Brooklyn

Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.

BrooklynThe film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.

Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.

Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.

At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.

The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.

But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.

With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.

This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.

It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).

The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.

As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.

Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.

To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”

Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.

Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.

Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.

Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.

Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.

Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.

As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.

Your candidate can’t/won’t save you

Facebook and politics is a bad match. Like bourbon and ice cream. To open Facebook is to risk political assault. Most of my friends are people I’ve known my whole life, and aside from an educated guess, I couldn’t tell you the political affiliations of most to save my life. That is, until Facebook came along.

Folks who are so kind and gracious in person devolve into raving maniacs on Facebook, when it comes to posting diatribes against Obama, Trump, Clinton or Sanders. Lately, it’s gotten so bad that I’ve about come to the point where I want to cut the cord on Facebook and be done with it. If it wasn’t for totally losing track with people I never see otherwise, I’d do it.

Thankfully, some smart programmer came up with the unfollow button, which brings instant relief when the screaming becomes too shrill to bear.

It seems that people are more frustrated, more disgusted, more hateful and more insistent than ever before. And as this happens, those who engage in this sort of virtual screaming are more convinced than ever before that THIS is the election that will either set us back on the right course or tighten the death spiral.

What’s puzzling is that my Christian friends engage in this behavior, which reminds me of the Israelites circa I Samuel 8 who were convinced that a mighty, politically savvy king was the answer to all their problems.

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows that this was a bad idea. This reliance on political solutions to their problems was evidence of an inner, spiritual rot that was taking place. They were turning their back on the same God that had delivered them from Egypt and promised to always look out for their best interests.

But the world is a seductive place. It always has been.

And just as the Israelites learned the hard way that political might doesn’t make ultimate right, so too should Christians understand that the winner of the next election might do many things, but delivering us from evil ain’t one of them.

Should we engage in politics, if God is ultimately in control? Of course. But we shouldn’t become mini-jihadists on Facebook and elsewhere, trying to beat those who disagree with us into submission. Even if we know we are right. Especially if we know we are right. We need look no further than Jesus himself to see the model for persuading our friends with love and patience and grace. If the God of the universe chose not to wrestle us into a chokehold and make us cry uncle, who are we to do this?

So hey Christians, why don’t we use Facebook for what it was made for – voyeurism and memes.

The genius of NFL Films

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago to promote the practice of content marketing. With the Super Bowl coming up, it seemed kind of timely to re-print it here.

NFL Game of the WeekAs I was watching football this weekend, I got to thinking about how we talk about football on Mondays at work.

Football is a game of tactical maneuvers, defensive adjustments, explosive violence and, at times, great beauty. And when we gather with our co-workers on Monday mornings, we weave facts and statistics into a narrative of what happened in a way that can be quite moving.

Think about it. We put no conscious effort into fabricating a complex story made up of dozens of men, complex play calling, yards gained and lost, passes completed versus passes attempted, and we do it in a compelling way that gets the blood boiling 24 hours after the fact. And yet, we often fail to move our readers when we apply the same storytelling skills to the copy we write for our customers.

I won’t get into why that’s so except to follow the breadcrumb trail of thoughts that led me back through the years to my boyhood and the genesis of the storytelling tropes that enliven discussions of professional football and served as the template for sports networks like ESPN.

I’m talking about NFL Films.

I grew up in Louisville in the 70’s with a lot of boys my age. We were into football, basketball and baseball and each had its own well-defined season. While each sport had great announcers who added drama and gravitas to the games they called, there was nothing in the world like NFL Films, which existed solely to promote the brand of the NFL, but inspired me and my friends to imitate, in mock slow-motion, improbable runs, catches and passes made by our heroes. It was propaganda 101, but we didn’t care. It was glorious.

NFL Films and the cult of football

The genius of NFL FilmsNFL films was founded by Ed Sabol, who, according to Wikipedia, was a dad who liked to film his son Steve’s football games and discovered he had a knack for it. In 1962, Sabol won the bidding rights to shoot the championship game and impressed Pete Rozelle, the young league commissioner who revolutionized the game with many innovations.

