On Chelsea Manning and the military transgender ban

The case of Chelsea Manning hits home a bit hard for me**.  On the one hand, she committed an unconscionable act of sabotage of our country’s interests as a soldier in our military.  On the other, all the while she transitioned (MtF) and her coming out in such a harsh spotlight may be seen as an act of bravery.  Which is it?

My view is that Chelsea’s criminal act and her gender transition are two very separate things, and we should all strive to keep it that way.  Unfortunately, as my recent experience in the bowels of the Twitterverse informs me, this is definitely not the case.  The implications of this inability to separate Manning’s crime from her transition are awful.

I entered the fray in response to an article by Jamie Kirchick entitled “When Transgender Trumps Treachery.”  In his usual snarky tone, Kirchick makes the correct and horrifying diagnosis of the problems beset by the mindless celebration of Chelsea just because she is trans:

Celebrating Chelsea Manning just a few years after gay and transgender people were permitted to serve openly in the military discredits the L.G.B.T. cause. Throughout most of the 20th century, homosexuality was associated with treason and used as a basis for purging gay people from government jobs, denying them security clearances and restricting their service in the armed forces. The decision by Ms. Manning’s defense team to argue that untreated gender dysphoria was a factor in her decision to leak classified information unwittingly aids those who say that L.G.B.T. people cannot be trusted in sensitive government jobs. And it dishonors the L.G.B.T. people who have served in the military throughout history without betraying their country.

This cannot be stressed strongly enough: Manning herself combined her gender identity and her crime as part and parcel of the same thing.  This unbelievably selfish act compounds her “victimless” crime because now we have a President that wants a blanket transgender ban in the military!

OK, so maybe I lost you when I scare-quoted ‘victimless.”  Yes, I am with Kirchick when I state that Manning did great damage to our country’s ability to operate abroad.  I know that she exposed some wrongdoing and that one memo used by the prosecution in her trial did not say what the prosecution said it did.  But the salient fact is that she gave 750,000 secret military and diplomatic documents to Julian Assange at Wikileaks, an entity not exactly known for acting in the best interests of our country.  I have been told that nobody has been compromised or killed as a result of Manning’s theft; my response is a) how on earth would one know that? and b) Assange has full control over what to do with all of these documents in perpetuity – nobody knows what he can or cannot do at any time.  This is not good, folks***.

Manning’s release and subsequent celebrity feting by the like-minded coincides with Trump’s determination to ban transgender people from the military.  And Exhibit A is Chelsea Manning herself!  After all, she stated on the record that it was her gender dysphoria that made her do it, Your Honor.

I care deeply about the rights of transgender people to be treated like anyone else because I see my child in so many of these people.  So a transgender military ban to me feels like those in power trying to make my child a second-class citizen, even if he has no plans to enter the military.  From day one, I have worked to make sure than my child is treated with respect and respects himself.  But these messages are hard to maintain when both left and right insist on treating transgender people differently from other folks.

I have stated over and over again that the right frequently dehumanizes those who are different – especially transgender people.  But the left is pernicious in its own way.  For example, someone on Twitter accused me of being transphobic – me! – because I do not think Manning did a great service to our country.

The epitome of this failure on the left to separate Manning’s gender identity from her crimes is this article by Meg Sri, which is a response to Kirchick’s article.  Actually, Sri makes some solid points about the transphobia to which Manning has been subjected – very true, and I cannot imagine that her treatment by the government was never affected by her struggles.  That said, Sri loses me when she accuses Kirchick of transphobia without any proof.  (My transphobia detector is pretty strong I think and I detected none in Kirchick’s article – if I did, I would have said something.)  Sri accuses Kirchick of asking for a state-sanctioned murder of a trans person (“as if it didn’t happen enough already”) – a slander if I ever saw one.  For crying out loud, Kirchick thought Manning deserved the death penalty for espionage, not because she is trans!  (For the record, I disagree with Kirchick****.)  This is the precise reason that people who flagrantly celebrate Manning make me terribly nervous.

So look, Manning had the guts to be true to herself in a very glaring spotlight.  That said, she is still a criminal who has dumped a boatload of our secrets onto an entity that cares not a whit for this country.  These two things are separate and should not be used in judging the other thousands of brave transgender troops.

**In case the reader doesn’t know, I am the father of a transgender teenager (FtM).

***Comparisons with Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers is tempting and even Ellsberg seems to dig it.  But ask any seasoned security professional and they will state that Manning’s act was a data dump in the service of anarchy, not an act of necessary civil disobedience as was Ellsberg’s release of the Papers to the NY Times.

****Independent of all of this is the harshness of Manning’s sentence and subsequent incarceration.  I cannot imagine it was pleasant.  But Pres. Obama commuted her sentence and, lucky her.  I am only interested here in the criminal act being separate from the gender identity.

The pusillanimity of the President – and the cruelty of the base to which he is in servitude – leaves me breathless

I have made no secret of my contempt for the fact that we have a President Trump and that he has come as advertised.  No, worse.  But in just three tweets this morning, Trump exceeded all expectations of horror.

Yes, I am referring to his announcement that transgender people will not be accepted or allowed in the US military.  But it’s not just the announcement in a vacuum, cruel in and of itself.  The way it was delivered was just staggering in its destructiveness and divisiveness.

And, as is pretty much always the case in the sad sack of an administration, it is completely fact-free.

Let’s break down these tweets, shall we?  (Not that it should matter – Trump’s words are strategically meaningless anyway.)

After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.

If anyone thinks this is about military effectiveness, I have brochures for a degree program from Trump University.  This has nothing to do with that.

For the following, I refer to this report from the Rand Corporation that was commissioned by the military as part of a study on the impact of having transgender people serve.

Let’s first address the “tremendous” medical costs which would burden the military.  Currently, there are as many as 6,600 transgender personnel in active service.  Maybe between 55 and 270 of them need any sort of medical attention in a given year.  The medical expenditures represent an increase of about, at most, 0.017% of net medical expenditures for the military.  Not exactly a tremendous cost or burden.

Next, the disruption.  Here’s a quote: “[E]vidence from foreign militaries and the U.S. military has indicated no significant impact on unit cohesion or operational readiness as a result of allowing transgender and gay and lesbian personnel to serve openly […]”  Here’s another: “Even using the highest estimates, less than 0.1 percent of the force would seek gender transition–related treatment that would affect their ability to deploy. As a point of comparison, in the Army alone, approximately 50,000 active-component personnel were ineligible to deploy in 2015 for various legal, medical, or administrative reasons—a number amounting to around 14 percent of the active component.”

That is, negligible disruption, negligible additional medical cost.  As usual, Trump is being fact-free and I even doubt that his generals are on board with this.  I mean, as stated, they would now have to seek out and dismiss (dishonorably?) several thousand active service members for…being a social wedge issue.

No, the reason Trump is doing this is nakedly clear: he is sacrificing “the transgender” at the altar of his base.  The base is a bit upset with Trump because of his attacks on Jeff Sessions.  So he is feeding this divisive social wedge issue around which they can rally.

The repercussions of this act accordingly go far beyond the military.  Civil society at large has been getting less accepting, and less hospitable to people who are different.  Trump got elected by feeding on a feeling of many people that they were being put upon – and the blame always goes to those who look different.  I fear the worst in the coming few years for transgender people.  I especially fear for the kids – kids like my son.

It is the act of…let’s face it, a pussy.  What else does one call a person who diverts attention from himself to weaker people in response to problems?  Trump may be my President, but I am certainly not his constituent.  Most of us are not.

“Truth,” Trump, Tolstoy, and just giving in

I was having an uncharacteristically bad night of sleep and for whatever sad sack reason (e.g., not willing to endure yet another episode of how those cheesy poofs are made on the Cooking channel), I watched the 2015 movie about the Rathergate CBS scandal, Truth.  As you can tell, I thought it a pretty awful movie.  It was a self-serving film based on a self-serving memoir of the protagonist who thought that while, yeah, they committed journalistic malpractice by passing fraudulent documents as facts to the American public, they still believed the story anyway and their firings were nothing short of corporate malfeasance.

A quick review: the CBS 60 Minutes crew, headed by producer Mary Mapes, is presented with what they feel is a gigantic scoop: apparent proof that President W got away with being a no-show in the Texas Air National Guard, thus debunking his military service and…making liberals feel great that Kerry would look so wonderful in comparison for the upcoming election.  (Liberal bias at CBS News is not only assumed but seems to be celebrated in this movie.)  The documents containing the smoking gun were examined by a handwriting expert for authenticity, and once the crew was satisfied with their fact-checks, Dan Rather ran the story.  It was a sensation…until it emerged that the documents were phony, clearly having been typed on a PC, rather unavailable to the TX Air National Guard in 1972.  The proverbial shit hit the fan, Mapes was fired, and Rather was forced into retirement.

I bring this story up – and the awful movie telling one side of this story – because the self-delusion that brought down Mapes and Rather has particular relevance today, right now, at this very moment.  The self-delusion began because Mapes was damned sure there was something unseemly about the Bushes.  Many of us thought so.  And maybe there indeed was something there.  But the zeal to make the case at a particular, politically convenient point in time, rather than professional obligation, destroyed whatever credibility CBS News had – and, by some twisted logic, anyone else’s credibility if they too had some stuff on W.  And history is repeating itself.

The same people that campaigned against W despise Trump with the power of one hundred…, no, one thousand suns.  People who did not block my FB posts over the past year (many thanks to the 30 or so of you!) know that I think his presidency is a unique disaster for our country.  My Twitter feed explodes daily with new crap about Trump himself, or some surrogate, that even a year ago would have resulted in heads on poles.  No more.  The uniquely horrifying has become the mundane.  The ability to shock has been neutered.

And yet, we wait for the other shoe to drop.  Trump is a toxic debtor, and the only reliable source of capital seems to have been Russian banks, which may be tied to oligarchs tied in turn to Putin.  The same Putin that has apparently given orders to his cyber-army to break into the DNC server and John Podesta’s email account and release a trove of documents that made the Democrats look bad.  But they left the RNC alone, or at least they are holding back.  And Trump remains opaque about his financial ties – and furthermore, refuses to put his assets in a blind trust.  He could be in violation of the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution.

And, watching Truth, I came to the stunning realization that…none of this matters.  At all.

I’m not the only dedicated anti-Trumper to come to this sad conclusion.  Masha Gessen, someone who knows a lot about Russia and is someone whose wisdom I trust, wrote a fiery essay excoriating liberals for focusing on conspiracies rather than policy.

Gessen writes:

Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.

To be honest, not having control of the House or Senate – both of which have proven robotically subservient, I am not sure how policy can be affected any more.  (The Courts, thank G-d, have been doing their job so far.)  But her point remains: we are playing Mary Mapes on 60 Minutes, damned sure there’s a conspiracy but coming up, over and over again, snake eyes.

Please, do not misunderstand me: I do believe there is unseemly business there, that Trump is a A-1 liar and crook (which I guess makes him an American politician), and that he is unworthy of the Office of the President.  But at this point, we need to move on.  That Trump is President is painful to me.  But like any loss, one must move on and deal.  I am not a full-time journalist, so I cannot spend my waking hours pretending to be one.  Trump is President, a fact I hate, and he is shaping policy, a fact I hate worse.

As I was contemplating this frame of mind, which I have come to slowly over the past several weeks, I remembered the epilogue of War and Peace, a book I read on a road trip up the Australian Pacific coast over 20 years ago.  There, Tolstoy presents his philosophy about what factors drive history – a way I guess of explaining why events in the novel went as they did.  To Tolstoy, history is much larger than any one person or group of people, no matter how powerful they seem.

The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people who participate in the events, and who always combine in such a way that those taking the largest direct share in the event take on themselves the least responsibility and vice versa.

The tide of history is shaped by entire nations’ worth of people, not just Trump or his benefactors.  Here we have a movement, however horrible to me personally, that is taking shape here and across the globe.  Xenophobic, right-wing governments have emerged in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Israel, the UK…and the US.  France seems headed down that road.  Xenophobia breeds xenophobia, so it should not surprise that hatred across the globe – and its policy ramifications – are spreading.  I salute those nations, like Canada, that have resisted so far.  But trying to bring down this rotten government within this dark sweep of history in which we find ourselves seems to be beyond an uphill battle.  If we are to save our democracy, we are left to figure out how to oppose the bad policies coming our way.

But I cannot any longer get involved in the minutiae of the wishful thinking a scandal brings.  Life’s too short.

Is it an insidious act to not mention Jews in a reference to the Holocaust?

The Trump administration took heat because of the following statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.

“Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest.‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.

“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

Liberals and some Jewish groups took exception to the lack of reference to Jews in that statement.  To the layman, this seems like yet another in a series of hyper-blusters from liberal groups that refuse to give President Trump even a minuscule chance.

I will demonstrate why the answer to the question is a big Yes.  This offering by Trump for International Holocaust Remembrance is one of the more insidious acts perpetrated by this administration.  The reason is quite simple.  This is how the Soviets attempted to destroy Judaism – by denying anything special about it or what happened Jewish people.

