#REVIEW: Greyhound (2020)

My dad and my brother and my sister-in-law came over yesterday to celebrate the boy’s birthday– he doesn’t get a party with his friends, unfortunately, because 2020– and toward the end of the evening my brother kind of randomly noticed that Greyhound was available through the Apple TV+ subscription I got the last time I upgraded my phone. I had never heard of it and initially scoffed at the idea of watching Yet Another Tom Hanks Movie, but I either got overruled or didn’t fight the idea too hard, take your pick– and, well, the short version is that you now have another reason to have an Apple TV+ subscription beyond basking in the crazy that is See. Which, for the record, we eventually finished, and I recommend on every level except the story, which never gets less dumb. If you can buy the basic premise, you should check it out.

But this piece is about Greyhound. The premise is refreshingly simple: it is 1942, not long after the United States entered World War II, and Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Naval Commander Ernest Krause. Krause commands a destroyer that, along with another four combat-capable ships, is escorting a convoy of troop carrier, supply and merchant ships across the Atlantic to England. It is Krause’s first such command.

The problem with that trip was the period of time– about three or four days– where the convoy is out of range of Allied air cover, being too far from both North America and England for planes to be able to make a round trip. This made convoys like this, if not easy prey for German U-Boats, at least a lot easier. And the Greyhound’s convoy catches more grief than most, first sinking a single U-Boat and then encountering a Wolfpack of six of them. The convoy takes multiple losses over the course of the film’s surprisingly terse and compact 90 minutes, and Krause neither sleeps nor eats at any point during the film– in fact, the movie makes a point of repeated attempts by the mess crew to get him to eat something, all of which are interrupted.

If you’re into World War II films, you could do an awful lot worse than this movie, and honestly for my money it’s better than Saving Private Ryan in every way except for the action scenes– this movie clearly didn’t have a Spielberg-level budget. The action’s not bad by any means, but the interesting thing about a movie entirely about fighting submarines is that so much of the threat is imaginary. There’s something lurking out there, trying to kill you, and these guys are literally trying to track submarines by listening real hard and keeping track of where they are and where they think the Germans are by using grease pens on glass. I know little about naval warfare and can’t really vouch for accuracy, but it feels right, for lack of a better word.

The simple fact is, in the hands of a lesser director or a lesser actor this movie could have been a serious mess. The movie only leaves Hanks’ perspective for very brief scenes, occasionally cutting to the sonar operator or a couple of other characters, but never for more than a minute or two, and we never see a single German soldier or have a single scene shot inside a U-Boat, although we do get to hear the German commander taunting the Greyhound over the radio a couple of times. Even Hanks’ dialogue is largely incomprehensible beyond pure function— I mean, I can imagine what “Full rudder right!” means, but I don’t know, and that’s the most comprehensible of his orders. I would say easily 75% of his dialogue is either barking orders or reacting to positional data relayed to him from sonar or radar. I feel like it shouldn’t work, but it does.

This probably isn’t worth actually picking up an Apple TV+ subscription for– but if you’re one of the people who, like me, upgraded your iPhone and got a free year of the service, definitely set aside an hour and a half on a Saturday night and give it a look. It’s suspenseful, well-directed, powerfully acted, and generally a solid and well-crafted piece of filmmaking. Give it a shot.

#REVIEW: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

The internet has spoken, and several of you seem to think I should be watching this new program. I shall refer the matter to subcommittee, and a feasibility study shall be prepared. I will get back to you once it’s completed.

So: the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover is bullshit. Yeah, yeah, I know, deeper meaning and all that, but you actually can judge a book by its cover. In fact, that’s literally what the fuck the cover’s for, beyond the obvious physical necessity of aiding in binding the pages together. And every so often I read a book where I really feel like all I should have to do is show you the cover, and a few of you may immediately choose to make a buying decision based on that cover, and that buying decision is the correct one, regardless of what it is. Because … well, look at the cover, and look at the title, and that’s exactly what this book is, and you already know whether you’re interested in a book like that, and if you are, you will enjoy it, and if you aren’t, you should probably buy it anyway, and maybe your tastes will improve while you read it.