The NFL bought Sabol’s company and left him in charge to film every game and produce highlight reels for each team. What evolved was an operatic style that featured Wagnerian music, stentorian narrations and lots-and-lots of slow-motion photography that inspired generations of wannabe all-stars. Looking at the clips on YouTube now, I’m filled with a mixture of elation and mild embarrassment at how serious every facet of the game was taken.

If you’re in your thirties or forties and grew up on NFL Films, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I still get teary-eyed when I watch Willie Brown’s pick-six of Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI.

How they did it

So, what does NFL Films do so well? Why is their stuff some of the best, if not THE best, content marketing ever produced? Let’s take a look.

  • Relevant. For me and my friends, who loved the game and had the stats of our favorite players committed to memory, the NFL was one of the biggest things in our lives for half the year.
  • Regular. For about six months out of the year, me and my friends were glued to the TV every weekend, waiting for new highlights. Today, the NFL is a year-round endeavor, bigger than ever, with 24 hour sports networks clamoring for content.
  • High Quality. Ed Sabol, followed by his son Steve, set a standard for quality in sports cinematography, especially where slow-motion was concerned. It could be argued that NFL Films made the NFL what it is today.
  • Helpful. For young boys interested in learning the game, NFL Films was useful in not only teaching the basics of how to play the game, but also for teaching the culture of the game. NFL Films indoctrinated millions of people into the cult of professional football.
  • Engaging. With its mix of music, slow-motion photography and stirring narration from voices like voice-of-god John Facenda, NFL Films set the gold standard for engagement in sports broadcasting.
  • CallTo-Action. NFL Films never failed to leave me wanting more. The call-to-action is to watch the NFL, to root for the NFL and even to live the NFL…and for initiated, me and my friends were happy to oblige.

Some may shrug their shoulders and say, “People don’t get worked up about companies or brands the way they do about football.” Really? What about Apple? What about Chevy vs. Ford? What about Nike?

People care about products just as much as football fans do about their favorite teams…when they’re given something worth cheering about.

How about you? What do your customers say about you on Monday mornings?

So much gratitude

My heart is filled with such gratitude this evening.

For starters, I just got off the phone with my oldest daughter, who’s a sophomore at Asbury University. She wanted to bounce an idea for a school project off me. It’s a documentary that involves some sensitive family history, and she wanted to know if I thought the family members involved would be down with participating in the project.

The conversation was priceless to me for many reasons. First, it was great just to talk to her and hear her voice and know by the sound of it that she was happy. Also, it made me feel so good that she called me to consult on a project in her life – a storytelling project, no less! As a parent, you go through those teen years where your kids like to pretend they’re orphans and avoid answering the least little question about how they’re feeling about anything. When they come out the other side and start to relate to you on an adult level and respect your insights into the minutiae of their daily lives…well, that’s special. Finally, I’ll say that the call was special because of the intimacy it afforded – to have this project to talk about while really practicing love with one another. As father and daughter. As human and human. As storyteller and storyteller.

She told me about the one project, then told me about three others. Her class watched the documentary Helvetica today in class. We’ve attempted to watch it together a few times, but have never made it all the way through together. I saw it years ago, and now that she’s seen it, we were able to talk about stuff like Vignelli and his signage for the New York subway system and geeky stuff like that that we both love and can use to bond over.

She also emailed me a couple of design projects she did for class. One was an exercise in using a grid system to layout a page (yet another reference to Vignelli!), where she was only allowed to use the Helvetica font and some preset text. She had three different pages with completely different looks with the same text. I thought it was great.

The last project was a poster describing herself that everyone had to do. Hadley’s was very simply laid out, with skyscrapers representing her love of New York, augmented with some simple text gathered from a personality profile she’d taken that interpreted her personality. I loved it, too.

I’m such a doting father, I know, but I can’t help it. Everyone should have a daughter like this kid.

Finally, it was time to let her go so she could get to her work and I could get to mine. I hate saying goodbye, but we both have miles to go before we sleep and all that crap.

If that weren’t enough, a good friend came over to drink a few beers and swap stories. Angell cooked a fine dinner of Mediterranean food, and we ate our fill and drank around the first fire of the season in our den.