I have a great example of this in mind to illustrate what I mean.  In short, it involves my family.  You see, my paternal grandfather’s side is from a little town now known as Vasilishkii in transliterated Russian, but was known to my grandparents in Yiddish as Vassilishok.  My grandparents spoke Polish because prior to 1939, Vassilishok was in Poland.  That changed when Stalin took over in response to the infamous treaty between the Germans and the Russians in 1939 that allowed the Soviets to take over eastern Poland and the Baltic states.  Suddenly, Vassilishok was part of Belarus.

That all changed two years later when Hitler decided to screw Stalin over royally and invade Russian land.  Now the Nazis were in charge of Vassilishok and surrounding areas.  And it was not pretty.  The Nazis were easily able to send in death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, to murder Jews en masse:

The ghetto was surrounded on May 9, 1942, and no one escaped.  On May 10 prisoners started to be taken out to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town in groups of 60 people.  The graves were already prepared.  They ordered people to undress and stack their clothes in piles.  They were then pushed into ditches and shot.  This continued until May 11.  The total number of those shot over those two days was 2,159.  A total of 2,865 of all nationalities died in Vasilishki and surrounding region during the years of the occupation, and 598 were sent off to Germany.  A special group of the SS from Lida took an active role in the pogrom under the command of the headquarters officer Windish and his assistant Vasyukevich, together with the gendarmie and Gestapo of neighboring regions.

The Belarussian police, headed by commander Yezhevsky, and aided by Tubilevich, Vitold Schmigger and Nikolai Zhurun — who distinguished themselves with particular cruelty – provided significant aid to the Nazis.  The Aid Commission of the [acronym for a State Committee] of the USSR of the Vasilishki Region put together a list of 616 families from the peaceful population who were victims.  The majority were Jews.

2,159 shot in two days.  Virtually all Jews**.  (Included in that number were some of my great-aunts and uncles.)  The reason for the killing was to kill Jews.  The reason the Germans were in the area at all was to get the local population against Jews so that they may be killed that much more easily.

After the war, when the Soviets were back in charge of Belarus, they marked the incident – and many more like these – in 1967 with an obelisk to “Soviet citizens” was erected to those killed by the Fascists.

No mention of Jews.

Which, well, seems kind of silly, right?  I mean, who cares?  The Soviets were the Jews’ best friend after all, right?  Regular Russians and Belorussians suffered, too.  And they were all Soviet citizens.  Makes sense.

Except for the inconvenient fact that the Soviets had no interest in an ethnic Jewish community thriving within its Universalist borders.  Stalin, who encouraged the recording of Nazi crimes against Jews during the war in a “Black Book,” murdered the authors of the Black Book and had it destroyed after the war.  The Soviet Union and all of its satellites then turned against Jews with a viciousness only second to Hitler’s.

No way were they ever going to acknowledge crimes against Jews, ever.

Which brings me to Mr. Trump’s statement that leaves out any mention of Jews.  Non-Jews suffered greatly under the Nazis, let there be no doubt.  And while it seems magnanimous of Mr. Trump to make sure that those people are acknowledged…that ain’t the fucking point of a Holocaust Remembrance day!

The Holocaust was a crime perpetrated against the Jewish people, period.  We may acknowledge the other people who suffered as the Jews had, but the act of speechifying is meaningless without directing one’s attention to the act of genocide against the Jewish people.  We acknowledge this act because we hope to keep alive the notion that we are all capable of the ultimate act of evil – the eradication of a whole people.  Of course, the cynics among us can simply point to the horrors in Syria to note that we no longer need such reminders.  Perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another day.

My point is that Trump’s words in acknowledgement of International Holocaust Remembrance Day are an insidious reminder of how the Soviets regarded their Jewish population.  Jewish groups that care about the memory of the 5.7 million or so perished but cannot find the testicular fortitude to denounce Trump’s words cannot be taken seriously.

** I cannot leave before mentioning the incredible organization Yahad-in-unum, who has been researching all of the sites across Eastern Europe where mass killings of Jews took place.   They are truly doing G-d’s work.

Twilight Zone – a Top Episodes list

As I sit here watching the annual Twilight Zone marathon, I am compelled to create yet another list: my favorite TZ episodes.

What makes a good TZ episode?  First and foremost, the writing.  The best episodes feature Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont at their peak.  Good writing encompasses great dialog as well as a compelling theme.  Good writing also encompasses sensical science and not insulting the audiences’ intelligence.  (In one episode, it is implied that folks on another planet travel 11 million miles in a spaceship to reach…Earth.  Yup.)

A good episode also requires compelling acting and, in some cases, creative direction and photography.  Some of the best episodes merely scare the living crap out of you – and continue to do so long after the TV is shut off.  Others make you think.  And still others are stories that you’ll find repeated many years later elsewhere (e.g., Toy Story).

So without further ado, my favorite TZ episodes:

1. The Eye of the Beholder

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Maxine Stuart, Donna Douglas, various other actors in latex masks
  • Director: Douglas Heyes
  • Plot: A horribly disfigured woman has had her last possible operation. She awaits the result of the operation while under bandages.
  • The Twist: Once the bandages are removed…it’s Ellie May!! And she’s being cared for by pig-people.
  • Themes: Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Yes, but more importantly, the horror of enforced conformity in fascist states. This theme – so raw for a Jewish WWII vet like Serling, makes its way into some other great TZ episodes.
  • The Greatness: Where to begin? The acting is top-notch. Maxine Stuart has to convey deep pain, fear, and hope without the benefit of a face. Her hands do miracle work. Donna Douglas as the unbandaged patient manages to convey the horror of being “disfigured” without being campy. The slow reveal of the operation’s result is done magnificently, as the removal of the bandages is done from the patient’s perspective. The lighting in particular and the direction in general is genius. Even the small details – the offhand conversations with the doctors and nurses before the reveal, the leader of The State shouting about “glorious conformity,” the beautiful speech by the “disfigured” man at the end – all work in concert to present one of the most compelling 25 minutes of television ever.

2. Death Ship

  • Writer: Richard Matheson
  • Starring: Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, Fred Beir
  • Director: Don Medford
  • Plot: In the far future (the year 1997), a trio of planetary explorers come to a distant planet in a ship looking for signs of life.  They find such a sign on that planet.  Unfortunately, it is in the form of a wrecked duplicate of their ship.  Worse, they find their own dead bodies in the duplicate.  Led by senior officer Klugman, the explorers desperately try to find some explanation while experiencing disturbing dreams that point to the only possible explanation.
  • The Twist: Klugman’s character will not accept this explanation – that they are indeed dead – and forces the junior officers to relive the horror of the discovery ad infinitum.
  • Themes: Truth can be bent to the will of a dominating personality.  The Flying Dutchman theme – where some condemned soul is forced to relive the same horror over and over again – comes up several times in the TZ.
  • The Greatness: Jack Klugman’s acting in all four TZ episodes is so intense and insanely great.  Here he has to play someone that has such a hold over his men that he keeps them alive in limbo forever.  Ross Martin has an equally good performance as someone who knows he is dead because he is joined by his departed wife and child in a dream sequence that cannot possibly leave you unaffected.  The attention to detail is also noteworthy – the ship’s landing on the planet surface, while not worth mentioning by today’s standards, is done extremely well for 1960’s TV.  (Note the dust and dirt kicked up by the ship’s engines.)  And, come on, how whacked is it that these guys find their own dead bodies?  The mere idea gives me the chills.

3. Number 12 Looks Just Like You

  • Writer: Charles Beaumont/John Tomerlin
  • Starring: Collin Wilcox, Suzy Parker, Pam Austin
  • Director: Abner Biberman
  • Plot: In a future society (“The Year 2000”), 18-year-olds choose one of several stunningly beautiful models to transform into.  Marilyn, whose father committed suicide after his transformation, is reluctant to go through a transformation despite intense pressure from her mother Lana, friend Val, and society at large.
  • The Twist: Marilyn, who treasures her individuality, is forced to undergo the transformation, upon which she marvels at herself in the mirror and how much she looks like her friend Val.
  • Themes: The destruction conformity wields on society.  This time, the conformity is a byproduct of all of the products men and especially women are encouraged to use to achieve someone’s vision of beauty and serenity.  Marilyn is not only erased physically, but her very soul is also crushed by society’s demands of complete conformity in appearance and thought.
  • The Greatness: The visual effect of a society demanding extreme beauty is achieved with the famous supermodel Suzy Parker as well as the younger Pam Austin taking on multiple roles.  Collin Wilcox as Marilyn is perfectly cast: plain enough, sure, but also pretty enough to make you wonder why on earth this girl needs a transformation at all.  The very conformity is expressed through the nametags, as everyone looks identical so nametags are the only vestige of identity.  The acting is superb all around, but the final lines spoken by Pam Austin as Marilyn’s transformed self is bone-chilling; “And the best part, Val, is that I look just like you!”  This is a person who was destroyed on the inside by insidious conformity, and it is best expressed through her artificial joy.

4. And When The Sky Was Opened

  • Writer: Rod Serling/Richard Matheson
  • Starring: Rod Taylor, Charles Aidman, Jim Hutton
  • Director: Douglas Heyes
  • Plot: Three astronauts go into space in some experimental craft.  They lose contact with ground control but reappear and survive their landing.  Then, one by one, their existence is completely erased, and then that of the craft and their mission.
  • The Twist: The astronauts all disappear and are all forgotten.  The end.
  • Themes: In 1959 when this episode aired, no man had gone into space yet.  There was a lot of speculation as to what would happen to men who did go.  Here was one possible scenario, and why not?
  • The Greatness: The acting, especially Rod Taylor’s, provides the absolute, sheer horror as each character, one by one, realizes that he is disappearing from existence.  The men are genuinely scared.  This is a frightening episode, even more so if you consider that, who knows, this could happen – or may have already happened – to an astronaut.

5. The Invaders

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Agnes Moorhead, a few wind-up Michelin tire men
  • Director: Douglas Heyes
  • Plot: A solitary woman is harassed by little space invaders while trying to cook her dinner.
  • The Twist: Moorhead is an extra-terrestrial giantess and the invaders are Americans.
  • Themes: Don’t fuck with a hungry giantess.
  • The Greatness: Moorhead is not given any dialog, and she is pretty primal.  This could have been a ridiculous episode, but Douglas Heyes (note he is director of three of my top five) keeps things simple and terrifying.  The little invaders are menacing, and you certainly dread them.  The twist ending at the end is almost comical but still carries shock value.

6. The After Hours

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Anne Francis
  • Director: Douglas Heyes
  • Plot: A woman goes to a department store to buy a thimble.  She is taken to the 9th floor, which isn’t marked on the floor indicator, on an express elevator.  She is greeted by a creepy saleswoman who sells her the thimble, which is the only item on the floor.  The woman finds a crack in the thimble and goes to the store manager to complain.  As she is being told that there is no 9th floor, she spots the saleswoman, who is now a mannequin.  The woman passes out and winds up locked in the store after closing.  It then gets scary for the woman.
  • The Twist: The woman is a mannequin who was allowed to live among humans for a month, but it is now time for her to return.
  • Themes: You know that mannequin that looks a bit familiar…?
  • The Greatness: Anne Francis is stunningly beautiful, and in a way makes for a good mannequin.  She is also a fantastic actress and communicates the initial horror of her situation before she remembers what is really going on.  I also love the camerawork directed by, guess who, Douglas Heyes.  One scene has the mannequins after hours calling out to the woman, one at a time; each mannequin gets a creepy close-up as it speaks.  It works – you get as horrified as Anne Francis looks as she anticipates some horrible fate at the hands of the suddenly alive mannequins.

7. Jess-Belle

  • Writer: Earl Hamner, Jr.
  • Starring: Anne Francis, James Best, Jeannette Nolan, Laura Devon
  • Director: Buzz Kulik
  • Plot: Billy-Ben (Best) is set to marry Ellwyn (Devon), but poor Jess-Belle (Francis) loves Billy-Ben and is determined to stop the wedding.  Jess-Belle goes to Granny Hart (Nolan) for help, and she gets it in the form of a spell that makes Billy-Ben forget Ellwyn and intensely love Jess-Belle.  Unfortunately, the spell comes at a rather high price: Jess-Belle in return becomes a witch that turns into a leopard after midnight each night.  Although the leopard is eventually killed by a hunting party that includes Billy-Ben and Billy-Ben weds Ellwyn, Jess-Belle continues to haunt the couple.
  • The Twist: Billy-Ben rids himself and Ellwyn of Jess-Belle by dressing a mannequin with Jess-Belle’s wedding dress and stabbing it with a silver hairpin.
  • Themes: Sometimes we pay too high a price for the things we want.
  • The Greatness: Earl Hamner Jr writes so lovingly about the people of the rural South and it comes out in the wonderful dialog and characters.  Here, two magnificent TZ actors – Anne Francis (see above) and James Best – help bring this tale from the ordinary in anyone else’s hand to a most wonderful folk tale.  Jeannette Nolan is also quite good as Granny Hart, who is more or less the equivalent of the devil,  all at once grandmotherly and completely evil.

