The Good Liar, a 2019 crime thriller, based on the titular novel by Nicholas Searle, is a cat-and-mouse plot featuring a septuagenarian wealthy widow, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and an octogenarian con artist Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen). They meet on a first date scheduled through a dating app for seniors.
Roy obviously does not have good intentions and his motives are soon recognized as dishonorable by Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey), who grows increasingly suspicious and resentful. Betty, on the other hand, seems smitten. Will she see that Roy is a clever liar, not a kind gentleman who will assuage her loneliness?
This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises. Not so for The Good Liar. Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.
Even if you guess the lying, deception, and backstory, it is wonderful to watch two much-loved veteran actors fine-tuning every nuance of their characters’ personalities, and every moment of their time on screen. While there are occasional lapses into melodrama, a few subplot holes, and an ending that is weak while the true ending would have been chilling, seeing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play unexpected characters against type is more than entertaining. They also have to engage in quite physically demanding action sequences that reward the viewer in and of itself, a tribute to their professionalism and stamina at the height of their game. Ian McKellen is at times convincingly charming, menacing throughout, and vulnerable. Helen Mirren, the sweet widow and grandmother, has a multi-layered persona and pointed, scathing dialogue that asks the viewer: Who is lying now?
This is a sleeper to add to your watch list!
Note: Available on DVD (Netflix) and HBO streaming.
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, HighSeasis 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol” and “Far from Heaven”). The movie dramatizes the whistleblowing story of a cover-up of toxic waste. We see close up the corporate corruption involving Dupont’s manufacturing of Teflon. The hero is Robert Bilott, (played by Mark Ruffalo of “I Know This Much is True”) an Ohio lawyer who spends more than eighteen years proving that DuPont was responsible for poisoning the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with unregulated “forever” chemicals.
Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Dark Waters takes us on the journey by a tenacious attorney, Rob Bilott to uncover the dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont. “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not.
A growing number of unexplained farm animal deaths are brought to Bilott’s attention when a friend of his grandmother’s brings videotapes of pollution, dying cattle with gross mutations, and assorted abnormalities on his farm. Bilott naively believes when he brings this to DuPont’s attention, they will comply voluntarily with the self-regulation of their toxic chemicals for the community’s welfare.
In the process of expecting cooperation, he risks everything — his future career, his family, and his own life — to expose the truth. DuPont has known for years through their own corporate research, that they were responsible for a shocking increase in cancer, birth defects, death of livestock, and polluted river beds. They fight the lawsuit with the standard practice of deluging the plaintiff lawyer with hundreds of boxes of documents, indirect and more direct threats of loss of employment, and corporate croneyism.
This is no “Erin Brockovich”, but it is a close second. Corporate profits of over $1 billion per year were not going to be sacrificed by the regulation of their most profitable and monopolized product. Dupont is caught in multiple lies from the CEO on down, the company’s defenses refuted by the their own studies. Dark Waters highlights the necessity of compliance by independent agencies like the EPA and intrepid attorneys like Bilott. Both are essential partners, as the EPA lacked power and failed to use what little regulatory authority they did have to eradicate Teflon from the market.
By the end of the film, we learn that 99% of everyone on the planet has Teflon in their bodies. A powerful multinational corporation aligned with the US government let this happen.
Mark Ruffalo truly identifies with Bilott, giving an outstanding interpretation of the contribution the attorney has made to public safety. In outtakes at the end of the film, Rob Bilott and his wife are invited on set and interviewed. In addition, victims who suffered from birth defects due to the chemicals in Teflon appear. Several victims appear in the movie and one has a brief cameo role as well.
Although DuPont should have suffered more, I highly recommend Dark Waters.
Availability: Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime streaming.
Note: Teflon and its chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are still available in markets worldwide.
Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8 by Callie Lyons, a Mid-Ohio Valley journalist, was the first book to uncover the DuPont coverup at their site in Parkersburg, West Virginia. And read the follow-up on Lyons’ coverage in the May 2007 article in Mother Jones, “Teflon is Forever”
Lila & Eve, a 2015 sleeper female vigilante thriller , stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as Lila and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”) as Eve, The opening scene shows Lila’s 18-year-old son, Stephon (Aml Ameen), in a pool of blood from a drive-by shooting. A grief-fueled fragile mother is determined to fix her life: to bring the murderers of her son to justice so she can move on in nurturing her fourteen-year- old son.
Unsure how to go on with the effort of living, partly numbed by anti-anxiety drugs, Lila joins a support group for moms who have lost children to gang violence. Another grieving single mother, Eve, rejects the unbearable powerlessness of being told to move on as the appropriate way to respond to grief. And soon Lila admires Eve’s strength and anger at the apathy of the local police assigned to cases like theirs, which remain unsolved. Their loss has no recourse or consequences for the murderer. Neither Lila nor Eve wants to request justice like supplicants. Soon both form a bond to exact justice for their children’s unnecessary deaths.
It is the cops’ dismissiveness of Stephon’s death as just another casualty in the drug-turf wars that sets the plot into motion.. Lila is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and seeking empathy from Eve is preferable to being told that she is fortunate to still have another child. The newly aligned couple go on a rampage, as Eve cajoles Lila to go further to seek revenge. Lila & Eve moves from hopelessness and despair midstream in this film to rage, and eventually regret, giving the drama its powerful hook that pulls the viewer in.