We both have very busy lives, so getting together like this is no small task. The visits are infrequent, and we simply talk about where we are and go from there, free from the pressures of posing or fear of judgment. We can let it all hang out and let the words that have been swirling around inside our heads get out into the ether and breathe a little and maybe mix with the words of the other.

Good conversation is hard to come by and often longed for. Tonight, I’m grateful for having had my fill.

Yes, indeed. So much to be grateful for.

A new home

Last Sunday, January 31, marked Sojourn East’s first Sunday in our new, permanent home.

For years, we’ve met in an old Catholic parish just a 7 minute walk from my house, and though I’ll miss the convenience, it’s great to finally have a place to call home.

Equipped with my iPhone, I captured a few moments of our first service at the former Calvin Presbyterian Church on Rudy Lane. Forgive the quality….

A new challenge

The year is 1/12 over, and so far, I’ve kept my challenge of blogging something…anything…every day. 31 days, 31 blog posts. For the blog posts, the focus has been on quantity, not necessarily quality. As with any workout regimen, the first challenge is just doing it, so the blogging challenge is all about re-creating the discipline of creating, of making things every day.

Now that I’ve gotten that habit established, it’s time to think about quality.

The blogging will continue for at least the next 11 months, but I want to add another wrinkle to this challenge. To set the stage, I need to digress.

Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers. Back when he died in 2004 at the agonizingly young age of 53, I was getting up at 5:00 on workday mornings to go to Heine Brothers Coffee to write for 60-90 minutes before going to work. I’d even sneak off to write on weekends and holidays when my family would allow it.

On November 26 of that year, I rode over to Heine Brothers and got a coffee and the Arts section of The New York Times like I did each morning to shake out the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. When I sat down and opened the Arts section, what greeted me was the news of Brown’s death. When one of your heroes dies, it’s a tough blow to absorb.

I tell that story because it meant that the bucket of interviews, written and/or videotaped, would never increase. What was was all there ever would be. As the years have gone by, I’ve periodically searched YouTube to see if any new Larry Brown footage has surfaced, but each time I look, I find the same videos.

Larry Brown has been on my mind for a few days, and today I did that YouTube search and watched a few of those treasured videos and listened to Brown’s wisdom on persevering in the face of reason and adversity. It helps.

In a nutshell, his story goes something like this:

Larry Brown was born on July 9, 1951, in Oxford, Mississippi, about as famous a writer’s town as any in the country. But he wasn’t born into a literary family. Rather, Brown’s family seems like a bunch conjured up in a Faulkner novel. His father was a hard-drinking sharecropper. His mother was a shopkeeper and postmaster.

Brown managed to graduate high school in 1969 and serve a hitch in the Marines before coming home to a string of dead-end jobs. In the early ‘70’s, Brown joined the Oxford Fire Department, where he worked for 16 years.

When he turned 30, Brown decided to teach himself how to write. He was an avid reader, but when he made that fateful choice, his tastes ran to Stephen King and trashy page-turners. He carved out a quiet place in his house, and between there and his off hours at the fire house, Larry Brown taught himself to write by trial and error.

In one of those YouTube videos, Brown says that to have read a story from those first few years, one would have no choice but to come to the conclusion that there was no talent there. He admits, without a hint of irony or a self-deprecating wink, that the stories were awful. But he also says that something deep inside him knew that if he had the guts to put in the time and face the pain of repeated refection and failure, eventually it would all click and he’d understand how to write good stories.

And so it was that 8 years after embarking on a journey to become a writer that Larry Brown was “discovered” by Algonquin Books. Even so, he didn’t trust the success and didn’t quit his fireman’s gig until he had a few books under his belt.

Larry Brown is my patron saint of writing. Cormac McCarthy my write prettier sentences, and Ken Kesey may have had more soul, but Brown speaks to the scared little boy, the underdog from PRP and the under-practiced amateur in me. Brown presents himself as the encouraging big brother – “Hey, if I can do it, so can you, man. You just have to put in the hours and bleed.” That guy. My guy.

And so it is that I come back to Larry Brown once again to find encouragement after having stepped away from the pain a spell. This time, I want to stay for good, so I’m setting goals and shooting my mouth off about it, an old motivational trick I’ve always used to paint myself into a corner that requires action or embarrassment for having not followed through on my boast.

