“The Goldfinch”–Art and Loss

Goldfinch (2020), based upon Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, tells the story of  a young boy, Theo ( the astonishing Oakes Fegley), who is walking through galleries with his beloved mother at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They gaze at a Dutch Master painting of a chained bird, the Goldfinch,  when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes the rubble, clutching the 17th-century masterpiece and a dying man’s insistence that he take his ring.  The little boy’s life will change dramatically over the course of the film.

With his mother dead and his father a deadbeat, Theo is thrown into two worlds: The first in an  Upper East Side Barbour family led by a matriarch (Nicole Kidman), followed by the Las Vegas gambling underworld of his dad and Theo’s teenage friend Boris.  Both worlds have an irrevocable impact on Theo’s life. Random and unforeseen events, even tragedies, shape Theo into someone he  wouldn’t otherwise be.  

As one would expect from a novel with several plots to propel the characters’ arcs into surprising dramatic turning points,   Goldfinch, for the most part,  manages to hold the viewer’s interest.   Some scenes in the first half are a bit slow, but the second half of the film turns into a crime thriller.

The adult Theo (Ansel Elgort from “Baby Driver”), who is the narrator, does not rise to the heartbreaking performance of the young Oakes Fegley.   And Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, –Theo’s refuge and loving father figure– are as good as they always are, subtle and understated.   

This is a movie with deeply flawed characters.  Viewers who can appreciate the destructive elements  of lies, secrets, and betrayal will understand that this is a story about the loss and grief of a young child, and the young adult’s journey towards healing, with the promise of love and forgiveness.  This film kept me watching until the end.

Note: I believe the  critics judged this movie a little too harshly.  I did not read the book so I was not influenced by a comparison with Tartt’s novel.  However, the two media are radically different and I have never felt that the psychological interior lives portrayed in a novel can be presented visually on the screen in the same way that the abstraction of the narrative is created in the mind of the reader. 

“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

“High Seas”–“Death on the Nile” meets “Murder on the Orient Express”

In this Spanish melodrama (Spanish:  Alta Mar) , two sisters discover some very disturbing family secrets aboard a ship sailing from Spain to Brazil just after World War II.  Agatha Christie’s style of mystery plotting, overlaid with the  Spanish love of melodrama and telenovela, makes High Seas an unusual series.

Following the death of their father, sisters Eva and Carolina Villanueva travel on the luxury ocean liner, Bárbara de Braganza.  The sisters, over the course of three seasons,  become committed to  investigating mysterious deaths that occur on the cruise ship.  Each character–the sisters, their love interests, and a number of other passengers– provide intrigue as they reveal their backstories, increasing suspicions about once benign-looking individuals.  Having so many complex characters helps with pacing, cutting in expertly from one subplot to the next.   In Season One the mysterious murder,  solved fairly quickly, moves the story to lies, betrayal, and family scandal. This is the best of the three seasons.  Season Two adds an ephemeral ghost story and the red herrings sometimes are dropped suddenly, leaving obvious plot holes.  Season Three, about a virus onboard the cruise ship, has a terrific premise but too many characters’ scenes are either incomplete in moving the drama forward or the pace is ground to almost a halt.

Easy to watch, mostly entertaining without insulting your intelligence or emotions, High Seas is a good-looking, light-hearted, sometimes farcical mystery with performances that signal that the actors are not taking the drama too seriously, which is a good thing.  The influence of Art Deco in the set designs and the period clothing are stunning and reliably historical. While this is not A-class drama, it is definitely an enjoyable Netflix series.  My only major criticism is that the narrative did not really support so many episodes per season.  Four to five episodes, more tightly scripted, would have improved this whodunit.

Note:  Only watch High Seas with subtitles, even though some are very fast and others are in white font on an almost white background.  As with most foreign films, the dubbed version is usually annoying and the acting is awful.

“Humans”–“Dark Mirror” Meets “Ex Machina”

The Amazon Prime sci-fi series, Humans (three seasons), takes place in the not- too-distant future where the affluent purchase “synths”, artificially intelligent human-looking robots that can perform a multitude of tasks from housecleaning, surveillance, and sex-toy services.  A suburban  family buys Anita (the exquisitely beautiful Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians”) to help with the burdens of a professional couple. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), is a manager in a factory  who is replaced by synths.   His wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson of Pirate Radio and Doc Martin), a human rights attorney and activist, responds viscerally  to living with Anita.  The three children become very attached, as Anita learns to know them better than their parents.