8. Twenty-Two

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Barbara Nichols, Arlene Martel
  • Director: Jack Smight
  • Plot: An actress is hospitalized for exhaustion.  Unfortunately, she is also having this weird nightmare in which she is led to a Room 22, which is a morgue.  At the morgue, a creepy nurse beckons the actress in, saying there’s “room for one more, Honey.”
  • The Twist: The actress recovers and is about to board a flight.  Unfortunately, it is flight number 22, and as she embarks, the same creepy woman who is now a stewardess beckons her onto the plane, saying “room for one more, honey.”  The actress then screams a scream of indescribable horror, turns right around, and runs back to the terminal.  Minutes later, the plane takes off and explodes in midair.
  • Themes: The TZ explores dreams and their relationship with the real world.  Although Twenty-Two is not the most interesting of these episodes, it is the one that stays with you the most.
  • The Greatness: Despite the fact that this episode was recorded in videotape, the story remains one of the most frightening of the series.  The nightmare is absolutely creepy.  But the sheer, absolute terror expressed by Nichols outdoes anything in modern horror flicks.  For a long time, I could not bring myself to watch this episode, that is how scary it is.

9. The Obsolete Man

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Burgess Meredith, Fritz Weaver
  • Director: Elliot Silverstein
  • Plot: In a future state, a librarian (“Wordsworth”) is declared Obsolete by the chancellor, who sentences him to death.  The librarian is allowed to choose the means of his execution, and he keeps it a secret.
  • The Twist: The librarian chooses to die by a bomb planted in his room at midnight while televised.  He invites the chancellor over and locks him in the room with him.  At the last minute, the Chancellor begs to be let out “in the name of God.”  His life is spared, but when he returns to the chancellery, he is declared Obsolete and is torn to shreds by his fellow statesmen.
  • Themes: Character is determined when the chips are down.
  • The Greatness: This could have been a patently ridiculous, over-the-top episode.  But the two leads are incredible and the quiet intensity that Meredith achieves makes for compelling viewing.  Note also that, while Meredith is on the side of God and Weaver is on the side of atheism, it is Meredith who is expressing the views of a liberal and it is Weaver who is expressing the ideas of a fascist.

10. The Howling Man

  • Writer: Charles Beaumont
  • Starring: H.M. Wynant, John Carradine, Robin Hughes
  • Director: Douglas Heyes
  • Plot: After WWI, a man (Wynant) wandering through Europe winds up tired and hungry at a castle Hermitage administered by Brother Jerome (Carradine).   Jerome at first refuses to let the man stay, but out of pity he relents.  The man then hears an inhuman howling coming from somewhere in the castle and asks Jerome about it.  Jerome at first does not acknowledge the horrible sound, but then relents and states that the howling is coming from the Devil, whom they have locked up with the Staff of Truth.  The man investigates and finds a sad, beaten man (Hughes) who begs him to let him go.  The man does and realizes that Jerome spoke the truth.  Soon after, WWII breaks out and the man dedicates his life to finding the Devil.
  • The Twist: The man indeed captures the Devil and imprisons him with the Staff of Truth, but a cleaner falls prey to the same trick and releases the Devil…
  • Themes: World wars are caused by fallen angels?
  • The Greatness: Again, Heyes proves that he is the man to direct technically challenging stories.  The scene where Hughes literallly turns into the Devil right before our eyes is iconic and is a testament to good makeup and lighting.  The camerawork is also magnificent – many scenes are shot cockeyed to drive home the disorienting feelings the man feels in the Hermitage.  And John Carradine is a marvel to watch as the maybe-completely-batshit caretaker of the Hermitage and prison warden of the Devil.  He needs to look that insane for the story to be compelling, and it is.

11. The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank

  • Writer: Montgomery Pittman
  • Starring: James Best
  • Director: Montgomery Pittman
  • Plot: In the rural Midwest, a young man named Jeff Myrtlebank suddenly sits up awake at his own funeral.  Weirdness ensues.
  • The Twist: Myrtlebank is accused of being possessed by the Devil by fearful townsfolk.  His challenge to them: if I am not the Devil, then you all have nothing to fear, but if I am, then you’d better be nice to me.  His cigarette then lights itself.
  • Themes: Fear of the unknown, a major theme throughout the TZ.
  • The Greatness: James Best, who is mainly known as Roscoe P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard, is not appreciated as the fantastic character actor he was throughout his career.  Here he shows the intensity he is capable of in a character who, for some odd reason, has awoken from the dead and is really really hungry all of a sudden.  His behavior consistently shocks his family and neighbors, and you can tell that this was once a quiet, humble, and not-very-competent man who has become the polar opposite somehow.  The show is great fun and until the very end never makes clear what exactly happened.

12. It’s A Good Life

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Billy Mumy, John Larch, Cloris Leachman
  • Director: James Sheldon
  • Plot: The people of Peakesville OH live in fear of a six-year-old boy named Anthony Fremont.  Anthony has the emotions and mental acuity of a six-year-old, but has the powers of the Biblical God.  Anthony made the world outside Peakesville disappear, eliminated electricity, and reduced the townspeople to a meager subsistence.  The townspeople, possibly including his parents, want to get rid of Anthony somehow, but he can also read their minds.
  • The Twist: None.  Anthony continues to make the lives of everyone even more miserable, and they have to smile about it if they do not wish to die a ghastly death out of the imagination of  six-year-old boy.
  • Themes: Maybe don’t have kids, especially if they’re going to have biblical powers.
  • The Greatness: Billy Mumy was a great child actor.  But the real greatness of this famous episode comes from the adult actors around him.  They have to pull off the trick of being completely, absolutely terrified while appearing to be happy just as Anthony wants.  They pull it off magnificently, and the effect provides an order of magnitude more terror.  Especially great is Mr. Fremont played by John Larch, who gets the final, gruesome line in reaction to Anthony making it snow and ruining his crops: “But it’s good you’re making it snow.  A real good thing.  And tomorrow, tomorrow’s gonna be a real good day!”

13. The Masks

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Robert Keith, Milton Selzer, Virginia Gregg
  • Director: Ida Lupino
  • Plot: A wealthy old man lays dying in New Orleans.  He summons his daughter, her husband, and their two adult children to his home for a reading of the will.  The old man clearly does not think much of his family and it becomes apparent that they only came to watch him die and collect their inheritance.  The old man then states that a condition of the will is that they all wear hideous masks until after midnight.
  • The Twist: They all put on the masks, which each represent an aspect of each of their personalities.  After midnight, the old man dies, but when the family members remove their masks, they find to their horror that their faces have taken on the form of the masks.
  • Themes: Greed and credulousness is not a good combination.
  • The Greatness: This story needs technical brilliance to pull off, in that the final, ugly makeup has to fully mimic the masks.  Under the direction of the talented Lupino, it all works and the episode is a classic.  Moreover, the episode takes the time to establish the singular unlikability of each of the daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.  The old man has a biting, sarcastic tone which is perfect.  Overall, a pure joy to watch.

14. Night Call

  • Writer: Richard Matheson
  • Starring: Gladys Cooper
  • Director: Jacques Toumeur
  • Plot: An lonely old woman in a wheelchair, injured a long time ago in an auto accident, is getting bizarre phone calls in the middle of the night.  There is a man on the other end who wants to talk to her.  Terrified, she demands that he leave her alone.
  • The Twist: The phone company traces the call to downed wires fallen in a cemetery.  The wires are resting on the grave of her fiance, who always did as she told him.  A week before they were to be married, she insisted on driving even though she didn’t know how, and she wrapped the car around a tree, killing him and paralyzing her.  When she realizes who was calling her, she manages to ring her fiance, who then replies that he will leave her alone, as he always does as she tells him.
  • Themes: I guess, don’t be a miserable, controlling bitch.
  • The Greatness: Gladys Cooper plays a creepy old lady so well that it’s scary enough to listen to her recite her lines with her upper-class English accent.  Cooper makes this episode work by herself, at the age of 76.  The twist is pure Matheson, a sort of justice that borders on insane.  Overall, a deliciously creepy episode.

15. Mr. Denton on Doomsday

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Dan Duryea, Martin Landau
  • Director: Allen Reisner
  • Plot: Al Denton, formerly the fastest gun around, has been reduced to a pathetic drunk, being harassed by the local bully for more drinks.  One day, he is approached by a traveling salesman named Henry J. Fate, who makes Denton the fastest gun again, which in turn spurns a challenge.  Denton subsequently begins to lose his touch, but is then approached by Fate once more and is offered a potion that will make him the fastest gun for 10 seconds.  He takes up the offer and readies himself for the duel.
  • The Twist: Fate gives Denton’s opponent the same potion.  The result of the duel is a draw in which both men each injure their shooting hand and can never shoot again.
  • Themes: The burden of being the best at anything is explored several times in the TZ.  here, redemption lies in not having your self-worth tied up in your skill.
  • The Greatness: This is simply a well-written, well-acted episode, with a theme worthy of Rod Serling.  This is what they meant when the Twilight Zone is a program meant for intelligent adults.

16. A Hundred Yards Over the Rim

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Cliff Robertson
  • Director: Buzz Kulik
  • Plot: In 1847, Chris Horn leads a wagon train from Ohio to California.  In Arizona, Horn finds his son dying and the train about out of food and water.  Horn goes to look for provisions over a rim, but winds up in 1961 outside a truck stop in the desert.
  • The Twist: Horn accidentally shoots himself during an encounter with a truck and is given penicillin to prevent an infection.  Horn subsequently learns that his son grows up to become an important physician and that the penicillin is for him.
  • Themes: Faith and hardiness, the qualities we attribute to the American settler, are to be treasured.
  • The Greatness: Cliff Robertson is simply awesome in this.  He goes all out, including the stovepipe hat.  He is clearly an alpha-male who needs to recognize the purpose of a supernatural event while being completely baffled, frightened, and overwhelmed.  He projects strength and adaptability.  The writing is spare and uplifting.  I could watch this episode over and over.

17. Time Enough at Last

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Burgess Meredith
  • Director: John Brahm
  • Plot: Everyone knows.  A bookish, bespectacled little man, Henry Bemis, goes into the vault of the bank in which he works for a lunchtime read when suddenly nuclear war breaks out and he finds himself to be the only surviving person on Earth.
  • The Twist: Bemis considers suicide until he finds the library.  He spends a joyous time organizing his reading into the far future until, upon settling down to read his first book, he trips and breaks his glasses, rendering him unable to read.
  • Themes: Fear of nuclear war is a theme of many TZ episodes.  Here, one wonders whether Bemis will be truly happy alone – after all, before the depopulation of the world, Bemis just wanted to be alone with a book.  So his considering suicide is surprising until you realize that he almost forgot about books.
  • The Greatness: Henry Bemis is such a well-developed character in such a short amount of time.  We see how bullied he is, how addixted to reading he is.  (He gets so deparate to read anything when his cruel wife removes all of the books in the house that he reads the ingredients on boxes of food.)  Serling’s narration is a classic.

18. On Thursday We Leave for Home

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: James Whitmore
  • Director: Buzz Kulik
  • Plot: William Benteen is the leader of a ragtag bunch who many years ago left Earth to live on a remote planet.  They came to this planet expecting to escape war and pestilence but ended up in a horrid environment with blazing heat from a double sun.  After many years on the planet, where the kids long to hear stories about the Earth they never knew.  One day, they receive word that a spaceship is on the way to take them back to Earth.  As the day that they will leave approaches, Benteen begins to remember why they left Earth in the first place.
  • The Twist: Once the astronauts land, Benteen begins to lose control over the group.  He thinks that they will form a small colony on the Earth and stay together and he will continue to lead them.  As he is slowly disabused of this notion, he starts to actively discourage the group from leaving the planet.  At the end, he refuses to be in a situation in which he is not the leader, and ends up being abandoned to his fate on the sad little planet.
  • Themes: The addictive and corrupting power of leadership.  Benteen simply cannot fathom a situation in which he is not in charge, and so dooms himself and almost everyone else to a hellish existence.
  • The Greatness: James Whitmore is a powerful actor, as anyone who saw The Shawshank Redemption can testify.  Serling has written a beaut of a role for Whitmore, very meaty even for an hourlong episode.  The result is one of the few hourlong episodes that is repeatedly watchable.

19. Living Doll

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Telly Savalas, June Foray’s voice
  • Director: Charles Beaumont/ Jerry Sohl
  • Plot: ̃Erich is married to a woman with a daughter.  He is not nice to the little girl and is angered when the mother buys the girl a doll named Talky Tina.  Talky Tina says things like “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t like you.”  When Erich acts out on the doll, Talky Tina begins to threaten Erich’s life.
  • The Twist: When Talky Tina kills Erich by causing him to trip on it and fall down the stairs, it is retrieved by the little girl.  Talky Tina then tells the girl, “My name is Talky Tina, and you’d better be nice to me.”
  • Themes: Uhhh…things dangerous to jerks are dangerous to everyone else (?)
  • The Greatness: This episode is genuinely scary.  Savalas is excellent as a man who transfers his hatred of his stepdaughter to a doll and in the process becomes incredibly sadistic.  He blow-torches, saws, and completely trashes this doll.  And yet, the doll winds up surviving all of this to make good on its threat to Erich, and eventually the rest of the family.

