Monday, May 28, 2018

VICTORIA & ABDUL (2017): An Unusual Friendship

Having visited the country, India remains for me perhaps the most fascinating nation in the world.  The people speak more languages and dialects than anyplace else.  It is also the home to the most religions.  Yet somehow the nation still holds together.  As a republic, it began in 1947.  As a people, India goes back thousands of years.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, India had to submit to a rule of a much smaller nation.  In terms of population, India is twenty times larger than England.  A large portion of that rule came under the reign of Queen Victoria (Judy Dench).  This is the backdrop of the film Victoria & Abdul, a 111-minute film directed by Stephen Frears. 

Unable to travel to India due to a fatwa placed upon her by an Indian Muslim, Victoria nevertheless was curious about the nation for which is empress.  To the surprise of her entire staff, she hires as her servant Abdul (Ali Fazal).  Abdul is an unusual choice.  Against orders and expectations, he looks the Queen in the eye and kisses her feet in public.  Though outraging Victoria’s staff, the young man makes an impression upon her.  She asks him to teach her Urdu.  Later, upon learning he is a Muslim, she appoints him as her "munshi," or teacher.

That Victoria lavishes attention upon Abdul particularly outrages her oldest son, Albert or Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales and eventually King Edward VII upon Victoria’s death.  Bertie tries to find anything he can use against Abdul to bring him out of favor with the queen.  Mostly, Bertie only succeeds in alienating himself from his mother.  Unfortunately, Bertie has time on his side to get his revenge.  

With Victoria’s health increasingly failing, she tells her favorite servant, Abdul, that it is best that he, his wife and his wife’s mother go back to India.  She is well aware of the dangers he will face without her there to protect him.  Abdul chooses to stay.  His best friend, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who came to England with Abdul is physically unable to cope with England’s cold climate – so very different from that in India.  As Mohammed refuses to provide Bertie with any information he can use against Abdul, Bertie chooses to keep Mohammed in the country to die away from his homeland.
When Victoria does die, Bertie tries to destroy all documents and belongings that would show Abdul ever had any connection with the fallen queen.  Abdul, his wife and her mother then return to India to live out their lives.

Though sometimes sad, Victoria & Abdul, overall makes for pleasurable if mostly light viewing.  There is humor dispersed throughout the movie, and the two leads generally work well together.  It is an example of good storytelling as the story seldom bogs down.

But like most movies of its kind, its attention is more upon English royalty than upon the nation England subjects.  Steven Frears also directed The Queen that concerned our current Queen Elizabeth and the remainder of the royal family following the death of Princess Diana.  The topic of royalty seems to obsess him.  And judging by a recent royal wedding, it is a subject of fascination for a great deal of other individuals as well.  Royalty obsesses us.

I also question whether the film isn’t historical revisionism.  How accurate is such a portrayal of the queen when such a story only came to light a century later.  While watching the film, we view Bertie and the household staff and their prejudices in disdain while not really understanding that India was under England’s thumb for a long period of time.  This includes the entire Victorian age.  Despite whatever favoritism Abdul may have actually found with Queen Victoria, he nevertheless remains a servant to her.  I fear that such a historic lesson is lost upon many of the viewers as well as the film director.

Having said this, Victoria & Abdul remains remains a powerful character study and a worthwhile film to watch.  Perhaps Queen Victoria, nearing the end of her life, was tired of the hypocrisy and understood there was no reason not to form a warm and wonderful relationship with her odd and eccentric friend.  Judy Dench plays the role powerfully and with singularity.  We would hope that all of us would care as little for public opinion under the same circumstances as the character of Victoria does in this film.  She represents the best of humanity while her royal staff, full of their own self-regard, remains the absolute worst

May 28, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Monday, April 30, 2018

THE POST (2017): Story of the Pentagon Papers

The Post, like most of Steven Spielberg’s films, is relatively safe viewing.  Spielberg seldom takes chances.  Often he tells his stories with the considerable benefit of hindsight.  He does the same thing with The Post.  Yet Spielberg demonstrates again in The Post that he is a good storyteller, and that he is capable of creating an intelligent if somewhat predictable film.

The film is about the release of the report prepared by the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), in 1967.  Originally, it was the New York Times that got its hands upon the report in 1971.  It came into the hands of the Times through Daniel Ellsberg ((Matthew Rhys), who incidentally also worked on the McNamara report, and turned over to reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain).  The gist of the report was that four presidents including Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson misled the American people about a great many things concerning the Vietnam War.

The Nixon administration fought the Times in court to prevent publishing of the report.  But while a court order prevented the Times from going forward and printing the report, Ellsberg then turned the report over to reporters at the Washington Post.  The Nixon administration once again tried to prevent the Post from printing the report, and this time the court case went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Post could print it.

This film concentrates mainly upon the decision of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of the Post (and the first woman publisher of any major U.S. newspaper), to print excerpts of the report to begin with.  Having taken over the Post from her deceased husband (who had committed suicide), Kay had no experience in newspaper publishing before that time.   Now she was up against the Nixon administration who, her friend McNamara assures her, is utterly ruthless and will do everything in its power to destroy the Post.  That she listens to Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who is the executive editor of the Post, shows that she is willing to do the right thing at the possible sacrifice of an important friendship.  Bradlee would ultimately be the one to oversee the publishing of the McNamara report.

The Post is relatively short (115 minutes) and moves well for a film without a lot of action.  It is basically a character study.  And Meryl Streep is good in the lead role playing an awkward and unsure woman who now needs to make an important and courageous publishing decision.  She does just that.  Tom Hanks is less satisfactory as Bradlee because he’s playing that same role we’ve seen Hanks play before.  He’s almost too good to be true.  While there are a number of other famous names playing roles in the movie, these essentially are the only two who matter.  Most notably Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame plays one of the board members, Arthur Parsons, at the Post who from beginning to end opposes anything that Kay Graham ultimately supports in regard to the newspaper.