A computer scientist, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), helped develop the earlier synth models and has become emotionally attached to an obsolete prototype named Odi. As George’s memory fails, Odi has become the archive of the younger George’s past, especially regarding his beloved, now deceased wife. George finds his humanity and his dignity in the circuitry of Odi.

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence.  A subtext exists also.  How do humans react to what or who is different?  Is discrimination based on appearance inevitable?  Are they empathetic?  Merely suspicious?  Violent? A range of  responses are given.  And, how does the employer treat those who serve?  Does the employer lack empathy for  employees as if they are  less human?  How do employees feel about their treatment by the boss?  And most importantly, what does “human” even mean? 

Season 3 mines deeper into the sociopolitical dimensions of technology without diluting the potency of well-drawn characters.  Great writing and acting avoid preaching on human morality. Instead, Humans  is at times warm and funny, frightening and disturbing, in developing  a powerful set of  characters who ask the viewer what it means to claim you are human.

Needless to say, this series is binge-worthy even for those who are not sci-fi fans.

Availability:  Amazon Prime (UK Version)

“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” (Season Two)–Stranger Things Happen

In this  relatively seamless sequel to “The Alienist”, based on Caleb Carr’s second psychological thriller, season two is a retelling of Carr’s Angel of Darkness.  But this is much more than a sequel.  (For my review of season one, see my April 29, 2018 review:  “The Alienist”–Something Wicked This Way Comes).

The year is 1897, a scant three years before the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gilded Age.  In New York City, a serial killer is kidnapping and murdering babies. Angel of Darkness opens with a grisly scene of Martha Napp, perhaps wrongfully accused of murdering her child, sitting in the electric chair preparing to be the first woman to be executed by that means as well as the first person in the US to be found guilty without finding a murdered body as evidence.

In season two there is a new case to solve. And Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the “alienist” (the Victorian term for the new profession of psychiatrist), John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans)  now a New York Times journalist and one of high society’s most eligible bachelors, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning),  the first woman detective with her own agency in New York.  They are determined to find the baby-murderer.

Martha Napp’s baby disappeared from a lying-in hospital, born to an unwed mother. The second baby, taken the same day as the first mother’s execution, was kidnapped from the  Fifth Avenue mansion of the Spanish ambassador.

In this season Sara takes the lead as the forceful investigator who must confront not only the city’s underground gangsters, but sexism, a corrupt police commissioner (the wonderfully quirky Ted Levine from “The Closer”) and the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. This is a major shift from the first season when Dr. Laszlo Kreizler was the compelling but abrasive smartest guy in the room.  Now he plays a secondary, not really titular role, as the alienist who lacks any social skills  and forgets other people in the room have feelings.  It’s Sara Howard who is the mastermind.

Sara Howard [Dakota Fanning} and John Schuyler Moore [Luke Evans]

The “lying-in hospital” is the venue of interest, perhaps the source of the crimes involving newborns.  Libby Hatch (newcomer Rosy McEwen), is a young nurse and would-be whistleblower who befriends Sara and supplies much-needed information. 

Red herrings proliferate throughout the eight episodes.

As with Season 1, Angel of Darkness skewers themes relating to social status, discrimination based on sex and ethnicity, corrupt policing, and crony journalism.  One of the more interesting subplots in this season is the competing newspapers’ need for headline-grabbing: William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal versus the New York Times.

There are also a few clever gender reversals when it comes to who rescues a colleague from a beating, who’s marrying for money, and who has the courage to express their feelings towards the object of their affection.

In one particularly memorable scene, Sara Howard as a laser-focused Sherlock Holmes type, ponders a doll, purchased at a department store catering to the upper-class. Viewers watch a little girl innocently pick up an odd purple babydoll, which turns out to be a dead infant.

Decadence and gentility reside side by side with degradation, cruelty and violence. That this Gilded Age is mere window dressing for a savage  murder mystery should be riveting enough for binge-viewing.

Availability:  TNT channel and TNT.com.  Season Two [The Alienist: Angel of Darkness] can be seen without having to watch Season One first.  Both seasons are excellent.

Note:  Newcomer Rosy McEwen is an actress to watch.  Reminding this viewer of Nicole Kidman both in superb skill and appearance, every scene she is in is unforgettable.

The series loosely ties itself to history. Howard, for instance, is (sort of) based on Isabella Goodwin, New York’s first female detective.

Note: For an interesting interview with the three main actors, see the Hollywood Reporter.