20. The Jeopardy Room

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Martin Landau, John van Dreelen, Robert Kelljan
  • Director: Richard Donner
  • Plot: KGB agents locate a defector in a hotel room in a neutral country.  They call the defector to inform him that somewhere in the room is a bomb and he must find it within three hours or be killed in the blast.
  • The Twist: The bomb is in the phone and will be triggered the next time the agents call the defector and he answers.  The defector realizes this and escapes when the agents make their phone call.  The agents then go to the hotel room to search and inspect.  The phone rings, one agent answers it …and the agents are killed.  On the other end is a smiling defector.
  • Themes: If you’re going to kill someone, just friggin’ kill them.
  • The Greatness: There’s nothing supernatural or otherwise odd about this episode.  It’s just a great, tense episode, well-written without an excess of dialog, at least from the defector.  Anyone who has seen the movie Payback will appreciate that the scriptwriters must have liked this TZ episode.

21. In Praise of Pip

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Jack Klugman, Billy Mumy
  • Director: Joseph M. Newman
  • Plot: A bookie receives word that his estranged son Pip is dying in Vietnam.  After failing to collect from a debtor, his bosses shoot and wound him.  The bookie wanders out to an amusement park, where he finds Pip as a boy and plays with him.  Pip then tells the bookie that he is dying and runs away.
  • The Twist: The bookie prays that his life may be exchanged for Pip’s and then dies.  Later, an adult Pip is seen walking with a cane through the amusement park, noting how much time his father spent with him.
  • Themes: This is actually about second chances when one realizes what really matters.
  • The Greatness: A strong performance yet again from Klugman, who realizes his chance to get to know Pip before either of them dies.  Also the first time that a Vietnam veteran is featured in a television program.

22. People Are Alike All Over

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Roddy McDowall, Susan Oliver, Paul Comi
  • Director: Mitchell Leisen
  • Plot: Marcusson (Comi) is an astronaut and Conrad (McDowall) is a science officer on a rocket mission to Mars.  They crash land and are stuck inside the rocket when they hear general commotion outside.  Marcusson dies from his injuries, soon before the door to the rocket opens and Conrad comes face-to-face with the Martians all by himself.
  • The Twist: Marcusson, before he dies, assured Conrad that people are alike all over.  When Conrad meets the Martians, he finds them quite human-seeming and very hospitable.  They set him up in a suburban house with every comfort…except windows and doors.  As he discovers this last fact to his horror, the front of the house opens to reveal bars and that Conrad is the subject of a zoo exhibit.
  • Themes: Best summed up in Conrad’s last line: “Marcusson!  You were right…people are alike everywhere.”
  • The Greatness: Terrific writing.  The beginning provides eerie foreshadowing, as Marcusson and Conrad are clutching a wire-link fence and looking up at the sky, speaking about how pwoplw are alike all over.  And they are indeed!

23. Long Live Walter Jameson

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Estelle Winwood
  • Director: Tony Leader
  • Plot: A college professor has an amazing familiarity with the story of a Confederate soldier.  He is also engaged to be married to the daughter of a colleague.  The colleague seems to have uncovered evidence that the professor is that Confederate soldier and has been alive for 2,000 years.
  • The Twist: Just before tying the knot with his fiance, Jameson is paid a visit by his previous wife, whom he left years ago.  She intends to stop him, and shoots him dead.  Jameson’s corpse then goes through 2,000 years’ worth of decomposition before turning to dust.
  • Themes: One’s past always comes back to haunt.
  • The Greatness: Two things: 1) This was a technically brilliant episode, especially when Jameson’s corpse very quickly decomposes, and 2) Estelle Winwood as the old wife is so freaking scary.  Her age serves to remind us just how freaky Jameson is.

24. Judgment Night

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Nehemiah Persoff
  • Director: John Brahm
  • Plot: A confused man wakes up in 1942 on the S.S. Queen Mary with no memory of how he got there and the odd feeling that something bad is going to happen at 1:15 AM.  He’s right.
  • The Twist: The man is actually a Captain of a German U-Boat who orders his crew to fire on the unarmed, civilian S.S. Queen Mary.  The Captain is doomed to relive the experience from the perspective of the passengers on the S.S. Queen Mary forever.
  • Themes: Maybe there is no justice in this world, but maybe there is justice in the after-world.
  • The Greatness: Persoff is brilliant.  The camerawork again is arranged to provide the feeling of disorientation the man feels on the ship.  And the tension prior to the reveal of the twist is brutal.

25. Stopover In a Quiet Town

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Bob Frazier, Millie Frazier
  • Director: Ron Winston
  • Plot: A young married couple wake up in a strange house after a night of drinking.  The house seems poorly-constructed, and things get even more strange when they go outside in the town.  All the while, they hear the laughter of a little girl.
  • The Twist: Attempts to leave the town are unsuccessful.  The couple gets increasingly hysterical until a large hand grabs them.  Apparently, the couple was taken by giant humanoid aliens and taken as playthings for their little daughter and her play town.
  • Themes: Man, don’t drive drunk.
  • The Greatness: The episode manages to combine humor and absolute terror for great effectiveness.

26. The Dummy

  • Writer: Rod Serling
  • Starring: Cliff Robertson
  • Director: Abner Biberman
  • Plot: An alcoholic ventriloquist attempts a comeback.  He is having a rough time at it.
  • The Twist: The ventriloquist’s dummy seems to have come alive and is actively stymieing his plans to restart his career.  An attempt to use a new dummy ends in tragedy as the dummy tricks the ventriloquist into destroying the new dummy.  A final, eerie scene shows the dummy and ventriloquist changing places.
  • Themes: isolation – being the only one able to see a threat to you.
  • The Greatness: A uniquely frightening episode.  The technical achievement of having a Cliff Robertson dummy while having a ventriloquist resemble the former dummy is amazing and makes the ending have an incredible impact.

Film Review: Denial

Denial refers to what David Irving was accused by Deborah Lipstadt of doing to the Holocaust.  That said, Denial also refers to an unorthodox legal strategy cooked up by the dream team of Anthony Julius, James Libson, and Richard Ramport with which to battle Irving.  It is this strategy that is the focus of this wonderful account of the infamous libel trial that all but stripped away the lies of Holocaust denial promulgated by the likes of bigots such as Irving.

Denial is not only an excellent film that should be seen by as many people as possible.  It is also the most necessary film in this election season, which has seen assaults on the memory and historical record like no other.  Many of these assaults are a result of the rise from the sewers of the worst antisemitism (from the right and left) in my memory.  The story of Denial is the story of a discovery of how such assaults are perpetrated and what it takes to combat them.

A bit of background: Deborah Lipstadt is a Professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.  In 1993, she wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust in which she identified David Irving as someone who twisted historical truth to fit his own bigoted assumptions.  Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in British court.  Because the suit was in Britain, the defendant Lipstadt was required to prove that her statements were true.

Lipstadt took on her counsel through various recommendations.  They are counted among the premier legal minds in Britain.  Julius and his colleagues recognized that Irving relished a chance to publicly humiliate Lipstadt and any survivors that might take the witness stand during the trial.  So, while lesser minds might have allowed Lipstadt and survivors to be harangued by Irving, Julius et al were having none if it.  Lipstadt and everyone else were to be denied to Irving throughout the trial so that the focus would be on Irving and his misdeeds.  Lipstadt had a hard time with this, but eventually saw that it was indeed a winning strategy.

The film pretty much follows the book History On Trial, written by Lipstadt.  Lipstadt herself is played by Rachel Weisz, an excellent actress in her best role since The Constant Gardener.  The British actress nails the mannerisms of a strong, intelligent, and passionate woman from Queens who is being told that her speaking out will harm her case.  She reminds me of Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger – always in pain, using jogs through a city to manage it.

(Actually, I think it relevant to say here that both Sullenberger and Lipstadt are American heroes: Sullenberger for saving every life aboard the plane he landed in a freezing Hudson river and for pushing aviation safety and Lipstadt for enduring a public trial so that the memory of millions of lives are remembered properly, as well as for maintaining the fight against their constant smears.)

The supporting cast is excellent but I want to acknowledge two standouts.  First, Tom Wilkinson as Richard Ramport QC is, no surprise, amazing at communicating to us through his body language and facial expressions the complexities of performing investigative work under such an emotional cloud.  Lipstadt mistakenly thinks he is being rude and heartless while they are working in Auschwitz.  She couldn’t have been more wrong; his heart was breaking, not only for what happened, but for his recognition that had he been there, he would have done nothing to stop it.  Wilkinson adroitly gets this across in the manner of a gruff barrister.  His character is a human being first, and that’s why he will win this case for Lipstadt.

The surprise standout is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius.  Scott played “C” in Spectre and I thought was over the top.  I now see the reason for that was the slipshod writing and not his acting.  Scott perfectly captured the intense passion that Julius felt about this case and how that led to the denial strategy that completely went against his client’s thinking.  I have read Julius’s book, Trials of the Diaspora, and know of his commitment to fighting antisemitism in British culture.  When Lipstadt accuses Julius of being insensitive to the needs of survivors to tell their story during a trial that will surely affect them, Julius overcomes his British reserve and reacts accordingly.  In a moving scene, he angrily marches Lipstadt over to a television, pops in a cassette, and makes her watch David Irving mock and humiliate another survivor.  “Is THIS what you want?  You think this will help us?”  I loved this performance.

The heart of the movie lies in the deconstruction of Irving’s arguments that the facts of history favor his interpretations and that Lipstadt and some cabal are working to discredit him as a historian.  It is really amazing to see, time after time, how Irving made minor modifications to translations from German: a singular to a plural, leaving out a critical word or two, to suit his needs.  When he argues to the judge that, hey, aren’t I allowed to make mistakes, Ramport, with the help of historian Richard Evans and his staff, was able to show that all of Irving’s “mistakes” favored the Nazis, a statistical anomaly if there ever was one.

Irving was dangerous because he knew how to play to the masses.  He loved slogans.  “No holes, no Holocaust!” played in the papers for a while and was devastating to the public perception of the case.  The holes referred to the columns drilled through the roof of the gas chamber through which the Zyklon B pellets were dropped.  Although the expert, Robert Jan van Pelt, had plans showing the columns and holes as well as simulations based on testimony from a sonderkommando, Irving was able to cast doubt based on photographs he had obtained.  Because Irving skillfully waited until the end of the day to sow this seed, he was able to get the quip into the press in time for the evening paper.

Fortunately for history and very unfortunately for Irving, the truth revealed Irving to be a liar.  His photograph was misdated (he claimed it was fresh evidence when in fact it was years old) and Ramport was able to produce further evidence that the columns existed and that the holes were exactly were where van Pelt said they were.  The evidence of course came from the Nazis themselves.  Irving had of course mistranslated everything in his own favor.

Another telling scene is toward the beginning when Julius is with the judge, Charles Gray (a dour and rather forgettable performance, perhaps due to the character rather than the acting).  Julius is about to explain that he would prefer there to be no jury, just the judge.  Judge Gray asks Julius if they have gotten Irving’s agreement.  Irving, who is seated right beside Julius, looks on quizzically.  Why on earth should he give up the chance to rant to a jury?  Because, Julius says, Irving, as he has pointed out on numerous occasions, has been a historian for 30 years.  One cannot expect a mere layman to comprehend the complexities mastered by Irving over all of those years.  Only a learned judge will be able to keep up with the case.  His ego having thus been stroked, Irving agrees enthusiastically, to his detriment.

Timothy Spall plays Irving with the pathos of someone who seeks public approval for everything he believes.  Even when he is defeated, he seeks Ramport’s approval.  (It never comes; Ramport is determined to never even look directly at Irving.)  There are hints of more: he is shown to be a doting father to a young daughter.  (A fact that horrifies the young solicitors on the team as they seek documents from Irving for discovery.  We learn later what he is teaching this girl.)  It is briefly mentioned that he lost an adult daughter.  One wonders whether this loss has had anything to do with his motivations.  Irving, as much contempt as I must have for him and I certainly have zero sympathy for the things that have happened to him as a result of the trial (bankruptcy, humiliation, inability to publish, etc.) as he has brought that on himself, I cannot overlook the fact that he is still a human being and registers hurt and that hurt must affect his actions.

I say all this because Denial is so timely.  Why on earth are people flocking to the alt-right and Trump despite the obvious lies and conspiracies that form the basis of their actions?  These lies make for effective weapons with those people for whom history has little to offer.  There is a nice little scene involving a junior member of Lipstadt’s team up at night listening to some testimony.  Her partner awakes from bed and angrily accuses her of obsessing over something of little importance.  That person is exactly why we have Trump: because to many people historical truth is inconvenient and gets in the way.

The film is not quite perfect.  It leaves out a bunch of principals, including Holocaust historian Peter Longerich, and minimizes Penguin’s involvement.  It gives the impression that Irving was all alone when he in fact had antisemitic supporters testify for him.  And it overdramatizes the old British v American way of doing things.  (You know, British stiff upper lip v. American wear it on your sleeve.  Never saw that before, said nobody ever.)  If you want more of that, see A Fish Called Wanda.

Otherwise, make sure you see this movie before the election.  It is that important.

