Impeachment: American Crime Story

We revisit former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment from the point of view of Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein of Booksmart). This Hulu mini-series begins with a naive twenty-two years old intern’s infatuation with a charismatic  president. 

There are more than several awful and illegal actions taken against Monica: interrogation in a hotel room by the FBI without legal counsel present; threats by Bill Clinton’s staff; media “slut-shaming” for her testimony–all make Impeachment a compelling narrative presenting facts and corrupt behavior not well-known .

Monica’s betrayal by Linda Tripp (an unrecognizable Sarah Paulson), a fellow employee she trusted, is the focus of the drama.  There are  a number of detailed scenes about the well-known recording of private telephone conversations between the two women.  The fiftyish Linda Tripp, in spite of revealing lurid sexual details between Bill and Monica, maintains that her mission is to save Monica from a sexual predator and from humiliation. Linda denies any self-interest in  a book deal she is discussing with a literary agent.

Ken Starr, Special Prosecutor, in alliance with a the vast right-wing conspiracy that sought to take down Clinton (Clive Owen), is seen in his “war room” with Ann Coulter, Brett Kavanaugh, and in communication with Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report (which later morphs into the Breitbart Report  and Steve Bannon).  They all willingly accept Lewinsky as collateral damage for going after Bill.

We also witness the collateral damage in a scene where Bill Clinton has to read about his affair online, along with the rest of the world.  Daughter Chelsea is shown reading about her dad’s sexual proclivities while doing homework in Stanford University’s undergraduate library.  Ann Coulter is gleeful with every revealing prurient detail.  And Marcia Lewinsky (Mira Sorvino), Monica’s mother,  warns her ex-husband (Monica’s dad), not to read it. Ken Starr has possibly overloaded the internet with release of his report for an avidly obsessed public thirsting for every detail,  resulting in a country-wide internet crash. 

Two months after Starr releases his report, the House Judiciary Committee uploads all of the Tripp audio tapes.  Nevertheless,  Hillary Clinton’s (Edie Falco) approval rating soars,  Bill’s presidency  holds on to popular support, and Monica receives America’s sympathies from some, but also shame and scorn from others. But the needle doesn’t budge on Linda Tripp, who  faces prosecution for illegal wiretapping.

Throughout Impeachment Linda Tripp convinces herself that she is protecting Lewinsky, even though she is unable to see the wounds she is inflicting on her:

“I know it looks horrible. I know it looks like a betrayal — but she was his victim,”  Linda Tripp adamantly claims during an interview. “I just wish that she could see that I saved her.”

Impeachment doesn’t update us on the Clintons, Lewinsky, Starr or any of the other main agents in this drama.  However, as we fast forward to the #MeToo movement, there is a willingness to believe women’s testimony and understand what it costs for a woman to give her account of sexual assault.   In Impeachment  the national scandal of adultery in the Oval Office simply doesn’t register since the Trump era. The headlines of the ’90s and the Clintons almost seem quaint.  The acts of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless never are.

I thought that this series was breathtaking in its depiction of women’s invisibility: Hillary, Monica, Linda Tripp and all the other women who suffer from feeling unseen and unheard. The pain still lingers–a definite motivation for Tripp who felt she had been overlooked for a deserved promotion, Monica for wanting her affection for Bill to be acknowledged by him and perhaps most of all, Hillary, for an unworthy alliance from which she could or would never extricate herself.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  Hulu

“American Rust”(2021)–Corrosion and Decay

American Rust  is based on Philipp Meyer’s titular novel.  This is a   Showtime’s original series in which we watch police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), struggle with his past.  He is  an  Army combat veteran with  PTSD, investigating the  murder of a fellow police officer. Billy Poe, son of the woman he loves , Grace (Maura Tierney),  is suspected of the murder.

The camera, in the open scene, pans the waste and decay in Buell, Pennsylvania–a “flyover” town outside Pittsburgh. The residents and community are on the margins of life.  Two teenagers, Billy Poe and his best friend, Isaac English, are seen running from the murder scene,  the abandoned steel mill.  Isaac flees and Billy is left to maneuver the police and prison system.

Del is no fool, yet he cannot seem to have a strategy that will exonerate Billy, whom he is certain did not commit the murder.  And if he doesn’t find a way to save Billy–who is the most important person in Grace’s life– he will lose her.

Gradually we see Del’s honor and integrity start to deflate.  How far is he willing to go for the woman he loves? Would he kill to save his relationship? Does he set up crimes and pretend that these crimes were perpetrated by other people? After all he has the experience and skill set to do just that.  While we witness  the genuine connection Del and Grace have for each other,   is there manipulation too?  Is there a neediness in Del because of a past he cannot escape?   Will Del and Grace break up, if they don’t save Grace’s son?