Viola Davis never disappoints, giving another impressive performance alongside high-caliber acting by Jennifer Lopez. The two actors play perfectly as counterparts in a dance of doom, danger, and death.
Understated yet gut-wrenching and heart-pumping, Lila & Eve is a character study of the lacerating effects a tragic death has on the living. Davis plumbs the depths of anguish and psychological trauma in an electrifying performance that transforms this story into something far beyond a typical revenge thriller.
I was not sure what to expect from Lila & Eve but was pleasantly surprised by this relatively unknown, little-seen indie film. Lila & Eve offers a powerful portrait of a mother’s pain and her need to relieve it.
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.
Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), was influenced by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. A story about police brutality and the stress and horror of daily life for a black person in America, Queen & Slim is a gripping fictional film that feels all too real.
A first Tinder date– mediocre and uneventful– takes an unexpected turn. On their way home in a blustery winter night in Cleveland, a young couple are pulled over for a minor traffic incident. Slim (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) are calm and cooperative. The situation soon escalates. The policeman wounds Queen. Slim, expecting to be next, grabs the officer’s gun, shooting him in self-defense. Now targeted as cop-killers, Slim and Queen go on the run. She is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose legal experience tells her that the court is unlikely to give them a fair hearing. Slim is, nevertheless, resistant in accepting that he is now a fugitive.
Unaware that the incident is captured on video and that the cop has a history of rogue murders, Queen and Slim unwittingly become a symbol of structural racism, trauma, terror, grief and pain for African Americans across the country. The video goes viral. The couple convince themselves that they should run, even though Queen knows that they are facing a death sentence. Slim is in denial. But they still hope for a miracle while unable to plan an escape. In this thriller, where a pair of young soon-to-be lovers are making a mad dash for freedom, the viewer is entangled emotionally with their inept effort, hoping against odds that they will survive.
Queen & Slim is a difficult movie to review. The film is deeply interesting, focused on legacy, the power of memory and the symbols that propel political and social movements. Queen & Slim frames the plot on the history of a nation infected by a racial inequality so virulent that good people are forced to take the law into their own hands. There is anger without apology, one of the most deeply moving themes in this movie.
The story is powerful, both politically charged and psychologically draining. The content of the film, however, is uneven and incompletely constructed. Slim and Queen’s characters are only loosely sketched, particularly their backstory. How did Queen become so successful in a courtroom often hostile to her clients? Why is her relationship with her mother so dysfunctional? How does Slim fall in love with someone so opposed to him?
Kaluuya’s performance as the reticent and pure-hearted Slim, in deep denial that a crime was committed, is worth watching in itself. And newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith matches his performance. Even though the characters often don’t act rationally, one has to be reminded that they are young, lonely, and want to have the thrill of romance. They suppress the reality that the police, at any moment, could overtake them.
More robust portraits of Queen and Slim–their interior lives– would create scenes more personally compelling as well as more memorable. Furthermore, the music track often disrupts the tension and momentum of the story.
Queen & Slim is a provocative, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently unsettling movie experience that is still very much worth seeing. It presents to the audience what it is like to have your grip on the world shattered while asking what use that grip was anyway.
This Sundance Now series from Sweden begins in May 1945 in celebration of the end of World War II. Calle Svensson, a young working class aspiring chef, plants an impulsive kiss on a pretty young stranger, Nina Löwander. Her family owns a traditional, if old-fashioned, restaurant in Stockholm. Although officially neutral during the war, Sweden had both Nazi supporters and resisters. The first of three seasons in The Restaurant grapples with the war’s aftermath.
While peace is proclaimed all over Europe, a family battle begins to rage among Löwander family members: the matriarch, Helga, the widow of the restaurant founder; her eldest son, Gustaf; his brother Peter; and the daughter Nina. At times a fierce sibling rivalry for control of the restaurant becomes brutal and embittered with betrayal and deceit. Meanwhile, free-spirited Nina, the youngest, seeks independence. Unforeseen consequences happen. Subplots involve Margareta, a waitress struggling to support her three-year-old son, immigrant employees diabolically abused, and in-fighting among the chef’s staff.
No one in the drama experiences anything but momentary happiness, intensifying the action and moving the story forward. Rarely does an episode drag, except with somewhat lengthy music and dancing in the restaurant club that Nina manages. Primarily a richly plotted multigenerational family saga, The Restaurant deals with the world we are born into (including class) and how we react when that world changes. Much of the Lowander’s story focuses on the mother’s treatment of each sibling and how that impacts their decisions.
Sometimes called the Swedish “Downton Abbey, with its class hierarchy, The Restaurant goes beyond that reductionist label. The “Upstairs, Downstairs” restrictive behavior is soon nullified by the family saga within the Lowander family itself. Each main character has to struggle with financial considerations that impact their own families separate from their siblings.
Embracing time-leaps over two decades (1946-1962), The Restaurant, sustains the drama’s momentum from falling into boredom-creep that plagues so many period dramas. Characters evolve along with the radical social changes engulfing the conservative Swedish government. Historical footage of Stockholm and exquisite cinematography evokes the changes The Restaurant series touches on: issues including abortion, sexual identity and the political animus towards unionization.
Hamburg is in ruins five months after Germany surrenders in 1946. 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.
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 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 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.