Ten books I would take with me to a desert island

Idea came from here.  In no particular order:

  1.  Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – A classic that links the proof of one of the most shocking and bizarre math theorems to what ultimately makes us human. It took me seven months to get through it the first time but it was so worth it.
  2.  The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham – I have not read a better account of a war.   Such complete detail, the characters on both sides come to life as they fight in this fruitless and destructive war.
  3.  The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Leave it to Dick to present an alternative history and then an alternative history within the alternative history so that by the end you have no idea what is really the alternative history.  Awesome.
  4.  Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard – Some scumbags try to blackmail and intimidate a factory owner.  They picked the wrong factory owner to mess with.  Fun dialogue and plotting make this a great little read.
  5.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – There is so much fun and insight and really just phenomenal, emotional writing here.  And it is wicked hilarious.
  6.  A Course in Pure Mathematics by G. H. Hardy – I have gone through this book several times and have learned something new each time.  Clear, witty, timeless.
  7.  The Winds of War/War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk – These two actually make up a single story about the effect of WWII on a single, American family.  Victor Henry may be the most ridiculous Zelig-type character and Natalie Jastrow may be one of the dumbest women in all literature, but the story they weave is incredible in scope and the history dead nuts on.  The writing is quite good to boot.
  8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – David Foster Wallace remarked that “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”  No book I have read illustrates that principle more than this.
  9.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon –  I love good alternative histories and this one is a doozy.
  10.  Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier – It’s a book whose genesis is sad but embarks on a journey through the most arcane debates about the basic tenants of Jewish tradition.  And it does so with panache and wit and intelligence.  I’ve read through several times and got something new out of it each time.

Donald Trump Has No Balls

Did I stutter?

Donald Trump is a big, fat coward.  No balls.  None.

Why can I say this with such conviction?  Easy.  Have a look a this:

…@CyberTrump was responding to my recent tweet of an essay by Robert Kagan on the emergence of fascism in the United States…Just weeks later, I found myself staring down a social-media timeline filled with the raw hate and anti-Semitic tropes that for centuries fueled expulsion, persecution, pogroms and finally genocide…

I am not the first Jewish journalist to experience the onslaught. Julia Ioffe was served up on social media in concentration camp garb and worse after Trump supporters took umbrage with her profile of Melania Trump in GQ magazine. The would-be first lady later told an interviewer that Ms. Ioffe had provoked it. The anti-Semitic hate hurled at the conservative commentator Bethany Mandel prompted her to buy a gun…

…And still, we have heard nothing from Mr. Trump, no denunciation, no broad renouncing of racist, anti-Semitic support, no expressions of sympathy for its victims.

I’ll tell you why there has been no such statement (and even worse from his wife, the First Lady-wannabe): he can’t afford to say anything.  He cannot afford to isolate his supporters.  And, stop kidding yourselves, if you support Trump, the people who sent the anti-Semitic and racist crap to journalists who dared write anything not officially approved by the Ball-less One himself.

But that acknowledging a certain reality make one a ball-less coward?  No, not really.  I will tell you what does, though: throwing your own kids under the bus.  You see, Mr. Trump has a Jewish son-in-law, an observant one at that.  His daughter Ivanka converted.  Mr. Trump’s grandkids are Jewish.  I do not believe that Mr. Trump has an anti-Semitic bone in his body.

And that’s why he is a coward.  He knows about these stories – I imagine he is questioned many times a day about them.  The story to which I linked was in the Sunday Times and very prominent.  And he must know what these bigots are saying about his children and grandchildren!  And yet…he fears losing the bigot vote.

Now, some of you may say, well, Bernie is no better.  I mean, didn’t that Kirchick guy expose Bernie’s pusillanimity in the face of a direct anti-Semitic trope?

 …[A]nti-Semitism again reared its ugly head in the form of a questioner who confronted Sanders at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “As you know,” the man asked, “the Zionist Jews—and I don’t mean to offend anybody—they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.”

Sanders’ answer was disappointing. Rather than use the outburst as an opportunity to rebuke blatant bigotry and leave it at that, Sanders thought it necessary to express his pro-Palestinian bona fides—so, you know, no one might think he was that kind of Jew. “Talking about Zionism and Israel,” Sanders said, “I am a strong defender of Israel, but I also believe that we have got to pay attention to the needs of the Palestinian people.”

This was also cowardly in a sense and Kirchick is right to have called him out on it.  But Sanders – as much as his supporters (I was one until that incident) wish to think otherwise – is not the presumptive nominee of a major party.

But Mr. Trump is.  And he has no balls.  That bodes not well for a supposed Trump presidency.

 

What is it about Wild?

The 2014 Reese Witherspoon flick Wild came and went in the theaters without my thinking much about it.  The story of author Cheryl Strayed’s journey across the Pacific Crest trail landed on my cable package via HBO late last year.  For whatever reason, I started watching it without much in the way of expectations.  However, by the end of the movie, I just sat there mouth agape, my raw face strewn with tears, wondering just what the fuck just hit me like a falling safe.  Yes, I can get emotional, but I simply do not cry at movies.  At least up until then.

Well, perhaps this was just a one-off.  Maybe I was feeling very depressed and vulnerable at that very moment and this had nothing to do whatsoever with the movie.  So I watched again.  Same thing.  And again.  And again.  Niagara Falls every time.  I even had this happen while watching a YouTube clip of a scene at the end that really gets me, where a little boy sings “Red River Valley” and Witherspoon’s Strayed barely holds it together as the boy recites the lyrics, and then collapses in a quivering heap after the boy and his grandmother are gone.  Actually, watching that scene, I found myself in a similarly quivering heap.

What is it about this movie?  And what is it about me?  I spent some time getting to the bottom of this question.  Actually, the answer wasn’t very shocking, but it did require a lot of honesty about what had happened in my life over the past decade and a half and some discussion with the people who knew me best.  I feel that what I have learned is worth sharing here – if you feel like this is about to become a major case of TMI, then please stop reading here.  Otherwise, you have been warned.

I’ll first summarize the movie, which is based on the autobiographical book of the same name.  Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed at a time when she hit rock bottom.  Strayed, a married college student in Minnesota, was particularly close to her mother, having left an abusive father, endured poverty and deprivation and somehow came out OK.  And then her young mother (played by Laura Dern) is diagnosed with cancer, given a year to live, and lasts only about a month before meeting an undignified end in a hospital.  (Nobody notified Strayed that her mother had passed.)  Strayed reacts by completely falling apart to the point of becoming emotionally numb.  Sensing that her husband is incapable of feeling her pain, she wanders around fucking any dude with a heartbeat.  She further slides into a heroin addiction.  The cheating and drugs effectively end her marriage despite the fact that she still loves her husband.  She hits rock bottom by discovering she is pregnant and not really knowing who the husband is.  In line at a store to purchase a pregnancy test, she comes across a book about the Pacific Crest trail, becomes intrigued, and decides that she needs to hike this trail to put herself back together and be the woman that her mother raised her to be.

The story of Strayed’s 1100-mile journey across the rugged terrain of the PCT is interspersed with flashbacks from key moments of her life as thoughts she might have when trying to figure out how on earth she got here.  Strayed, although someone who had known hardship and even lived in a house with no running water or electricity, is a complete novice hiker and requires a lot of help from kind strangers along the way.  While dealing with the substantial difficulties of the hike, she eventually comes to terms with the meaning of her loss, acknowledging that she misses her mother terribly but knowing that she has a life to put together.

The story as I have described it is really nothing unique.  There are plenty of stories out there about loss and redemption.  Crap, it seems almost every Disney movie starts with a kid who lost a parent.  But Wild succeeds because of the way the story unfolds.  We get to know Strayed and really how bad she let things get – the multiple dudes at once, the heroin injections in an alley, the estrangement from her husband.  This is a person in serious pain who has refused to really face it.  The PCT becomes her mirror so she can finally come to terms with it.  The rest of course is history – she remarries and becomes a successful author.

So, what does this have to do with me?  I think I deeply identified with the movie because I saw so much of myself in Strayed.  I too lost my mother to cancer at a young age, although not as young as Strayed.  No, I didn’t react by cheating on my wife or taking drugs.  But I certainly lost my way afterward.  The movie killed me because it reminded me of how I had yet to deal with the pain of my similar loss.

I did not lead a life much like Strayed’s.  Unlike Strayed, I grew up in a stable, middle-class family in Massachusetts.  I never suffered her hardships.  Although my family was close-knit, I was eager to move away from home and once I did, I was one of those call-once-a-week kids.  I couldn’t say that I was close to my mother like Strayed was to her.  For me, the decision to move halfway across the planet from my mother for a few years was pretty easy.  (My mother was convinced that I would never return and until I met Laura, odds were that she was right.)

When my mother was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer, I was still 30 years old.  I had just moved back to within a 3-hour drive from the parents with Laura and our toddler and infant.  My life until then had progressed as I had imagined:  Ph.D., marriage, job, kids.  Good stuff.  My parents were supposed to spoil and indulge my kids.  But that was not to be.  Instead, my mother was forced to fight a horrible, losing battle for a precious few months against insane odds.  And my kids were denied their grandmother.

Unlike Strayed’s mother, my mother did not go that quickly.  Under a then-new protocol, my mother survived a shocking 22 months after her diagnosis, when not long before, most of us would have been grateful for two.  A lot of those months were good.  We were even able to go on vacation together at one point.  But the decline was inevitable, and as ugly and dehumanizing and terrifying as one might fear and sadly expect.  My father retired from his career to care for her 24/7 and shielded my brother and I from the worst, but I saw enough to know just how bad life had gotten for my mother.

The end came abruptly.  I didn’t have much time to contemplate it – I had to pack the family up in the middle of the night and make the three-hour drive east to the hospital in Boston.  When I got there, my mother lay in a bed hooked to a machine.  She had undergone multiple organ failure and blew up like a balloon with fluid.  The doctors of course could keep her going arbitrarily long on that machine, but what was the point?  Although my mother had a boatload of morphine going through her system, we could see her wincing in pain in her coma.  Unlike Strayed, we had the choice to take her off the machine and complete my mother’s life in our presence.  We took that choice.

While all this was going on, and over the next week and a half of funeral, shiva, and purging the house, my brother was a train wreck, crying all along the way.  My father had already been through the mourning process and was pretty steady.  As for me…

…nothing.  I felt cold inside.  The death and all the events that followed didn’t seem to affect me in the least emotionally (my horror at witnessing the dying process aside).  I quickly tired of having people come up to me and ask me how I was holding up – but I couldn’t get mad of course.  I actually started to worry that I had felt nothing.  I just wanted to do what we needed to do to pay proper respects and then go on my way back to my life.

Over the next several months and years, the truth would begin to emerge.  The fact is that my mother was a super-important presence in my life, even when I was as far away as one could get.  I had up until then lived my life to impress my folks, to prove to them that I could succeed on my own in my own way.  And now a lot of that motivation was gone from this earth.

Soon after I returned to work, my work performance suffered.  I got my first negative review at work, although it was explained to me that I was being judged assuming I was about to be promoted.  But still, everything for me up until then was a steady climb.  With that review, all that would end.  Basically, I stopped giving a shit.

I used to be unable to sleep if I went to bed with a problem unsolved.  I would get back up and work things through until I came up at least with what was getting in my way.  I would think about my work constantly because I loved it.  And to be honest, I loved proving to myself and to my parents that I got here my way.  With my mother’s death, for reasons buried deep within my psyche, all that went away.

Instead of trying to improve things, I took a new job that offered me my effective promotion.  But of course, one cannot escape one’s problems and I lasted 2 1/2 years in that position before getting a bad enough review to be shown the door.  From there, I decided that a change in career was necessary because I no longer had the desire to do what I had been doing for the past 10 years.  I went into patent law after thinking that would be a different enough field to get my juices flowing again, but that turned out to not be the case either.  Within 8 months of joining my firm, I was being told that I was about to be let go.

Meanwhile, things at home weren’t going all that well either.  Laura had been putting up with a husband who had grown forgetful and got almost nothing done in the house.  I had also stopped watching our finances at a time when they needed to be watched very carefully, as I took a huge pay cut to start over in patent law and Laura had stopped working.  We ended up in a huge amount of debt with unpaid bills and the house falling apart due to my neglect.  And I was about to lose my job because I just couldn’t get myself to give a shit.

The reality of my situation had caught up with me and I suffered what I now see as a nervous breakdown.  I called an employee help line and got an emergency referral to a counselor and a psychiatrist.  We got to work on the long and sometimes tortuous journey back out of the hole I had dug for myself and my family.  My goal, although then I could not articulate it well, was to learn who I really was and what I needed for motivation.

9 years later, I am still on that journey, although I will say that I am a lot better.  I did not end up losing my job at the firm; they gave me a second chance and I used it well.  Over time, I would go on to another, smaller firm and would steadily improve and learn my strengths and weaknesses better than I could have imagined.  Steady counseling and a loving family have helped me through the dark periods which occasionally come back to haunt me.  But I would say that I now have a healthy respect for what has happened and why it happened.