Being poor and female in the late 1880s in London suuuuuuucked, y’all. I was thinking about the Dust Bowl the other day; I have said before, and I will stand by this, that there is no other time or place I am less interested in hypothetically living in than poor and in Oklahoma in the 1930s, because the histories I’ve read of that time are terrifying, well beyond anything I’d have suspected before reading them. And while this isn’t on that level, this is definitely one of those books that gets deep enough into the basic day-to-day lives of its ordinary subjects that you will absolutely be glad to be living— most of you, at least— in America in 2020, despite the current Worst Timeline shenanigans going on. I am impressed at just how much information is available about the Ripper’s five victims in the first place; each of the five women gets a roughly equal piece of the book’s 300 pages, and the common thread is poverty, either from birth or because of the loss of a husband or father. It was easy as hell to tumble into penury in England in the 1880s, particularly if you were a woman and if you had children, and once you got there, you weren’t ever getting back out again.

This is not, to be clear, a book about Jack the Ripper. In fact, very little attention is actually paid to any of these women’s deaths beyond what is absolutely necessary, and their deaths are the one place where the details are mostly omitted. For the most part, each woman is traced up to their final night, and then the book skips along to something from the inquest, or what happened with their bodies, leaving the story of the murder more or less untold. It’s an interesting, but I think necessary, authorial choice– the book is about reclaiming and retelling the lives of the women the Ripper murdered, not yet another book about the man who murdered them.

Also, fun fact: did you think Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes? You probably did; most people do. There is no evidence that three of the five women were ever sex workers, and only the fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, appears to have pursued prostitution deliberately, as opposed to having been forced into it by circumstances. Most of them were simply poor and unhoused, at least temporarily– and while it’s a throwaway detail and not really pursued, Rubenhold suggests that the reason none of them appear to have fought back was that they were killed when they were asleep. He wasn’t grabbing women off the street and hauling them into back alleys; he was looking for women who were already living rough and had found a quiet place to sleep and killing them where he found them.

Strong recommendation, y’all, for a ton of different reasons. You’ll hear about this one again at the end of the year, I think.


7:57 PM, Thursday May 21: 1,576,542 confirmed cases and 94,661 American deaths.

#REVIEW: The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, by Thom Hartmann

Back in June I was lucky enough to receive an early review copy of Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment. I mentioned in the review that the book was part of a series– a series that I have since discovered is planned to run ten books— and that the second volume was to be out in October.

That was true! The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America was released on October 1 and should now be available anywhere you might happen to buy books. I was able to snag a copy of the second book in the series through the same folks that sent me the first one, and I sat down and read it tonight after getting home from work.

The book, and as I’m writing this I’m feeling like nonfiction needs a word similar to novella, is 156 pages long plus a dozen or so pages of footnotes and an index, and is divided into three sections. The first section is devoted to the founding fathers’ view of the Court and how the principle of judicial review became one of the Court’s powers. The second discusses the Court’s frequent rulings against the people in favor of the rich and powerful and corporate interests, and the third section– by far the shortest– is about how we might break the current right-wing stranglehold on the Court and, uh, save the world in the process.

I enjoyed Guns and the Second Amendment quite a bit. I was less a fan of this one, to be honest. To begin, it shares many of the weaknesses of the first book, weaknesses that are intrinsic to deliberately writing a book this short– I don’t have a wordcount handy, but I would suspect this book to be no longer than 30 to 40,000 words if it’s even that long, and it took me no longer than an hour or two to read. The sources, again like the first book, are almost entirely to websites, meaning that that entire part of the book will be useless in a few years, and this book feels a bit unfocused in a way that Guns and the Second Amendment didn’t. There’s simply a lot more to discuss when you’re talking about the Supreme Court– and as a result this book feels much more cursory and, to be honest, slapdash than the first volume did. This is, in large part, due to the deliberate decision by the author to write a short book, of course; I leave it up to you to decide if that aspect of it is going to be a problem for you or not.