Today is February 1, a nice round number, and my goal is to write at least one short story each month for the remainder of the year. I don’t know if I’ll post them. We’ll see about that. If any are good enough, I’ll submit them around and write about what happens with that process. If any of them suck, I’ll just bury them in a folder on my MacBook and be satisfied with having hit my number for that month.

Wish me luck.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.

Cartel Land

A buddy of mine likes to tell me that drug use is a victimless crime. For people who think like this, I give you Cartel Land,  an Academy Award nominated documentary that give us an up-close view of the impact of the drug trade by examining two groups of citizens trying to do something about it. It’s an amazingly intimate portrait that gives us a seldom seen perspective.

Cartel LandCartel Land attempts to make sense of the complexity of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States by focusing on two vigilante leaders – one on the Mexican side and the other on the American side of the border. By going micro, director and camera man Matthew Heineman is able to make real the abstract nature of the tragedy and absurdity of the so-called War on Drugs.

On the American side of the border, in Arizona’s Altar Valley, we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American vet around fifty years old who has organized a small vigilante force dedicated to patrolling the border and stopping the movements of the Mexican drug cartels. It’s dangerous work, and Foley has skin like leather and clear blue eyes reminiscent of the mythological American Cowboy.

On the Mexican side, more than a thousand miles from the border in the state of Michoacán, we meet Dr. José Mireles, a physician from a rural community overrun by a cartel known as the Knights Templar. After seeing many of his friends, neighbors and family members beaten, raped and murdered by the gangs, Mireles took a stand against them, and on February 23, 2013 launched a vigilante effort called El Grupo Autodefensas that was initially very effective in turning back the tide of lawlessness.

Cartel Land
Director, Matthew Heineman

Heineman was allowed to embed himself in each of these groups, seemingly alone and armed with a light and portable camera rig that allowed him to participate in patrols and raids with the vigilante groups where he was often exposed to gunfire. By being approved by the leaders of each group, he was able to film interviews with principal participants and victims that paint a chilling picture of the high stakes each group is playing for.

Foley and Mireles are each dismissive of the desire of their respective governments (as well as the government on the other side of the border) in bringing an end to the drug trade. I must admit a cultural bias that makes believing in Mexican corruption an easier pill to swallow than what is either American corruption or at least callous indifference to the flow of drugs and people who are smuggled across the border with little resistance. But Foley and his band of militants have no such troubles.

To his credit, Heineman deals with the controversy that accompanies each of these groups.

In the American camp, Foley is presented as a clear-headed, fair-minded pragmatist, willing to climb into bed with survivalists, white supremacists and other fringe elements so long as they share the same objective, which is to protect the American border from what Foley perceives as the forces of evil – that is, the drug cartels. Heineman interviews one such individual who states without blinking that good fences are effective and necessary in keeping incompatible races apart. He also shows news clips that we’ve all seen that characterize the vigilantes in a negative light as violent, hateful people.

Foley himself is honest and open about his troubled past, which includes drug and alcohol abuse. But after a near-death experience some 20 years back, he’s now clean, sober and on a mission to make a difference. To put a dent in the universe.

Cartel Land
Dr. José Manuel Mireles

As for Mireles, it’s a trickier tale. When we meet him, Dr. Mireles is a handsome, mustochioed man nearing 60. Tall and graceful, with an eloquent and charismatic appeal to his neighbors. His appeals to one community after another to join his movement to put an end to the mindless violence of the cartels is like something from Hollywood.

And the people followed him.

As the Autodefensas cleared out one village after another, Mireles’ celebrity grew, which also drew the attention of not only the cartels but a nervous federal government, which must have worried about a popular uprising against it. I had a sense, watching Cartel Land, that Mireles was a goner, and right after the thought struck me, the description of the suspicious nature of a plane crash involving Mireles is revealed.

Without the galvanizing force of Mireles’ leadership, the Autodefensas spirals into chaos with counter-offensives from the cartels as well as corruption and in-fighting within the group.