“I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”–Don’t Watch This Alone at Night

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part HBO documentary series based on Michelle McNamara’s  book,  explores the author and  her obsessive investigation into the dark world of the “The Golden State Killer”  who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s.  It is mostly due to McNamara’s investigative reporting that this cold case was kept alive and solved.  Incredibly,  that didn’t happen until  late 2018 when the perpetrator was identified, charged and convicted of 50 rapes and 12 murders out of more than 100 known rapes.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints  an intricate tapestry of a convoluted flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. Bureaucratic dysfunction was rampant.  The lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, unwieldy early phase DNA technology, and a blatant sexist culture enabled the Golden State Killer to roam free for close to 40 years.  Victims were treated as responsible in part for  their rapes by the way they dressed and the way the women freely walked through their own suburban neighborhoods at night.  The  extensive archival footage as well as interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer are riveting.  More than forty years later, the viewer sees the horror of the crime itself as well as the sustained impact  on the victims and their families.  Interviews with the husbands or boyfriends are similarly unsettling as many of them were traumatized or in denial in a culture in which rape is not yet fully viewed for what it is…a violent, heinous crime.

One of the least expected features of  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the backstory of McNamara. Her sensitive uncovering of the cold cases of the women begins with her True Crime Diaries blog.   She hones her  skills as an amateur sleuth more competent than some of the police she deals with as she crosses the state looking for clues.  The subtext is her obsession with finding the rapist and murderer. She suspects from the beginning that the rapist is a solitary agent personifying “alchemized hate” for the victims.  It turns out that the victims are  stand-ins for a fiancée who broke off the assailant’s engagement.  His violence grows and the viewer sees him trespass, invade a home, violently assault his victims in the middle of the night, and then reach for a beer and food in the kitchen refrigerator.  Chilling indeed.

After more than  ten years of dogged analysis of internet clues, hunting for mementos the killer sold online, and visits to the victims’ homes, her determination to find the killer and rapist eventually exacts a toll on McNamara.   At first,  she feels that she manages the horrors of the crimes at arms-length.  But eventually, McNamara has to take sleeping pills and  anti-anxiety drugs, gets a gun and installs a complicated security system  as she is encouraged to write a book about her research. Tragically Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose while in reach of the deadline for her book.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a depiction of the most evil and poisonous of human acts, in scene after scene of crushing helplessness and the courage of the survivor, even when that horror was half a lifetime ago.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not for the faint-of-heart–and keep the lights on, if you decide to watch this!

Note: Joseph James DeAngelo, now seventy-four,  was finally identified, partly through McNamara’s detective work, in close collaboration with retired detectives, forensic specialists and geneticists who used a gene/ancestry database to track DeAngelo down.  He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and scores of rapes on June 29 and was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences without parole.

Note: Barbara Rae-Venter, a renowned geneticist,  is the main resource for solving the genetic puzzle that  emerged in the Golden State Killer investigation.  She has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in  arrests, not everyone in genetics database technology is  comfortable with the alliance with law enforcement.  See the August 29, 2018 article on Venter and the June 28, 2020 article on genetics genealogy and its methodology to identify the DNA.

“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.

“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 English Game”–From Provincial to International

The English Game, Netflix Original

The English Game, created by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey”),  is a Netflix Original period drama based upon a true story.  Set in 1880’s England, The English Game is a notable example of class divisions exhibited in the early evolution of football aka soccer.  Rising from a provincial game that was socially stratified for the “Old Etonians” of noble birth, we see the evolution of football to a world-class game, perhaps the most popular in the world.

Soccer’s first governing body was an “old-boy network” consistent with  a clubby insular game for the privileged.  They knew the playbook but to their chagrin soccer began to trickle down to the lower classes.

Edward Holcroft

By the time The English Game opens,  two Scotts from a mill town are drafted  as the first paid players in soccer.  Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his friend, Jimmy Love (James Harkness) become the stars of the mill town soccer team, and prepare for playing in the semi-finals against the aristocrats.  They create a new strategy of playing that upends the traditional style followed by the elite.

However, players being compensated for their skills were against the Football Association’s rules and so, the plot thickens. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an Old Etonian of impeccable aristocratic status, is a founding member of the Football Association and heir to the white-shoe family bank that owns the mill sponsoring the paid players.  His team is the arch-rival to the mill town team and unaccustomed to their  innovative play strategy.

While The English Game is ostensibly about sportsmanship and soccer in particular, the overriding theme is class division and the leveling of the playing field for all who qualify, not just those who create exclusionary rules to avoid competition.  And the subplots of competition between father and son, women’s vulnerable status and exploitation in a world of privileged men,  in a highly rigid society are compelling to watch. 

You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy The English Game!