A second problem is that I simply don’t have much sympathy for Hartmann’s core argument. I don’t believe that the first section ever actually directly states that Marbury v. Madison was decided wrongly, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion after reading it; describing the court as “despotic” in more than one place is pretty clear. And the thing is, I just … don’t care if it was the right decision, to be honest. The Constitution was fourteen years old when Marbury v. Madison was decided. We are, I think, well beyond the point where “The Court shouldn’t be able to overturn acts of Congress!” is a reasonable argument. If we’re talking about rewriting the entire Constitution, then okay, let’s discuss judicial review. But as an argument in what is supposed to be a history book? Meh. I just think it’s a silly discussion to be having.

The book is on stronger footing for the second part, although I’m not sure how hidden any of the history really is. The Court really has mostly privileged the wealthy and powerful over much of its tenure, although it’s not unlike basically all of human history in that regard, and there are certainly places where Court decisions have contributed materially to, well, justice. There is a brief review of judicial appointments to the Court since the Nixon years that was quite interesting– I wasn’t aware just how many of the Republican presidents (nearly all of them since Nixon, basically) initially took office under a cloud of some sort, which makes the hard-right turn that the conservative justices have taken over the last 40-50 years all that much more pernicious. And in more recent history, of course, we have Mitch McConnell stealing Obama’s last Supreme Court appointment, and the current occupant of the White House’s selection of perjuring rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the job.

The book wraps up with the rather grandiose claim that it is the composition of the current US Supreme Court that is causing the global climate crisis, or at least preventing us from fixing it, and goes into a few ways– court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping, basically– that we might choose to combat that. I, uh, kinda feel like Step One on this is to get Congress and the White House back, and if I were to line up a whole bunch of people in order of how responsible they were for the fucking mess human civilization is currently in I suppose the US Supreme Court would be on the list but they wouldn’t be as high as Hartmann seems to want them to be. It’s a bit of a stretch, is what I’m saying, and again the length of the book works against the author’s goals here, because you’re gonna need a few more pages to get me to blame the Supreme Court for climate change, particularly when you also make the point that the Supreme Court allowed the EPA to exist in the first place. We’d be worse off without them, in other words.

So … yeah. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, although there were definitely some interesting parts to it; the series continues to be intriguing, however, and I’ll happily read the third volume– dedicated to the war on voting, which feels like a better fit to this series than the Court does– when it comes out even if my Mysterious Benefactors choose not to bestow a copy on me.

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is available now.

#REVIEW: The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, by Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment is the second of two books that I was sort of randomly offered ARCs of in the last couple of months. They asked me to have it read and the review ready today, and I’m happy to announce that unlike the last time I’m actually managing to successfully fulfill that request.

To put it mildly, the gun issue is one place where I am pretty consistently far to the left of anyone I ever talk to about it. I want guns banned, period. I want the Second Amendment repealed. When you hear “moderate, reasonable” gun control advocates say things like no one is coming for your guns to the gun nuts? That’s not true, because I’m totally coming for your guns. I’m sick to death of people thinking the Constitution enshrines a right to murder other people, guns don’t ever make anyone or anything safer, and there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” There is only a dangerous idiot who hasn’t killed anyone or shot his own dick off yet.

So now that I’ve pissed everyone off, this is actually a pretty interesting little book. I used to listen to Hartmann’s radio show back when I was commuting to the South Side and back every day in Chicago, so I’m familiar with how he works– and the fact that he kept me listening to a liberal talk show when I have learned over the years that listening to talk radio from people who mostly agree with me is actually not something that will keep me awake during a drive is a good sign for him. Despite the pull quote on the cover, this is actually a history book and not a polemic about gun control, although it does have a few chapters at the end about what people call “sensible” gun control measures, like registering them similarly to the way we register cars, insisting that gun owners carry insurance, and regulating semiautomatic weapons the same way we regulate automatic weapons.

(Wanna fight about technicalities over what a “semiautomatic weapon” is? No problem; I’ll start pushing to ban anything that uses a controlled explosion to fire a projectile faster than a human being can throw it.)