To make mattes worse, Dr. Mireles is open about his weakness for women. At first, he’s shown first as a compassionate neighbor, then as a caring doctor and finally as a doting husband, father and grandpa, but we also see that “El Doctor” also has a thing for pretty young women, which becomes a perfect metaphor for the murky waters of the War on Drugs. Nothing is as it seems. Nobody is pure. Good and evil often co-exist within the same men at the same time.

On the first anniversary of the Auodefensas movement, Mexican president Enrique Peńa Neto made a slick maneuver designed to eliminate the threat of the Autodefensas movement while simultaneously appearing to support it by absorbing the vigilante group into the federal government and giving it legal status and a new name.

Suspicious of this move, Mireles refuses to go along and stands alone against the government that has shown that it has little interest in doing serious damage to the cartels that have infiltrated its halls of power. Not long after, Dr. Mireles was captured and imprisoned. Today, he is in a remote prison in a kind of legal limbo with his health deteriorating as the Mexican government decides what to do next.

The last we see of Mireles, he owns up to his mistakes and unlike the two governments in question, takes full responsibility for his actions.

At the same time, the vigilante movement he spawned has devolved to the level of the cartels they were created to fight, with corruption, in-fighting and lawlessness their signatures. In this case, evil has won out. As we hear two times, from Mexicans on both sides of the fight, “For now, I’m the lucky one.”

Cartel Land
Tim “Nailer” Foley

Back in Arizona, things are a little better. Without a federal government out to stop him, Foley is adding to his numbers and can point to small victories as they regularly intercept small gangs of scouts who are the eyes of the smugglers. He characterizes his efforts as an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, which is okay with him. He’s in this for the long haul.

In the final analysis, I suppose that Heineman’s message is one of hope. Having seen what people can do when they stand up to tyranny, he has shown us that the cartels can be beaten as long as we have people like Mireles and Foley who are true believers with nothing to lose. For though they may be flawed, at least they can’t be bought.

After watching Cartel Land, I defy anyone to say that drugs are a victimless crime.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

I went into Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom knowing very little about the conflict it describes. Maybe that was a good thing, because today at lunch I got an earful from my conspiracy theorist cousin about what a bunch of propaganda the film is. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless of the facts about the protests of 2013-2014, director Evgeny Afineevsky has crafted a powerful story about a people standing up to injustice and paying a steep price for change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for FreedomThe film, nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year, is an insider’s view of the events that led to the forced resignation of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

In late 2013, as a deadline approached for Ukraine’s joining of the European Union, young people gathered in the city center of Kyiv to mark the moment and ensure that it actually took place. Yanukovych was well known for his desire to align with Russia, and as the deadline came and went without a signing of the paperwork, Yanukovych moved towards the feared partnership with Putin, triggering non-violent yet vocal protest that, over a 3 month period, escalated to the point of bloodshed, killing 125 protesters, injuring hundreds more and forcing Yanukovych to flee the country in the middle of the night to seek asylum in Russia.

Afineevsky’s footage takes us into the middle of the protester’s makeshift camp and acquaints us with many of the principal figures who marched and died during that momentous three month period.

The only talking head interviews are with the protestors themselves who recount their experiences and emotions as we see the images of what they describe. What started as primarily a movement of the young soon mushroomed and pulled in older generations – doctors, lawyers, bankers and even the military who were afraid of returning to the old Soviet ways.

Even after the government employed violent tactics that escalated over time, the movement only grew until it reached a point-of-no-return as the participants described the final bloody encounter with government forces.

Having sat through many documentaries covering unrest in decades past, it’s still strange for me to see images of people decked out in skinny jeans, hipster beards and contemporary clothing in a story as old as time itself. But as long as governments ignore the wishes of the people they represent, we’ll continue to see images like the ones captured in this powerful documentary.

It’s a one-sided telling of this story, for sure, that paints the protestors as freedom fighters, innocents and crusaders for a better tomorrow, and without knowing any of the opposing sides to this story, I walked away from this movie moved to the point of tears at the bravery and dedication of those who fought and died, as well as those who fought and have to carry on.

Trump and The Challenger

Today, the big story is Donald Trump and his refusal to take part in another of a long series of pointless Republican debates. Say what you will, but the man knows how to control the story. Every time his numbers have dropped during this election cycle, Trump has rebounded through aggression and bluster.

