotions,–  makes feelings both “mentionable and manageable”. Speaking directly to the camera from his heart and transitioning to a make-believe world may be the most startling reality-TV show ever.

An unexpected delight to watch for every adult (but not young children).  I thought it would be saccharine…it is not.

Note: Available as a Netflix DVD. May 22 is the 143rd day of the year and a celebration of the late Fred Rogers’ favorite number. Shorthand for “I love you.” Because there is one letter in “I,” four in “love” and three in “you.”) of the calendar year, has been designated as “143 Day” in tribute to Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers is the sixth cousin of Tom Hanks.

“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of  sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal. 

Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by  Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women  remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back  close to 30 years.   Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape,  and determination to move on.    Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided  seclusion from the public eye.  Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled  video entrapment from the inside.

Several of the survivors display an  incredible lack of awareness and common sense.  They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a  couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity.  And they did…for almost thirty years.  And still do.

An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)

The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue.  Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators. 

The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate.  Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile.  The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

See the Business Insider for a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions.  Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.

“The Hunting Ground” (2015)–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons

Many college students who have been raped on campus face retaliation and harassment as they fight for justice.  In The Hunting Ground,  the students (mostly female but some male) give a painful, absorbing account of not only their sexual assault but also  the systemic indifference of the college administrations  to whom the victims seek redress.  This callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

In this 103-minute documentary,  college rape is seen from the point of view of the raped student as well as  the faculty and administrators who were called upon to take action. One rapist agreed to be interviewed.  

While college rapists are a small fraction (about 8 %) of students on campus, they are often repeat offenders who continue to rape with impunity, committing 90% of the rapes.  Several women interviewed were raped by the same student.  These repeat rapists are empowered with the knowledge that the college will turn a blind eye.

The documentary follows two former University of North Carolina students who were the first rape victims to use Title IX to fight back.  (Title IX  bans gender discrimination at colleges.)  The failure to comply can result in the withdrawal of federal funding upon which  colleges depend.   To fight for justice and vindication for the indifference of the colleges, the students organize other rape survivors to  file  Title IX complaints.  The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases has become a model for rape victims across the country.

 The Hunting Ground goes right for the gut.  Although the palpable trauma of rape survivors is powerful–with barely contained tears, choking, and trembling–it is the in-depth reporting of the inevitable cover-up by college administrators that is sickening and gut-wrenching.    Parents trust  colleges to safeguard their daughters and sons.  There is an implicit covenant to do so.  Why else would parents willingly send their children away?   The brazen breach of that covenant  is more than shameful. Administrators deny culpability.  Former deans and professors who come forward are  retaliated against for standing with the survivors. The police give their side of the story which demonstrates their impotence.   Why are so many covering up the rapes? Money.   Mostly it is about the reputation of the college and the alumni and fraternity donations and the sports team frenzy that brings in millions of dollars. After all, college presidents are hired to raise money. Safeguarding the lives of  our children is secondary.   One hundred thousand rapes per year will occur if university policy and culture don’t change.

The student accounts — delivered in sorrow and rage, but also with a naiveté of the very young and inexperienced– make this imperfect, sometimes plodding documentary a must-watch for its activism and advocacy.

Note: The Obama administration made the issue of campus assault a priority. In 2014, the White House released guidelines strengthening victims’ rights on how campus rapes are to be treated,  Shamefully Secretary Betsy DeVos in May  instituted administrative changes that would make it more difficult for victims to file charges against rapists. Biden is on record to reverse  the new rules which are an obvious effort by the Trump administration to “shame and silence” survivors of sexual assault

David Edelstein, writing for New York magazine, advised parents to watch The Hunting Ground before sending their children to college.  See “College-Rape Documentary The Hunting Ground Plays Like a Horror Movie” February 23, 2015.