At any rate, Hartmann traces America’s gun culture back to– surprise!– slavery and Native American displacement and genocide, and discusses the history of (and some interesting looks at early drafts of) the Second Amendment in particular, and probably spends 80% of the book’s text discussing why America is different about guns than damn near the entire rest of the world and how our history affects the gun fetishism that infects our culture today.

(Deletes a rant)

This is at all times a clear and readable book; if anything, my sole major criticism of it is that it could be a bit more in-depth. The book itself is less than 200 pages long and most of the chapters are less than five pages, and while there are several pages of endnotes at the end most of them are to websites, meaning that the index and the sources are mostly going to be useless a few years down the road. I went back and forth on whether this was a fair criticism; after all, it’s not like Hartmann wrote a short book accidentally, and the fact that there’s a companion volume of similar length coming in October called The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America indicates that he’s thinking of this as a series and not a one-off. There is certainly a place for cursory looks at American history, but given how … well, revisionist is the wrong word, but certainly nontraditional this look at history is, I wanted a bit more meat on the book’s bones than I got. For example, he devotes a single intriguing sentence to saying that Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico was over Mexico outlawing slavery. That’s interesting! I want to know more about it, and I hadn’t heard that before! But it’s literally a single throwaway sentence.

(Note that I am far from an expert on Texan history.)

At any rate: The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment is available now at all the places you might buy books. Those of you with an interest in modern politics and American history should check it out; anytime my only criticism of a book is I want more, that’s probably a sign of something that I can honestly recommend. Check it out.

On HAMILTON

IMG_6920Ask me to name my heroes and two names will come to mind very quickly: Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln.  I’m always interested to see how fast people catch the fundamental similarity between the two men: they’re both damn near entirely self-educated.  I’ve had more than my share of formal education but in a lot of the things I find important I’m an autodidact, and it’s a quality I deeply respect in people.

Which explains my attraction to Alexander Hamilton, or at least the version of him that Lin-Manuel Miranda has created in HAMILTON.  I mean, the fundamentals of the story are basically correct, and Hamilton is undoubtedly a supreme autodidact, but he’s not quite up there with my heroes mostly because, while I’ve read tons of speeches and writings by Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve mostly read stuff about Hamilton, and that represents an important difference to me.  At least at the moment.  I need to reread the Federalist papers sometime.

But, yeah.  This guy?  I wanna be this guy:

How do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?

wish, y’all.  I don’t write enough, and the feeling “I don’t write enough” has been a goddamn constant in my life basically since I left college despite the fact that I’ve had, at the very least, an active blog for for nearly that entire time.  I don’t write enough, but I think about writing constantly.  I am never happier than I am just after completing a written piece– distinctly happier than when I’m actually writing it, a sentiment I suspect most writers will recognize.

Writing is torture.  Having written is the purest bliss.  🙂

Anyway.  We went to see HAMILTON for our 10th anniversary a week ago and somehow I haven’t talked about it here yet.  Walking in, I had large portions of the soundtrack memorized and my wife was at least reasonably familiar with the whole thing, and I think both of us were concerned that the cast being “wrong” might impair our enjoyment somewhat.  I’m glad to report that that concern was basically nonsense; my wife actually walked out preferring the Chicago cast, or at least their voices.   I wasn’t quite there, but I spent some time raving about the performance of Jonathan Kirkland, who plays George Washington.  The guy’s physical presence is outstanding; he towers over the other actors in the show, and he does a tremendous job embodying someone who was so personally forbidding that Hamilton himself once actually made a bet with a fellow Constitutional Convention-goer about whether he was brave enough to slap him on the back.  The “son” scene in Meet Me Inside was so much better than I’d thought it was going to be from the soundtrack.  Washington just stares at Hamilton, and Hamilton folds like a cheap suit.

I mean, okay, not surprising that I liked seeing the most successful Broadway musical of my lifetime live, but still: I know the tickets are expensive, but if this show is near you?  Go see it.  It’s worth it.

IMG_6923
My wife is actually prettier than she was the day we met.  I am … still alive, mostly.