COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Apocalypse Now?

I write this before the election, but I believe that if the extremist party Mitt Romney represents takes office, we are in for a boatload of horrors. Far from the pragmatic Republican Party of earlier decades, which often worked with the Democrats to craft foreign and domestic policy for the good of the country, this one is composed of ideologues, given to continuous war abroad and privatization of nearly all public services at home. They set out, in the words of their chief propagandist, Rush Limbaugh, to “make Barack Obama fail,” hardly a patriotic agenda in time of national economic meltdown. This crisis had been engineered by 1920s style deregulated markets, reestablished in a cooperative effort of both parties.

But now Republicans refused to participate in stabilizing a plummeting stock market by helping to reinstate even the most basic regulation of banking.

During the largely prosperous second half of the twentieth century, the Glass Steagall Act, which kept commercial banks from engaging in speculative market investments on the order of brokerage houses, prevented the US from sliding into the boom/bust cycles which began in the early 1800’s and culminated in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Glass Steagall passed during FDR’s presidency with bipartisan support. But the Obama administration’s much less rigorous Dodd-Frank bill passed without a single Republican vote. To Romney and Ryan, it is a stifling encumbrance on business investment. They want, as do the Wall Street money barons who fill their campaign coffers, to return to the complete deregulation of markets and derivatives that triggered the wild subprime loan speculation which caused the 2008 crash.

But return to unregulated markets is only a part of the extremist Republican agenda. The billionaires who fund the Romney campaign share a mania for privatization. Following anti-tax ideologue, Grover Norquist, they would privatize Social Security, placing earned senior retirements in an unstable, deregulated stock market, and they would also privatize Medicare, opening the door to more costly and restrictive treatments. Present insurance company “managed care” is the most expensive and inefficient in the world, largely because it is run for profits reaped by insurance executives. Privatization of Medicare, the one element of medical service delivery that is partially publicly funded and regulated, would produce huge new profits for insurance companies, but higher costs and reduced availability of care for seniors. Today’s Republicans, who cater to America’s wealthiest while claiming to stand for all families, also aim to repeal Obamacare, which they have convinced many naïve citizens will cost them more, when in fact it delivers care to over thirty million Americans who previously could not afford our high priced private insurance with its many exclusions.

But the worst aspect of Republican extremism is its massive militarism. Here Republicans violate their own supposedly small government principles. Romney repeats endlessly in debates, ads and speeches the neocon mantra that it is a very dangerous world and we must have even more than the present half to three quarters of a trillion dollar “defense” allotments per year to counter our “enemies,” among whom, for the first time since the Cold War ended, he numbers Russia. He continuously mouths the neocon line that the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon is a grave threat to peace. Why? Pakistan, which harbors more terrorists than Iran, got them, and we did not bomb them. In fact, we retained them as an ally, even though they gave nuclear secrets to the familial rogue dictatorship, North Korea, which they now use to threaten our ally, South Korea. During the Cold War, deterrence worked between the Soviet Union and the United States. And it is so far working between arch rivals India and Pakistan. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, surely a deterrent to Iran. Yet Romney endorses Israeli leader Netanyahu’s intent to preemptively bomb Iran. Iran borders Russia and partners economically with Russia, China, Venezuela and Brazil. An Israeli/American attack on it would cause a major regional war, raising oil prices out of sight and triggering another recession. Such a war could set the great powers in conflict in what could escalate to a third world war. Should Obama be reelected, all these things would be less likely, but you can bet the Republicans would devote their full energies to “making him fail again.”


Movies & Musings

Argo (Oct. 12)

Ben Affleck continues his successful directing career with Argo, a ripped-from-the-headlines account of the Iran hostage crisis with a Hollywood twist. In 1979, after Iranian militants storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 52 Americans hostage, six diplomats manage to evade capture and hide in the Canadian Embassy. CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) gets the call to create an operation to remove the six Americans from Iran. Mendez has the reputation of never leaving anyone behind, but this is his biggest challenge yet – lives are at stake in the midst of a revolutionary hostile country. To this end, Mendez concocts a plan to pose as a film producer scouting locations for a film to be shot in Tehran. The six are to be smuggled out as part of the film crew.