The problem with The Post is we already know the story too well.  We already know what Nixon said on the tapes regarding the publishing of the report.  And we know that Nixon is an easy villain to portray in a film.  In fact, I don’t believe any Hollywood movie ever portrayed Nixon sympathetically.  It wouldn’t go over with the type of audience member that sees these sorts of films. 
Anyway, there is never a great deal of subtlety in any Spielberg film.  We have the good guys and the villains, and we know who they are from beginning until end.

April 30, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Saturday, March 31, 2018


I first joined Facebook a little less than three years ago.  Probably I don’t go on to visit there more than once per week.  The only reason I joined to begin with was because it was a requirement of the job I hold.  What I enjoy the most about Facebook is keeping connected with certain people.  Sometimes, people share nice photos, and occasionally someone shares a good joke.

The political discussion is probably its least attractive feature.  Mostly I ignore such discussions going.  While it’s hardly a place to change anyone’s mind about politics to begin with, that doesn’t seem to matter to certain individuals who want to make certain their political opinion is known.  Often people share a single link that somehow will convince us of the rightness of their opinions.  And occasionally someone offers a thoughtful opinion.  Probably the truest statement I have seen on Facebook pertaining to politics says something to the effect: “I’ve changed my mind on politics because of something someone said on Facebook says no one ever.”

Still, no one should take no offense simply because someone offers a differing political opinion.  That is, we should take no more offense than if some proud parent shares photos of the same child over and over proving their child is the most adorable in the world.

Mining personal data for marketing purposes

I’ve created marketing messages on Facebook, and I have some idea about the use of data to target specific audiences.  I understand the concerns of certain interests regarding keeping such information private.  Since most Facebook users had an understanding that there would be no sharing of personal data, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should be testifying before Congress.  But could Facebook really throw an election to Donald Trump or Barack Obama for that matter?  We have more significant problems than just social media if that is the case.

While the outcome of the election was a surprise to practically everyone, mining of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica on behalf of Donald Trump arguably was not all that effective.  Donald Trump received less popular votes than did his Democratic opponent.  What more likely won the election was new voters showing up at the polls to cast their votes for Trump.  Besides these voters usually sitting presidential elections out, these voters were far less likely to go onto Facebook than were those supporting Hillary Clinton.  These were voters from largely rural areas or manufacturing sectors.  Many were blue-collar workers with a high school degree at most.  That nobody paid attention to these individuals outside of the Trump camp was a major miscalculation.

The press and the 2016 election

Surprisingly few media outlets have mentioned how badly they bungled in the reporting of the 2016 election.  There are large numbers of conservative commentators who never imagined Trump would win who may be bigger critics of Trump than members of more liberal media outlooks.  But the press overall brought an incredible amount of attention to a candidate who no one gave a chance in 2014 or 2015.  And since they still cannot figure out how they could have been so badly wrong, they continue to be ineffective in critiquing the President of the United States.

Not too long ago the press played an extremely important role in ending the Vietnam War.  About the same time, they also brought down a president who just won an election in a landslide.  Partly this was because the reporters involved were real reporters rather than entertainers.  Also, because there were fewer media outlets, there wasn’t the fear of having to release a story before the facts were in because a rival might release the story first.

But that doesn’t excuse the ignorance of many reporters.  For example, there is a great willingness of many reporters to quote statistics without understanding what they quote may not be reliable.  Conservatives have used statistics in making claims that Planned Parenthood is primarily an abortion provider.  Liberals have used statistics in claiming infant mortality is higher in the U.S. than all other developed countries.  In both instances, statistics used were likely unreliable or required greater analysis.

Fake news and the role of the media

As a lawyer, I need to continually take continuing legal education classes to keep my license intact.  Recently, one such course concerned the 1st Amendment and free speech.  It featured amazingly qualified speakers, and the conclusion of the speakers overall was optimistic.  One was a state supreme court judge who mostly could not state her opinion because of cases that would come in front of her.  The others included an ACLU lawyer and a prominent member of the media – both who were much more forthright.

The media member stated members of the press make mistakes in reporting, but their reporting should never become the focus of the story.  He used the example of Ferguson, Missouri.  While some blamed the media for the rioting that occurred there, he stated the community was ripe for such rioting before any reporting occurred.  But without media attention to the mistrust of people in the community and law enforcement officers, no improvement of relations would ever happen.

The ACLU lawyer noted something more peculiar.  She said that we have a U.S. Supreme Court often called divided.  Yet she said that conservative and liberal justices alike are in very close agreement regarding the need for free speech, and in the handling of free speech issues.  That gives me hope that if the best and the brightest can sit down together and agree on something that important, the rest of us can agree on a few things to.

Donald Trump coined the phrase “fake news.”  I guess we would call fake news a sensational and false story that gets a lot of media attention.  Trump, of course, can be incredibly disingenuous when he touts any favorable news while calling anything negative “fake news” because it doesn’t fit his agenda.

Yet with the level of polarization going on in this country, just about everyone listens to what fits their agenda.  It’s not the first time we’ve had this level of polarization.  The elections of 1800 (Jefferson was in-league with the devil according to Adams’ supporters) and 1884 (the Democratic party was labeled the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion”) were every bit as contentious as the one in 2016.  We just have not had this level of contention for a very long time.

There is, of course, a remedy to fake news.  It’s called accurate reporting and intelligent analysis of the issues.  Also, intelligent people need to have an intelligent conversation with others with whom they may disagree.  If instead people go to Facebook first to reaffirm their political beliefs, people will continue listening to their own side and not have an intelligent discussion with anyone else. 

March 31, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018