Seeing Wild brought all of this truth from deep inside my gut.  Here was a person who lost their mother, too, and depended on her in a strange way like me.  She also just stopped giving a shit and hit rock bottom.  I saw in her emotional journey back everything that I had gone through too.  As I watched this film, I could feel all of the pain I had experienced for the past 15 years come rushing out, because Strayed’s pain felt like my pain.  And then, when that little boy (whose mother had died or left) sang “Red River Valley” – a touching song about loss and sadness – the tears just ran.  It was no surprise to watch Witherspoon just collapse in that quivering heap under her backpack, loud tears streaming as she declares how much she misses her Mom.  And I get it now.

So there you have it: I cried at a movie and I therefore had to write a novella analyzing it.  That said, Wild is a good movie with a very solid performance by Witherspoon.   It just hit me hard because of my own history and because Witherspoon does a great job portraying this person.  But I hope to never see another movie like it.

 

Bond Rankings, an explanation

I have previously published a ranking of EON Bonds, from 1-23.  I wish to explain.  I base the rankings on the quality of the typical elements of any Bond movie:

  • Bond himself
  • Plot
  • Villain, including henchmen
  • Bond girl(s), i.e., whom Bond beds**
  • Allies, non-recurring roles
  • Gadgets, cars, too
  • Usual suspects: e.g., M, Q, Moneypenney
  • Picture: locales, cinematography, editing, direction

**Yes, I know this is incredibly sexist.  Two retorts: 1) If you’re that worried about sexism, stop watching Bond movies and 2) I make judgements about how Bond looks, too.  OK?

Without further ado, in order of ranking:

1. From Russia With Love

  • Bond himself: Pretty much what Fleming envisioned.  Competent, patriotic, but also lets his weakness for women lead him astray.  Connery owns the role.
  • Plot: Takes the books already excellent plot and improves it using SPECTRE.  Never insults the audience.
  • Villain: Lotte Lenya is just fantastic.  Never underestimate the power of a loathsome woman.  Robert Shaw is just great as the powerful, psychotic Red Grant.
  • Bond girl: Daniela Bianchi is gorgeous and puts on a competent Russian accent.  She plays the part perfectly.
  • Allies: Does it get any better than Karim Bey?  The dude is a total stud.  Sadly, in real life, the actor playing him, Pedro Armendáriz, was dying of cancer during filming and ultimately took his life when he was finished.
  • Gadgets: The briefcase with the tear gas cartridge, knife, and gold sovereigns.  Relatively low-tech and exactly what Bond needs.
  • Usual suspects: M is usual gruff.  Kind of funny scene where Bond embarrasses him in front of his staff.  Q is introduced.  Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny is still young and pretty so the flirting with Bond is quite believable.
  • Picture: Gorgeous scenes of Turkey and the Orient Express round out a thoroughly amazing picture.

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

  • Bond himself: Lazenby could have been a good Bond over time.  Here, he’s unfortunately flat but not as horrible as many have alleged.  He at least looks like he belongs on the screen with his fellow actors, and he is quite tough.
  • Plot: Awesome and more or less follows the book.  The whole lair in the mountains is of course silly, but the bio-terrorism plot is realistic enough to be frightening.
  • Villain: Telly Savalas is the best Blofeld, even if he should have shed his American accent.  Else Steppat as Irma Bunt is scary good.  (Sadly, she passed away before the movie premiered.)
  • Bond girl: Diana Rigg as Contessa Teresa is simply the best.  Not just beautiful and tough, but portrays a degree of vulnerability that is rare in these movies.  But also very tough – she actually kills a henchman in man-to-man combat.  The book details her tragic backstory – Rigg makes it clear that there is tragedy in her life without needing it to be explicit.  The Angels of Death are good fun too, especially Ruby Bartlett.
  • Allies: Gabriele Ferzetti plays Draco, Teresa’s father, pretty much as described the book – that is, very likable.  Admittedly, the character is a little ridiculous – The Honorable Criminal.  Only into racketeering, no drugs or something like that.  The absurdity is captured perfectly at the end, at the wedding, where M and Draco are discussing  a previous confrontation some years before.  Does that ever happen?  George Baker is ho-hum as Sir Hilary Bray…until his voice dubs over Lazenby’s when Bond is “disguised” as Bray.
  • Gadgets: One of several models of automatic safe-crackers you will see throughout the Bond series.  This one, used in the lawyer’s office in Bern, was so reliable that Bond could sit and ogle the Playboy centerfold while it worked.
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee is at his best here as M.  Q doesn’t have much to do.  Moneypenny plays a small but critical role.
  • Picture: Peter Hunt only directed this Bond, but he should have directed more.  Previously, he was editor and his skill shows.  The action sequences are among the best in the series, and this is because the editing is done to help rather than hinder the viewer.  The scenery in the Alps and in Zurich is gorgeous.  And of course, the final tragic scene in which Tracy is gunned down is done exquisitely well – Lazenby succeeds wildly there.

3. Casino Royale

  • Bond himself: a revelation as Craig is worthy of comparison with Connery.  Ridiculously cut.  I think many men with spouses/girlfriends wished Bond could be played by, say, Kevin James instead.
  • Plot: a really nifty update on the book’s plot.  I wasn’t crazy about replacing Baccarat with Texas Hold ’em, but then again I do not have to market a $150M film to young audiences.
  • Villain: Le Chieffre is a bit of an odd duck.  He’s insanely vulnerable but somehow is able to stay one step ahead of Bond for much of the picture.  Mr. White is mysterious as he is meant to be.
  • Bond girl: Eva Green is not the prettiest or the toughest.  But she is real and smart and tragic and one of the best.  Easy to see why Bond falls in love.  I would have done the same.
  • Allies: Giancarlo Giannini plays Mathis with gusto – he is a lot of fun.  Felix Lighter, played by Jeffrey Wright, is as good as I can remember.
  • Gadgets: The medical kit in Bond’s car and…that’s about it.
  • Usual suspects: No Q or Moneypenny.  M is a bit awkward, as it is the same, wonderful Judi Dench but as a different M to fit the situation.
  • Picture: Gorgeous.  Montenegro and the town in which the casino resides is postcard-worthy.  The construction-zone sequence at the beginning is amongst the best action sequences of any Bond.

4. Goldfinger

  • Bond himself: Connery is a bit more relaxed here.  Also a bit less lean.  Never mind – he owns Bond more than ever here.
  • Plot: an improvement over the book in many aspects (including an explicit rebuke to the major plot hole of the book).  Less known is the disappearance of the vicious anti-Korean racism that the book unfortunately displays, as well as the uncomfortable nod to the casual anti-Semitism of the day.
  • Villain: One of the best.  By looks, Goldfinger, played by Gert Frobe, looks like a fat nobody, but we are over time disabused of that notion.  Harold Sakata as Oddjob is a series icon.
  • Bond girl: I never much liked Honor Blackman in the role of Pussy Galore.  (Though I admire her for how she reportedly took pleasure in embarrassing journalists with her character’s name.)  The picture also commits one of the worst crimes of all – making what looks like Galore’s rape by Bond to be a good thing.  Ick.  (Also, you gotta love Denk’s slap on the ass followed by “man talk.”  I’ll bet Connery enjoyed that.)  Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson is unforgettably beautiful and and tragic – her death, of course, is iconic.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter is useless.  More useful is the guy who stops the bomb’s clock ticking with 7 seconds to go.
  • Gadgets: The Aston Martin DB5, of course.  Also, the magnetic homing device used to track both Goldfinger and Bond himself.  (Bond’s went in the heel of his shoe.)  While these gadgets were really cool, I think the enormous success of this movie led later to a dependence on gadgets which was really not a part of Fleming’s novels.
  • Usual suspects: M is a delight with the black-tie dinner with Bond and The Banker.  Q has his iconic scene (“I never joke about my work, 007.”)  Moneypenny is meh.
  • Picture: terrific of course, but the set design by Ken Adam in Fort Knox is masterful and among the best in the series.  However, the “laser” is really cheesy, I don’t care that the movie is from the 1960’s.  The dialogue is endlessly quotable.

5. Thunderball

  • Bond himself: Still on top of his game, although Connery’s attitude toward women is at best questionable with yet another sexual assault by today’s standards.
  • Plot: A great one that follows a great plot in the novel pretty closely.  (Fleming was not solely responsible for this one.  The consequences of this on the series were tremendous.)  The plot is simple to follow yet completely engaging.
  • Villain: Adolfo Celi is fantastic as Emilio Largo.  He could have outwitted Bond, but you just can’t find good help these days.  However, a revelation is Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe: beautiful and completely evil.  I mean, do you really believe Bond when he says he bed her “for king and country”?  Riiiight.
  • Bond girl: Paluzzi wanted the part of Domino and was beautiful enough to get it.  But then the producers chose Claudine Auger, by far the most gorgeous woman in any Bond movie.  Her character is a bit of a needy girl (which is how she wound up ion her mess), but ultimately performs an act of bravery for which she suffers.  She also performs the coup de grace on the bad guy.  Top 3 or 4 easy.  And then there’s Molly Peters as Nurse Fearing whom Bond assaults (at first…), who is also as lovely as any Bond girl.  This movie is a standout with beautiful women.
  • Allies: Rik van Nutter is an improvement as Felix Lighter.  Martine Beswick – previously of the catfight scene in From Russia with Love – is nothing special as the tragic Paula Caplan.
  • Gadgets: The jet pack!  That one was real and really worked – why haven’t we seen more of them?  Also, the convenient, pocket-sized four-minutes of air as well as the geiger-counter-in-a-camera that gets Domino in trouble.
  • Usual suspects: M has his moments (scolding Bond in front of his fellow agents).  Q and Moneypenny are ho-hum.  Felix and crew are quite good here.
  • Picture: Bahamian scenery is stunning.  Editing a bit choppy, especially at the end.  Lots of underwater sequences that are gorgeous but hard to follow.

6. Dr. No

  • Bond himself: Iconic.  Connery, with “Bond. <pause> James Bond.” defines the role forever.
  • Plot: A bit hard to connect with.  Toppling rockets? Who really cares?  Adding atomic power I guess makes the whole thing seem modern for 1962, but I prefer the book’s obsession with guano.
  • Villain: Dr. No is sufficiently menacing, even if he is played by the decidedly non-Asian Joseph Wiseman.  (I guess Dr. No is half-German in the film.)  Unfortunately, Dr. No’s henchmen are incompetent.
  • Bond girl: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder would be unmemorable is she weren’t the first.  Seriously.  She is dubbed over by Nikki van der Zyl, a rabbi’s daughter who would dub over many voices in the early days of the Bond series.  Eunice Gayson plays the aggressive love interest Sylvia Trench (and is also dubbed by van der Zyl).
  • Allies: Jack Lord plays the best Felix Lighter until Jeffrey Wright.  John Kitzmiller plays the tragic Quarrel unforgettably.
  • Gadgets: Nothing special.  There was the scene at the beginning where Bond is forced to trade in his Beretta for the iconic Walther PPK.  That was actually in the book and made more sense there because Dr. No was the sixth novel and Bond by then really had been injured in From Russia With Love previously.  One of the many instances in which the movies being completely out of order with respect to the novels causes confusion.
  • Usual suspects: M and Moneypenny are introduced.
  • Picture: A small budget ensures that corners were cut.  Jamaica looks gritty, and Dr. No’s lair is a bit cheesy.

7. Skyfall

  • Bond himself: It’s Craig, so it’s good, but much disbelief has to be suspended.  First he’s shot and falls like 100 meters off a moving train into a river.  Then, playing dead, he lives a life of leisure and drink on some island, but still looks like the cover of Men’s Health.  Still, the journey back to where he needs to be is well done.  And his response to homoerotic intimidation is classic.
  • Plot: Kind of wild, and really good.  Lots of twists and turns that keeps you on your toes.
  • Villain: Javier Bardem is an excellent actor, but he plays it weird.  As Silva, he is very menacing but could have been better.
  • Bond girl: Berenice Marlohe as Severine is forgettable, and just sad.  I wonder if we can include Naomie Harris as Moneypenny here, whose role is quite meaty and good.
  • Allies: Albert Finney just kills it as Kincaid the gamekeeper.
  • Gadgets: “A gun and a radio…not exactly Christmas, is it?”  The gun is a palm print-enabled PPK –  a much more compact model than that used in Licence to Kill.  The radio is…a little transmitter.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench is marvelous as one would expect, especially as her role is prominent.  Ben Whishaw is introduced memorably as Q.
  • Picture: gorgeous.  Shanghai looks unforgettable, as do Macau and the forgotten island in the South China Sea. The new MI6 HQ are also quite good.

8. The Spy Who Loved Me

  • Bond himself: As good as Roger Moore gets.  Still campy, but quite deadly serious and convincing, if still over reliant on the gadgets.
  • Plot: first of two Destroy the World stories.  Still, as pure escapism it works.  And really, what if someone got a hold of sub nuclear launch codes?  Scary.
  • Villain: Curd Jurgens plays Karl Stromberg with the evil-meter turned up to 11.  He is quite menacing, even if his existence is patently ridiculous.  And of course, everyone knows Richard Kiel as Jaws.
  • Bond girl: Barbara Bach could have flopped – her Russian accent just doesn’t work, and her acting chops are not the best.  Yet…she is a pleasure to watch as the agent XXX who must work besides Bond, even though Bond had killed her lover in the opening sequence (in self-defense of course).  She manages to be sexy, smart, and tough when need be.  Good show despite the odds.
  • Allies: I like the submarine captain: “What, you’ve never seen a major take a shower before?”
  • Gadgets: The submergible Lotus that can take out a helicopter from under the sea.
  • Usual suspects: Meh
  • Picture: Really well-done.  The opening sequence, ending with the Union Jack parachute, is unforgettable.  Sardinia makes for a lovely set piece.  And the submarines and ships that serve as the settings for many of the scenes are quite realistic.