Donald TrumpEarlier this week, Trump announced that he won’t participate in tonight’s scheduled Republican debate. It’s a story too tiresome to detail here, but the bottom line is that he’s doing what no politician in memory has been able to do – win by staying on a constant offensive by being bullying and…offensive.

How ironic that this latest episode of Trumpian bluster would take place on such an ominous anniversary. I’ll never forget where I was on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, around 11:39 am – in bed.

I was a sophomore at the University of Louisville and working third shift at United Parcel Service’s air hub at Standiford Field, loading aircraft in the Next Day Air operation. I’d get home around 6 or 7 in the morning, and often pass my Dad as he was on his way to work.

On that Tuesday morning, I was in my bed sleeping, when Mom burst into the room yelling for me to get out of bed and see what was happening on TV. We sat there together, numb and silent as we watched, over and over, the horrific site of the first the fuel tanks and then the rest of the space craft explode into those twin plumes of steam and debris that marked the point of disaster.

Tears were shed, especially as newsmen focused on the death of Christa McAuliffe, “the first teacher in space,” as she was known in the weeks leading up to the mission. It was a terrible day made worse in the weeks, months and years to come as hard truths were revealed about known problems with launching the space shuttle in cold temperatures.

During the ensuing House Committee hearings and the Rogers Commission report, Americans became familiar with Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the O-rings that failed in the cold temps. Word got out that engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center tried to warn management that there were problems with the O-rings, but managers ignored the warnings and stayed on schedule.

Trump and The ChallengerThe launch of the Challenger was marked by delays. For about a week, the launch was moved back, day-by-day, as bad weather and a minor equipment failure postponed the mission. Finally, on the day of liftoff, it was engineers from Morton Thiokol who raised concerns about the integrity of the O-rings in the freezing temperatures and plainly visible ice, hanging from the launchpad scaffolding.

When the issue of yet another postponement was raised, NASA management brushed aside the warnings and went on with the launch, a decision that would be nuanced, explained, then re-explained during the much-publicized hearings.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the Shuttle disaster. Some good, some bad.

On the one hand, you have the triumphs of the space program and the promise of discovery and achievement. To think of the millions of parts and pieces that go into the construction of a shuttle orbiter and the rockets that launch it into space is to be overwhelmed with mind-blowing complexity.

The scores of men and women who have contributed their talents to solving the problems of leaving the chains of gravity and the earth’s atmosphere is as terrifying as it is impressive, but it’s been done. Many times.

And then there are the brave men and women who were to pilot the Challenger and conduct experiments and do their jobs during the mission. Bright, motivated people who, even in the face of possible annihilation, eagerly anticipated their turn to go into space. These people are role-models and patterns of success, drive and determination.

But then you have the failures that were driven by mindless bureaucracy and a disregard for the people who trusted their lives to the managers and scientists who constructed the spacecraft. People who gave in to political pressures and selfish agendas. People who certainly knew better, but made reckless decisions anyway, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

And then there’s the lesson of humility. During our mountaintop experiences, like the moon landing, it’s easy to become full of one’s self, to believe that ANYTHING is possible. In Greek tragedy, it’s called hubris – an excess of pride that blinds the protagonist to reason and eventually leads to his downfall.

To me, the twofold lesson of a tragedy like the Challenger Disaster is first, that we should never stop dreaming big and swinging for the fences. To create is to imitate God, who works in immense beauty on an unfathomable scale. And that’s where the second lesson comes in – even as we are attempting what has never been accomplished, we should never lose touch with humility and truth and honor. To ignore these rules is to play God and end up like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy.

Thirty years down the road, we still haven’t learned this lesson. Just look at Donald Trump, and you see the same runaway arrogance that brought NASA to its knees thirty years ago.

Tonight, the Republicans – sans Trump – will claw each others’ eyes out on national TV while The Donald grandstands with a group of veterans elsewhere, apparently very much in control of this political moment.

But don’t be fooled – the meter is running and Trump’s time in the driver’s seat is only momentary. Like old King Oedipus, it’s a matter of time before the check comes due on his unbounded hubris.

A first-draft take on life