And then there is a powerful and moving subplot:  between Billy and Isaac. They share a traumatic experience. One is charged with murder while the other escapes. Isaac’s sister, Lee (whom Billy loves)  and their father (Bill Camp) have wounds that, if left unhealed, will damage their family further.  Isaac  shouldered the caregiving burden for his ailing, wheel-chair-bound father while Lee escaped to New York and law school. eventually marrying a wealthy businessman.   She pursued her dreams while knowing Isaac couldn’t afford to have any. 

As the stakes increase, we see Del devise the perfect crime.  But will it change him  into a person he no longer recognizes?

In the finale–the ninth episode–the cliffhanger has many plot points and character arcs left hanging, loose ends that beg for a second season.  Actions have consequences, or do they?  How is Del going to deal with what he has done?  And Grace–is Del the man in her life or is Billy?  Does she have to choose between them?  Can each of these characters wiggle out of the snares that entrap them?

So many unresolved issues!  Sibling rivalry between Lee and Isaac remain. How do brother and sister recover from their past?  And we see the father in the penultimate scene and wonder will he reappear in a second season?

Images  of cold and barren land, withered industry, broken residents, a town acting against its own best interests:  I’ve never watched a mini-series with so many hanging chads.  The main characters’ futures are anyone’s guess.  No resolution.  No moral clues as to outcome.

Highly original, well portrayed with superb acting and writing that deliver in almost every scene.  Only a few sagging scenes–in the middle episodes–but all is forgiven.  Please, please release a second season of American Rust soon! 

Availability: Showtime streaming

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“Blackbird” (2019)–The Final Flight

In this timely and sensitive film, three generations get together for Christmas dinner–instead of  Thanksgiving, even though it actually is Thanksgiving.  As often happens in real-life family gatherings as well as in Blackbird, there will be dysfunction, a farrago scattered within warm laughter about shared memories and sometimes bitter accusations.  In this drama a dying mother assembles her family to spend a final weekend together before she ends her life.

An alarm goes off and Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor and husband to Lily (Susan Sarandon), reaches up to turn off the clock.   Lily is awake. Her left hand is permanently in a claw.  Nonetheless, she laboriously  lifts  her legs with her good right hand, determined to put her own slippers on, rejecting her husband’s assistance.

Lily has invited her two daughters (Kate Winslet as Jennifer and Mia Wasikowska as Anna) along with their partners and her grandson to one final dinner before she ends her suffering. She has a degenerative disease and with the permission of her family, decides to ingest pentobarbital administered by her husband. This weekend is their terminal goodbye, and Lily wants one more Christmas dinner before she goes.  She is anticipating a celebration, complete with tree and gifts, in a cozy family cocoon.

Jennifer arrives early with her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). She has brought an odd and inappropriate gift.   “I can’t wait to see what the stores recommend for an event like this,” Lily says dryly as she struggles to open it with her good hand. Younger daughter Anna is late, bringing her uninvited partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Lily’s best friend, Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan), also uninvited, somehow seems part of the family too. 

“Blackbird” is a simple tale, occasionally well-told without too much melodrama:  the tale of all tales– of life, death and family secrets and lies.  Unhealed wounds are everywhere and time is running out to heal them.  The stakes are very high.  The grandson is a sullen teenage outlier, the two adult daughters have extreme sibling rivalry, Jen’s husband is ignored, and the parents seem oblivious to how their children remember their family’s past time together.  The family friend is pulled into the conflict. Lily’s wish to die in a peaceful chemical cloud before her disease incapacitates her and takes all control from her grows more untenable as conflicts surface.

The ending of Blackbird could have been genuinely touching and emotionally powerful. Instead, the film devolves into a contrived and highly clichéd death bed scene.  While Blackbird adds sensitivity to a difficult and controversial subject, the film is far from subtle and does not conclude the story soon enough.  One wishes for a more powerful scene towards the end. 

Blackbird is filmed in a spectacular beach house only the fabulously wealthy can afford, with sterile interiors paralleling the sterile lives of the family gathered there. The bigger problem is that the world of the characters is not fully developed, with enough backstory to give each family the essential dimensions for us to understand and care about them. 

The stellar cast–especially the ensemble characters who are not the main focus–rescue this film and provide enough interest to sustain watching a film that does not quite live up to its potential.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

Note:  The reason for the title “Blackbird” is not clear.  Perhaps in homage to the Beatles’ song and the lyrics:  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”.   The song was not incorporated into the final cut but a shot of blackbirds flying in the sky appears in the middle of the film.