9. You Only Live Twice

  • Bond himself: Well, this is where Connery starts to get a bit flabby and is clearly not happy about being Bond yet again.  He still owns the role, but the exhaustion is there.  It was said that he and Broccoli (the producer) were no longer talking during filming.  Yikes.
  • Plot: The good news is that the crappy and depressing end to the SPECTRE trilogy in the books has been changed.  The bad news is that the screenplay written by Fleming’s friend Roald Dahl is not a huge improvement.  Why is England even needed here?
  • Villain: Blofeld makes his maiden (explicit) appearance, and Donald Pleasance looks great in the role.  Unfortunately, not menacing enough.  Karin Dor as SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt is better  – the right mix of sexy and mean.
  • Bond girl: Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki is beautiful and beguiling at first (though she of course falls for Bond’s charms).  I imagine having Japanese leads at the time was seen as a bit exotic, but I think Hama, as well as Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki make their characters accessible and enjoyable.
  • Allies: Dikko Henderson is played by Charles Gray and is quite different than the drunk Aussie from the book.  His portrayal here, which is fine, makes his later portrayal of Blofeld patently ridiculous.  Tesoro Tamba plays Tiger Tanaka with edge – he makes every scene he’s in that much better.
  • Gadgets: Little Nellie, which was a real thing actually flown by its creator.
  • Usual suspects: Poor Q just seems extra irritated.  I love M’s line” “Well, now that you’re dead…”  Moneypenny is a little fetching in her naval gear.
  • Picture: the Japanese settings are beautiful as anyone who’s been to Japan would expect.  The volcano lair at the end, though, is the definition of excess and makes the movie a little more ridiculous than intended.

10. GoldenEye

  • Bond himself: Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as Bond, and not bad.  He’s trying to find that happy medium between Connery and Moore, and away from the over seriousness of Dalton.  This is his best performance.
  • Plot: Fascinating, as should be expected in the first post-Cold War Bond.  Some cruel people are using Soviet weapons technology stolen from people they have killed in cold blood in what is essentially a mega-robbery.  Good stuff.
  • Villain: The main baddie is Sean Bean who is  serviceable but really not noteworthy in the grand scheme of things.  Actually, this movie belongs to Famke Janssen as Xenia Onotopp, perhaps one of the most unforgettable characters in the entire Bond lore.  Six feet tall and stunning, she is as big and strong as any man.  She kills mainly by crushing men between her powerful thighs during coitus.  Oh, and she orgasms as she kills.  Seriously, does this movie need anything else?
  • Bond girl: Izabella Scorupco is OK as Natalya Simonova, a programmer who is the sole survivor of a massacre committed by Onotopp.  One thing I became aware of is how hard it looks for someone who speaks Polish to put on a Russian accent.
  • Allies: Joe Don Baker is terrific as the CIA Guy Not Named Felix.  Robbie Coltrane is also a hoot as Zukovsky – at one point, telling one of his singers to get lost.  That singer was played by pre-fame Minnie Driver.
  • Gadgets: The exploding pen that gets derided in Skyfall.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench debuts memorably as M and calls Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur,” a charge that will never go away.  Desmond Llewellyn continues on as Q, but one wonders what the retirement age is in England.  The aptly-named Samantha Bond plays Moneypenny.
  • Picture: the movie opens with an insane bungee jump that is accomplished in a long shot.  There are a lot of nice scenes, including a tank chase through Moscow traffic.

11. The Living Daylights

  • Bond himself: This is the debut of Timothy Dalton, who is a great Shakespearian actor but had a hard time connecting with audiences.  He seems sullen as Bond, but I understand what Dalton was trying to do: play the character that Fleming wrote.  Daniel Craig would prove him right many years later.
  • Plot: a bit meandering, involving defections, Afghanistan, and illegal guns, but it begins to make sense around the 12th viewing.
  • Villain: Jeroen Krabbe as Kostkov is a fun villain to watch, especially because you’re not sure what to make of him at first.  Joe Don Baker plays Brad Whittaker, an arms dealer, well enough but not with enough panache to stick with you.
  • Bond girl: A great deal was made about Maryam D’Abo and how her relationship with Bond reflected the 1980’s.  Whatever – she still falls for Bond and he still beds her.  She is very pretty but she tends toward the helpless shrieker when all is said and done.
  • Allies: Thomas Wheatley is a bore as the unfortunate Saunders.  John Rhys-Davies on the other hand is fantastic as Pushkin.   Then of course Kamran Shah is played by a dude named Art Malik, which is not insulting at all.
  • Gadgets: The exploding wolf whistle used to pacify the sadistic Russian jail guard.  (And while we’re at it, how stupid was that guy to contribute whistles himself – was it not obvious that the whistles were going to lead to bad things for him?)  Also, the Aston Martin that has a “few optional extras installed.”
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown plays M – he never stood out to me.  Neither did Caroline Bliss at Moneypenny.  Desmond Llewellyn is still Q.
  • Picture: The smuggling of Kostkov through the gas pipeline is awesome.  The scene in the Russian Afghan jail is a lot of fun: “James, we’re free!”  “Kara, we’re in a Russian airbase int he middle of Afghanistan.”

12. SPECTRE

  • Bond himself: Daniel Craig, who seems to be tiring of the role.
  • Plot: Sigh.  It involves a conspiracy to remove actual human spies and horde intelligence so that evil people can spy on everyone and wreak havoc.  Problem is the actual evil being done feels remote from the actual on-screen action.  A better effort would have had an unsuccessful attempt to stop a terrorist attack by the baddies, but as the movie is already 148 minutes, too bad.
  • Villain: Christoph Waltz as Blofeld!  He makes do with a weird backstory involving Bond being his little brother when in fact Blofeld as portrayed in the Fleming novels is not anything remotely like that.  Waltz is thus forced to play things too intimate when Blofeld, as played by the likes of Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas, was cold and brutal.  But he does it well because…Christoph Waltz!  Dave Bautista plays a very very brutal henchman very very well.
  • Bond girl: Lea Seydoux is the best thing about this installment.  She is stunningly gorgeous and tough and seductive and delivers her lines with panache.  She’s up there with Diana Rigg and Eva Green.  Yes, that good.  Monica Belucci was advertised as the oldest Bond girl ever; her appearance was thankfully brief.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter is briefly mentioned but never seen.  How about Mr. White?  He has now made appearances in three of the last four Bonds and has been uniformly good.  This one is his best: sick, dying, crazed, and betrayed by his organization.  His scene is very good.
  • Gadgets: Exploding watch and a car that doesn’t quite work.
  • Usual suspects: M is badass!  Q and Moneypenny get more substantial roles than traditionally given, and it’s a good thing.
  • Picture: A mixed bag.  The initial action sequence in Mexico City is tops, one of the best.  The action scenes generally are all top-notch.  But the story as a whole is weakened by the ridiculous need to tie all of Craig’s Bonds together.  It makes zero sense and adds nothing to the story.  (OK, the end where all of the villians and girls are used to supposedly hurt Bond somehow, but in the end it really doesn’t matter.)  Take that away, make the evil plot more concrete, and you would have a top-notch Bond.  Alas.

13. Quantum of Solace

  • Bond himself: Daniel Craig.  Nothing else needs to be said.
  • Plot: A bona fide sequel, which is unusual.  The main thrust involving the hijacking of precious resources of a poor country through political manipulations seems relevant but ended up being kind of blah.  I like how the movie tied up the whole Vesper Lynd affair though.
  • Villain: Mathieu Almaric plays Dominic Greene, a self-identified environmentalist who plans to make a killing off the backs of the world’s poor.  Almaric is a good actor, but I think his character is weak and forgettable.
  • Bond girl: Olga Kurylenko plays Camille Montes.  Sure, and maybe I’ll screen test as an African warlord someday.  Couldn’t they have found, you know, a pretty Latina actress for this role?  Gemma  Arterton plays Strawberry Fields and gets covered in oil for her troubles.
  • Allies: Jeffrey Wright is still wonderful as Felix Lighter.  Giancarlo Giannini is back as Mathis, whose fate is quite morally disturbing.
  • Gadgets: Nothing much here, although I will nominate the can of oil at the end that Bond gives to Greene after abandoning him in the desert.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench plays an M who both loves Bond as a son but wants to see the back of him.  Still no Q or Moneypenny.
  • Picture: one of the most difficult to watch.  The editor of this movie should really find another vocation.  Choppy in the extreme, the action sequences are impossible to follow.  Half the time, I wanted to throw up or have a seizure.

14. Live and Let Die

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore’s debut, and it must have been a shock.  OK, maybe not, as Connery went the way of camp in the previous movie.  Moore plays it suave to the hilt, and that worked with audiences.  I have the feeling though that Fleming was turning over in his grave.
  • Plot:  It was an act of bravery – or stupidity, depending on your perspective – to adapt the borderline racist material from the book. (At times, even well over the border.)   The movie simplifies the utterly bizarre scheme in the book and makes the crime heroin smuggling.  But still, it ends up being a blaxploitation flick starring Roger Moore.  Somehow, nobody complained much.
  • Villain: The inimitable Yaphet Kotto plays Kananga/Mr. Big.  You are supposed to be shocked that they are the same person, but nobody making the film seemed to be that interested in this crucial point.  Julius Harris as Tee-Hee is very enjoyable.
  • Bond girl: Jane Seymour plays Solitaire quite well. Like Domino in Thunderball, Solitaire is a powerful-seeming woman who is actually a girl in a very troublesome situation beyond her control.  Seymour is an excellent actress as would be proven over the years and is generally a quality Bond girl, if not the most memorable.  Gloria Hendry is awful as Rosie Carver – likely because the role is awful, not the actress.  (That said, nice to see Bond bed an AfrAm character, still gutsy in 1973.)
  • Allies: Felix is here, and pretty run-of-the-mill.  Roy Stewart plays Quarrel Jr because Quarrel was killed off in Dr. No.
  • Gadgets: The magnet that unzips dresses of Italian agents.
  • Usual suspects: M and Moneypenny are fun here.  Q’s absence is welcome, as Moore for once needs fewer gadgets.
  • Picture: the boat chase in the bayou is really the centerpiece of the film and worth the price of admission, even if it involves the execrable Sheriff JW Pepper.

15. For Your Eyes Only

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore plays it with a little less camp here and thus puts on one of his better performances.
  • Plot: It’s kind of a mixture taken from several Fleming short stories and involves the usual Macguffin.  Really, it’s about figuring out who the friends and enemies are.  Mildly interesting.
  • Villain: Julian Glover (who once was considered as Bond) as Kristatos is someone you want to punch in the nose, so Glover is quite good.  The other bad guys (Locque, Hector Gonzales, Erich Kriegler) are menacing.
  • Bond girl: Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock seems exotically Greek but in reality is sort of plain.  Cassandra Harris, the exotic-looking model, brought along hubby Pierce Brosnan to the set to meet Albert Broccoli – the rest is history.  I will not count Lynn-Holly Johnson as Bibi as that would just be criminal.
  • Allies: Topol is fantastic as Columbo.
  • Gadgets: That Identigraph used to identify Locque by matching Bond’s description with faces in a database.  It’s hilarious nay todays’ standards, but you do have to admire the fact that the writers totally anticipated what we can do today 30+ years later.
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee had passed away from cancer before filming began, so out of respect were was no M.  Q, Moneypenny as usual.  Yawn.
  • Picture: the scene where Bond and Melina are dragged, tied together, underwater is taken from the novel Live and Let Die.  The rock-climbing sequence at the end is stunning.

16. Octopussy

  • Bond himself: at 56, Roger Moore still has it, whatever “it” is at this point.
  • Plot: Actually one of the better ones of the series.  It is a bit complicated, involving jewelry smuggling and nuclear disarmament.  But ultimately it’s deadly serious and a bit scary.
  • Villain: Louis Jordan as Kamal Khan is evil and has this luxurious snob accent from Snobistan.  He’s a lot of fun.  Kabul Bedi as Gobinda aka The Angry Sikh is simultaneously hilarious and menacing – quite the feat.  Steven Berkoff is terrific as the crazy General Orlov; unfortunately, he would play Hitler the exact same way a few years later in War and Remembrance.
  • Bond girl: Why why why why was Maud Adams ever brought back?  Yes, she’s a pretty Swedish model who, at the age of 70, is still pretty.  But egad, what an awful actress.  She’s OK when sitting or saying unremarkable lines, but when asked to express emotion and she comes across as a robot.  Too bad, because the role of octopus is very meaningful within the Bond canon (she’s the daughter of a major that Bond had to arrest and ultimately committed suicide – a throwaway line that’s actually taken from a Fleming short story).  There were better actresses for that role.
  • Allies: Vijay, played by an Indian tennis star, is a fun but gruesomely tragic character.
  • Gadgets: The pen with acid that springs Bond from captivity and the little radio Bond plants in the fake Faberge egg.
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown as M is not my favorite.  Lois Maxwell is the same age as Roger Moore but sadly age is not as kind to her, so thus we have Penelope Smallbone as something pretty to look at in Universal Exports.  Q tires of Bond’s “adolescent antics.”  The audience is not far behind.
  • Picture: Really, who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to insert Tarzan yells in a deadly serious chase?  Nobody knows whether they want camp or a serious Bond, so the story suffers.  Meanwhile, the Indian locale is stunning, and the climax at the circus in West Germany is thrilling.  Too bad that the editing staff had no idea what to do with the movie – it could have been Moore’s best.