“Hillary”–Unmasked

Hillary,  an intimate and candid four-part series about  former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton– one of the most admired and vilified women in the world–features never-before-seen footage of her life from birth in a close-knit family in Chicago, Illinois.  The mission of this documentary is not only to interview Hillary Clinton (for a total of thirty-five hours) and several dozen colleagues and personal friends but also to try to analyze why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing. Yet Hillary is so much more than a biopic. It is a distillation of the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, sexism, the failure of journalism, and the history of partisan politics.

For  the first time in perhaps four decades, we see Clinton engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen with breathtaking courage and unflinching reflection on those mistakes. This is maybe the first time she hasn’t had to self-censor.

Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton, filmmaker Nanette Burstein  did not intend to go over familiar territory about perhaps the most scrutinized public figure in the last half-century. “Can a woman ever—really, actually ever,– become president of the United States?”  To this day, there is no easy answer.  And only one woman has come extremely, some would say, perilously close.

Childhood friends,  her daughter Chelsea, former President Barack Obama as well as staff members, campaign managers, journalists, and senators, both Republican and Democrat, are interviewed. The former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of being interviewed that he is on record as responding: “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Hillary frames the Hillary Clinton  of the past half-century as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in these interviews it occasionally slips, and clues about a  brilliant intellectual that no one else seems to get are revealed. “I’m a private person,” Hillary confesses, “and I’ve made mistakes because of that.” As a woman especially, she may be just too cerebral for some people to put up with.  Hillary Clinton is a national lightning rod for women’s status and image–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold,–even emotionless– but she had been forced to learn how to be affectless as the rare female law student at Yale University. Clinton’s gender hindered her in unpredictable ways as Burstein’s documentary unfolds.   She was scrutinized, investigated, loved  and hated. 

At one interview, Hillary seems almost perplexed at the double standard, even after all the years on the campaign trail:  “I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.” “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.”   But what line has been drawn?

The filmmaker does a commendable job illustrating what Clinton was subjected to throughout her career:  from footage of protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more and wear something besides pantsuits.  For younger viewers this past may seem almost unbelievable, in its  blatant sexism.  To the babyboomer generation, the behavior is dishearteningly familiar.

When Trump stalked behind Clinton in an effort to physically intimidate her,  Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. “He was preening like an alpha male.” She knew how the press would react.

Her communications director elaborates on why confronting Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.” The same resistance to pushing back occurs throughout the film, in  spite of anger: in the email with James Comey, in the PizzaGate trolling and in the Whitewater investigation.  

She demonstrates how aware she is of the public’s perception of her and the role her gender has played in her polarizing image.  And her most painful moments– when she had to face her husband’s sexual predation of Monica Lewinsky– are some of the most heartbreaking to watch.  Hillary is personally hurt, admits that she could hardly breathe when Bill admitted he was lying, and demanded that he explain to their daughter about the affair.  A fragile, chastened Bill Clinton is seen as a vulnerable humbled man for the unspeakable betrayal of her trust.

Clinton is also positive about how the women’s movement has brought change, but still there is no guarantee that the hard-fought changes and laws will not be rescinded or pushed back. Her tone is optimistic and hopeful, nonetheless.

Hillary is instructive and emblematic of a period in history that is not that long ago.  Even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.

She cracked the glass ceiling.  We now wait for it to be shattered. .

Note:  Available on Hulu.

“Baptiste”–After The Missing

In this spinoff of the BBC popular series “The Missing”, detective  Baptiste is now retired and recovering from brain surgery. The six-part crime procedural, Baptiste, is  an intense crime thriller.

Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) is called in by Amsterdam’s Chief of Police and former lover to investigate the disappearance of Natalie, a young sex worker. He  meets her uncle Edward (Tom Hollander of “The Night Manager”) and soon Baptiste and Edward become involved in taking down a Romanian crime organization.   The Romanians are in the business of sex trafficking in the red light district of the city.  While still the same old curmudgeon as in “The Missing”,  Detective Baptiste now has conflicting emotions in his relationship with his own daughter, and with his former lover.  Nonetheless, he is quickly sucked into a case that exposes the seedy underworld of Amsterdam beneath the picturesque streets and canals. His family suffers while he becomes obsessed with the case.

Filled with a number of red herrings to throw the viewer off track, Baptiste may fool the viewer as to what really happened to Natalie, and who really is implicated in sex trafficking.  This is a great whodunit worthy of six hours of viewing time.

Note:  Available on Masterpiece Theater and pbs.org.  Baptiste premiered in April of this year.  A second season is planned for next year.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.