“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019)

This 2019 HBO documentary, directed and produced by Alex Gibney (of “Enron:  The Smartest Men in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”) opens in 2014    with Theranos, a startup in blood-testing technology.  The Inventor is filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley chic headquarters in Palo Alto.  Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire by Fortune magazine.  With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.

Claiming to be developing a small, portable sized machine to test over 200 different diseases and disorders with only a few drops of blood, the persuasive influencer, Elizabeth Holmes, cons investors.   She promotes the groundbreaking technology on television, TED talks, and wherever she can find an audience.  Holmes is very good at what she does.

John Carreyrou (best-selling author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup), a Wall Street Journal reporter, sees a New Yorker article (2014)  by Ken Auletta accusing Theranos of gross misrepresentation of their product. The two reporters together are the catalyst for government regulators to finally investigate claims of fraud.

In addition, two very young employees–Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz (grandson of George Shultz) –become whistleblowers, despite strong-arm tactics by Theranos to silence them.  David Boies, the prominent attorney known for vitriolic threats against opposing counsel (he represented Harvey Weinstein and a number of tobacco companies) is hired to terminate their speaking out.  Without their heroic efforts (and in spite of grandfather George Shultz’s reluctant belief in his grandson), Theranos would have harmed even more investors and customers.   Protected by whistleblower status, Cheung sends a letter to the clinical regulator CMS (Centers  for Medicare and Medicaid  Services) citing malfeasance in marketing, efficacy of products, and examples of misdiagnosis.

What makes The Inventor so spellbinding, in part, is due to the fact that much of the footage is archival imagery created and crafted by Holmes herself to promote Theranos.   Accordingly, aside from brief footage from her deposition, the footage of Holmes is filmed before she was charged. We see her own words, not exclusively others reporting about what she has to say.  Alex Gibney remarked: “She made the documentary she wanted me to invest in and I used it to a different purpose.”

Elizabeth Holmes was brilliant at selling to investors and motivating her employees.

How Holmes was able to deceive a number of powerful old men, and then leverage that to achieve great visibility, further investment, and the Walgreens deal is pretty shocking, even by Silicon Valley standards.  What is perhaps most disturbing is the fact that all the “name-dropping” about who has invested so others follow lemming-style opens doors to the gullible and foolish, no matter how wealthy. 

Holmes is a master manipulator –and perhaps borderline delusional, –one deceptively cloaked in the humanitarian goal of revolutionizing health care.  But The Inventor raises the question: What about all those “intellects” experienced in investment, negotiations, and science from Stanford and the highest realms of US government?  In the end Holmes is fabricating and lying, but she has an audience ripe for believing that the impossible can happen: The Silicon Valley ritualistic practice of investing in only a business plan.  It’s a chilling, chilling portrait.

Availability: HBOMax

Note:  Ultimately Holmes was charged with a host of federal violations. She married shortly after this film was released (in 2019) and gave birth to a baby boy in July of this year, postponing her trial until August 31.  Now ongoing in federal court in San Jose, the judge will have to decide on a sentence, if she is found guilty, weighing in on her baby’s future.

“Supernova”(2021) –Nebulous?

“A person dies when he loses his memories.”

In Supernova we see Sam (Colin Firth), a concert pianist, and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist, traveling across England’s Lake District,  in their RV van  to visit friends, family and places from their past. Tusker was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and Sam and Tusker have been partners for over thirty years.

Driving along in their van, Sam and Tusker first engage in the familiar banter of any long-married couple who have spent the majority of their lives together.  Tusker’s early onset dementia, frightening to both of them but left unsaid, soon has to be acknowledged.

“You’ll break my heart. It’ll last forever,” Sam confesses in one of the most heart-breaking lines in Supernova.

A supernova is a sudden unpredictable stellar explosion, sending shock waves into the starry sky. Normally, when a supernova is discovered, it has already progressed in the explosive process.  That is what we witness–in a very understated British way–as Tusker loses the ability to control the executive functions of his mind.  Dementia is a slow fade.

The chemistry between Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, in two equally matched extraordinary lead performances, makes Supernova a beautiful portrait of love which has lasted over decades.  And, on a more general theme, exposes us to the cruel loneliness as we age.

Note:  The title of this film–Supernova–is a struggle to comprehend.  I believe it is meant to be a metaphor for what we don’t know in a relationship which can implode or be late to discover.  The script could have handled this theme more lucidly.  The two main characters are amateur astronomers, but dialog about the relevance of the stars is hazy and nebulous.

Availability:  Netflix DVD