17. Moonraker

  • Bond himself: This is the epitome of Moore as Bond: suave, campy, hardly breaking a sweat.
  • Plot: The movie keeps a few elements from the excellent book, but the rest involves the space shuttle and, well, extinction of the human race while the chosen few wait it out in space.  It gets as absurd as it sounds.
  • Villain: Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax is quite good.  I’ll bet Lonsdale knows that Drax is over the top and Lonsdale plays him with the requisite humor and good spirit.  Jaws comes back – apparently, he was needed when Bond killed Drax’s other henchman.  “Oh, if you can get HIM!”  Like megalomaniacs have a 1-800-GET-A-HENCH hotline or something.
  • Bond girl: I really never saw the attraction with Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (sigh).  Apparently, she was some sought-after model and agreed to be in the movie eventually.   She’s supposed to be a smart and clever female agent.  Instead,she’s a lousy actress and not all that memorable in any case.  Better was Corinne Clery as the tragic Corinne Dufour.  Too bad.
  • Allies: Emily Bolton plays Manuela, who I guess should be a Bond girl.  Anyway, the look of sheer terror on her face as Jaws starts to sink his teeth into her (but is foiled) makes an impact.
  • Gadgets: The wrist-enabled dart gun used to get Bond out of the centripetal accelerator (and, let’s face it, one of the most ridiculous scenes in any Bond – why on earth would Bond go into such a contraption while investigating the owner?).  Also, where did Bond get that tool used to stab the anaconda?
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee’s last outing – in retrospect, he seems weakened as M.  For once, he is actually protecting Bond from his tormentors in the government.  Moneypenny and Q return as usual.
  • Picture: Laser fight in space!  Yes, really.  EON felt that they needed to latch onto the success of Star Wars,  Good God.  Despite the utter silliness of these scenes, there are some good ones.  Draw throwing juicy steaks in front of his dobermans, who then only eat them on his command.  Draw complaining that Bond refuses the plan for him “an amusing death,” which has a sort of fourth-wall humor about it.  “And how does one kill four hours in Rio?”  How?  How?  Oh how I wonder!

18. The World Is Not Enough

  • Bond himself: Brosnan’s third outing, and we have pretty much gotten used to him by now.  Better than Moore, but not Connery, nobody looks better in a tux.
  • Plot: Several bumpy twists and turns, the plot concerns oil pipelines in the Caucusus, and the heiress to the empire whose oil flows in those pipelines.  This heiress had been kidnapped and has Daddy and M issues because they did not pay the ransom.
  • Villain: Robert Carlyle as Renard is OK, but his character is patently ridiculous.  (“He will grow stronger every day until he dies.”  What?!?)  I think ultimately the whole point was to use his lack of feeling (and, it is more than hinted, his inability to sexually perform) to make him angry and dangerous.  At the end, he is just another thug that get this in the end.  Much better is Sophie Marceau, his victim/lover and manipulator.  Her character is refreshingly complex and is a great user of men.
  • Bond girl: Denise Richards Oh My God.  So pretty, so shapely as Dr. Christmas Jones the nuclear physicist.  Read that again.  No, I am not gob-smacked at a woman – pretty or otherwise – being a physicist.  I am gob-smacked at Denise Richards and her awfulness as an actress.  Sophie Marceau is quite a lot better.
  • Allies: Robbie Coltrane is back as Zukovsky, to the movie’s credit.  Coltrane is great at balancing the cynical humor and deadly seriousness the role needs.
  • Gadgets: The airbag-like avalanche shelter.  The exploding glasses in the Swiss banker’s office.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench has a lot to do because the movie revolves around some questionable choices M makes.  Desmond Llewellyn as Q introduces John Cleese as R and retires in a sad sequence.  Samantha Bond returns as Moneypenny and is actually not bad.
  • Picture: the beginning is very promising with the longest opening sequence, very action-filled.  Another great sequence involves an attack filled with helicopter saws (!!) and a pool of caviar.  (Robbie Coltrane returns as Zukovsky and is a joy as usual.)

19. Licence to Kill

  • Bond himself: Timothy Dalton’s second and last outing.  He is like the Debbie Downer of Bonds.
  • Plot: Bond for whatever reason has involved himself with the DEA through Felix Lighter (and what on earth does the CIA have to do with the DEA?!?)  Felix suffers a ghastly fate when he is betrayed (a fate he suffers in Live and Let Die the novel), and Bond decides to throw away his double-o status so he can avenge his friend.  The most gruesome Bond, but also the most boring.
  • Villain: Robert Davi plays the uber-drug dealer Sanchez, and he is actually quite good in the role.  He has numerous henchmen, but this is Davi’s flick.  That said, kudos to Benicia del Toro for playing a really frightening henchman.
  • Bond girl: Catfight!  There are two: Talisa Soto as Lupa, who is actually Sanchez’s girlfriend who has attached herself to Bond (and whom Bond uses with glee).  Then Carey Lowell (she of the Law and Order ADA) as the comely Pam Bouvier.  You hope Bond ends up with Bouvier, which he does (barely).  (Not a racial thing – Lupa is really unlikeable.)
  • Allies: The various DEA agents are meant to be good guys but just come off as jerks.  Maybe this is how it should be.
  • Gadgets: the first palm print gun, but this does little but give Bond away to the people hunting him.
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown as M revokes Bond’s double-o status, but worries about him.  Q has a large role to play as he too goes rogue to supply Bond with all the toys he needs.  Moneypenny simply frets about Bond.
  • Picture: This film features a lot of gruesome killings, none more so than the death of Milton Krest at Sanchez’s hand, by quickly depressurizing a pressurized chamber.  (Yechhh…)  Wayne Newton provides a nice little break for humor.  But really, death, killings, violence…a bit much for a Bond movie.

20. Diamonds Are Forever

  • Bond himself: Connery, back after the producers literally begged him to come back.  He has reduced the role to camp here and looks like he has aged 20 years.  Just awful, a real shame.
  • Plot: An interesting deviation from Fleming’s novel, this is a diamond-smuggling scheme involving a Howard-Hughes-like character and, ultimately, Blofeld.  The diamonds here are used for far more nefarious purposes, like changing the balance of military power in the world.
  • Villain: Charles Gray as Blofeld.  Really, they couldn’t have found someone that was bald?  Good Lord, what were they thinking?!?
  • Bond girl: Jill St John as Tiffany Case is another very pretty but in the end pretty flat.  She is introduced as a tough but when put to the test just sits and screams her head off.  More interesting is Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole who sadly doesn’t get enough screen time.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter has a meaty role here.
  • Gadgets: The fake fingerprints used to pass Bond off as Peter Franks.
  • Usual suspects: M is per usual.  Moneypenny has an interesting turn at passport control.  Q also has a nice array of gadgets, especially one for playing slots in Vegas.  Why not just stay there and retire?
  • Picture: Bond on a moon machine?!?  Whatever, the scenes in Vegas are well done, helped mainly by the local authorities who arranged for empty streets.  The scenes in Amsterdam are also nicely done.

21. Tomorrow Never Dies

  • Bond himself: Brosnan in his sophomore outing is really campy, using an array of double-and triple-entendres to establish his virility.  “Oh James, you are a cunning linguist!”  Groan.
  • Plot: A swipe at the likes of Roger Murdoch involves a media mega-mogul who actually plans to fool Britain and China into a war in order to monopolize its coverage.  Should be fascinating, but really handled poorly.
  • Villain: Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver is just weak.  He’s over-the-top evil, but seems laughable as Bond just keeps hacking away at him.  Goetz Otto plays his henchman Stamper, who is big and menacing.  The best, however, is Vincent Schiavelli (aka Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as the moronic Dr Kaufman.
  • Bond girl: Michelle Yeoh plays Wai Lin and is extraordinary: desirable yet tough and every bit Bond’s equal.  Teri Hatcher plays Mrs. Carver who is unfortunately Bond’s ex-lover.  That does not go well for her.  Nor the audience, as Hatcher is awful.
  • Allies: Joe Don Baker is back as Bond’s non-Lighter CIA contact.
  • Gadgets: The car controllable by Bond’s cell phone – it led to a very cool chase in which Bond drives his car hunkered down in his back seat.
  • Usual suspects: Dench is meh as M, but Llewellyn is entertaining as Q posing as a rental car agent.
  • Picture: Some real brutality here, such as Stemper machine-gunning unarmed British sailors.  The mobile-phone remote control of the car is nifty and portends future innovations.

22. A View To A Kill

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore’s last outing, one too many as Moore is now 58 and looks every bit of it. No way he should have taken this role.
  • Plot: Cause a major earthquake in Silicon Valley, thus making the bad guy’s chips that much more valuable.  Unfortunately, even in the 1980’s chips were mainly made throughout the US so that scheme would be doomed to fail.
  • Villain: Christopher Walken as Max Zorin is sadly awful.  He plays an ex-KGB German freak experiment who is a psychotic genius as…every Christopher Walken character.  Sigh.  Grace Jones plays his henchman/girlfriend, which at this point why not, it can’t get any worse.
  • Bond girl: Tanya Roberts is ghastly.  I mean, she’s nice to look at, but she offers absolutely nothing as Stacy Sutton.  “James…SAVE ME!”  Good God.
  • Allies:  Patrick Macnee plays Sir Godfrey perfectly.  I mean, how would you react if you has a “sir” in your title but yet was a put-upon driver for a lowlife named “St John”? David Yip is OK as a CIA agent.
  • Gadgets: Whatever they needed to keep Roger Moore upright.
  • Usual suspects: Lois Maxwell’s last turn – 24 years with the company and they just dump her like an empty beer can.  Methinks her good friend Roger Moore kept her there.  Robert Brown continues his forgettable turn as M and Desmond llewellyn is still Q.
  • Picture: There is a scene in which Zorin machine-guns dozens of people – his own people – for what reason we have no idea.  It just seems gratuitous and cruel to the audience.  Dolph Lundgren has a cameo as a KGB agent – the backstory is that he was dating Grace Jones and was hanging around the set and was offered the part when the main actor got sick or didn’t show.  That’s about as interesting as it gets here.

23. Die Another Day

  • Bond himself: Brosnan’s last outing, and it may as well be that way.  To be fair, Pierce tries very hard, but he can’t save this movie.  Not much can.
  • Plot: A couple of N Korean baddies are using DNA alterations to hide among the westerners so they can wreak havoc on the 38th parallel.  Havoc is indeed wreaked.
  • Villain: Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves, the altered N Koran Col Moon, is over-the-top but is played with good humor.  Rick Yune as Zao seems like he should be really menacing, especially with those diamonds embedded in his face, but is actually pretty boring in the end.
  • Bond girl: Halle Berry should be awesome as Jinx, but ends up being nothing special.  She is actually lousy and a huge disappointment.  Rosamund Pike is beautiful but annoying as the turncoat Miranda Frost.  The catfight between these two has almost no zing.
  • Allies: Michael Madsen is awful as the CIA boss.
  • Gadgets: That invisible car.
  • Usual suspects: Dench as M is pretty harsh on Bond, considering he was held prisoner for 2 years in N Korea.  John Cleese never really pulls off his R successor to Q very well.
  • Picture: Invisible cars?  Ice castles?  Yeah, all done with CGI, ugh.  A major sign that the Bond franchise had poisoned itself.

24. The Man With the Golden Gun

  • Bond himself: Moore in his sophomore outing later stated that he was ashamed of some of the sequences he filmed for this movie.  Yikes.
  • Plot: Something to do with the energy crisis and some Macguffin called the Solex.  An assassin named Scaramanga who seems to have targeted Bond has gotten his hands on the Solex and…well, there’s a duel, I guess.
  • Villain: Christopher Lee is one of the film’s few bright points as Scaramanga.  Herve Villechaize is his henchman Nick-Nack.  Never should have happened.
  • Bond girl: Britt Ekland is awful.  Maud Adams is a little better, but not much.
  • Allies: JW Pepper?  Really?
  • Gadgets: An extra nipple.  Yes, you read that right.
  • Usual suspects: M, Q, Moneypenny don’t manage to make this any better.
  • Picture: a series of insults to the audience.  I mean, why is JW Pepper in this movie unless the writers are clutching at straws?  The end – after Scaramanga has been disposed of – devolves into borderline racism.  (Look at the way the dark-skinned guards leer at Goodnight.)  I could go on, but it’s kind of depressing.