Like a film producer, Mendez has to sell the idea to a roomful of skeptical State Department officials. Devoid of options, Mendez’s “best bad idea” wins out. Mendez goes all the way with the idea, enlisting Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup pro John Chambers (John Goodman) to form a fake production company for a fake scifi film Argo. Tension ratchets once the team lands in Iran and a game of cat and mouse ensues with Iranian intelligence. With the net closing on them, Mendez is given 72 hours by his superiors to get the hostages out.

Seven Psychopaths (Oct. 12)

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh made a splash with his debut feature film, the violent dark comedy In Bruge, about a pair of hitmen hiding out in Belgium. He returns with the Quentin Tarantino-esque Seven Psychopaths. Colin Farell stars as Marty, a blocked screenwriter who drinks too much while trying to write a screenplay titled Seven Psychopaths. Marty’s best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) an actor with too much time on his hands comes to the rescue with the inane idea to put out an ad for psychopaths. They get one response – Zachariah (Tom Waits) a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Soon, Marty is pulled into another of Billy’s schemes which he and his odd friend Hans (Christopher Walken) have dreamed up – dognapping. After kidnapping a dog, they wait for a reward to be posted, then show up with the dog. Things go awry when they steal a Shih Tzu that belongs to dog-loving psychopathic mobster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who sends his goons out to retrieve his Shih Tzu and inflict serious bodily harm on the culprits. Plot is basically an excuse for McDonagh to spin his delicious, threatening but funny dialogue and violent fantasy sequences that play out in the minds of the not-all-there characters. Gabourey Sideibe and Harry Dean Stanton make appearances.

Sinister (Oct. 12)

Director Scott Derrickson had a surprise hit with 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Now he returns with Sinister, a wellreviewed horror film. Ethan Hawke stars as true crime writer Ellison Oswald, who’s career has nosedived since his first hit book ten years previous. Looking for a hit, Oswald learns of a shocking family murder in a small town. Determined to solve the mystery, Oswald, who’s previously moved his family close to murder sites for his research, goes even further and buys the murdered family’s house and moves his family in without telling them. While his wife and two kids adjust to the new surroundings, Ellison finds a box in the attic containing 8mm films. One night he projects them for himself and discovers the home movies depict gruesome murders of families taken by the killer. As Ellison investigates, he learns that the families were connected in some way and that a white-faced figure can be glimpsed in all the films, leaving a distinctive mark on the scene. After consulting an occult specialist (Vincent D’Onofrio), he learns that the mark is that of the demon Bagul, an “eater of children,” and that his investigation has put his entire family in jeopardy.

Flight (Nov. 2)

In director Robert Zemecki’s first live action film since Cast Away (2000) Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whittaker, veteran airline pilot. Nothing phases Whip in the air. Even as a routine flight from Houston to Tulsa turns deadly when a mechanical failure puts the plane in an uncontrollable position, Whip manages to crash land the plane, losing only eight passengers out of a 102. Whip survives. Recovering in the hospital Whip bonds over cigarettes with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict. But while lauded as a hero for saving the plane in an impossible postion, Whip hides a deadly secret: he is a substance abuser and was drunk when flying the plane. When the NTSB crash investigation ensues, the stakes are high as his friend Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), the head of the pilots’ union, informs him. Responsibility for the crash and the 8 deaths will cause the airline and pilots’ union to try to prove manufacturer error — “The plane fell apart at 30,000 feet,” Whip says – while the manufacturer will try to prove pilot error. Enter Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a slick criminal negligence lawyer retained for Whip who informs him that the toxicology report on him when brought to the hospital indicated he was drunk and stoned on cocaine – federal offenses that could put him behind bars for life. Is Whip a hero for saving the plane or a villain for flying impaired? Whip turns to Nicole to help him fight his substance abuse while under tremendous pressure, which usually drives him to drink. Washington could very well pick up an Oscar nomination for this role.