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2019 Q1 Movie Report

April 1, 2019

I was on paternity leave all of March, and the two months prior to that, I was spending a lot of time on planes. As a result, I had my best movie-watching quarter since senior year in college. Here’s the full list, with le creme on top and le poop on bottom.

The Top 10

Whiplash: This movie is phenomenal. A 2014 flick about a jazz drummer at the top music school in the country, it’s really about the desire to be something great. The acting is superb, particularly J.K. Simmons, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the hard-nosed teacher. The direction by Damien Chazelle (LA LA Land, First Man) is fantastic as well.  Most people might skip this because a movie about a jazz school doesn’t sound interesting, but this movie will appeal to people who have no interest in music too.

Apollo 11: In July of 1969, when NASA delivered on JFK’s 1963 challenge to land a person on the moon by the end of the decade, a documentary crew was there to capture the event for a planned theater-released film. The film never happened. But the footage—beautiful 72mm film of the technicians, the astronauts, the crowds and the atmosphere around the launch—was preserved, unreleased. Here it is cut together in a remarkable documentary. No narration. No cutaways to interviews or news footage. Reviews of this film are superlative and seem hyperbolic, but the movie totally pays it off. It’s stunning. I took my four-year-old and she loved it. I got chills at several parts. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Free Solo: This was my favorite film from last year, and it was just as insane on second watching on the small screen. It’s a doc about Alex Honnald, a professional climber, attempting to free solo (climb without ropes) El Capitan, the famous 3,000-foot-tall granite face in Yosemite valley. It’s as much about the making of the film and the impact of the insane quest on his loved ones.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: I’ve seen this two and a half times. A set of six short westerns from the Coen Brothers, this was one of my favorite films from last year. It took some criticism for its nihilistic outlook, but it’s vintage Coen. Even on multiple watchings, I was finding new things to love.

Sicario: One of the best action films in recent years. A multiple-time re-watch for me. The trifecta of Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt balance this searing action film about the unseen war at the U.S.-Mexico border. Denis Villeneuve directs with cinematography by Roger Deakins = a film with the highest craft. I’m currently reading Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay. Interesting to see the changes made as it went through production.

Lost in Translation: Bill Murray is funny, even when he’s playing it straight. This Sophia Coppola movie about a big-name American actor displaced in Tokyo is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve probably seen it 10 times and it never gets old.

Birdman: Won the Best Picture Oscar in 2015 (beating out Whiplash). Michael Keaton plays a movie star famous for his portrayal of an Iron Man/Batman-like superhero in a successful movie franchise, now trying to earn some artistic cred with an ambitious Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The acting is fantastic across the board, and the story is a unique mix of dark comedy and magical realism.   

First Man: An excellent movie about the people behind the first moon landing. Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong. Intense, emotional, exciting, human. Very well produced, all-around. Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). Pairs well with Apollo 11.

Leave No Trace: A really good under-the-radar movie from last year, based on the novel My Abandonment. It’s about a father and daughter who living off the grid. A quiet, thoughtful movie.

Green Book: The acting is great. It’s well-produced. It’s definitely worth a watch. Should it have won Best Picture? I haven’t seen all the others, so it’s hard to say. But this is a sanitized, pretty quaint take on race in America. The directing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the conversations remain pretty superficial. Still, worth watching for storytelling and characters.

Also Good

Wind River: A murder mystery on an Indian Reservation brings out the FBI (Elizabeth Olson) and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Tracker (Jeremy Renner). The inhospitable landscape and tight community are the perfect setting for a tense mystery. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), the distribution of this film got caught up in the Weinstein scandal, but it’s well worth the watch.


Enemy: I’m watching films of French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival). This is an adaptation of Portuguese writer José Saramago’s Kafka-esque novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a college professor who discovers that he has a doppelganger. He meets his identical match, and (as the title implies) things don’t go that well.

Prisoners: A super-intense kidnapping thriller by Denis Villeneuve, starring Hugh Jackman, as the father of one of two missing children, and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the detective on the case. Reminiscent of Seven and Zodiac. Only a couple heavy-handed missteps scuff what is overall a great thriller.

Blakkklansman: Spike Lee hits about one in three for me. His more understated films—Inside Man, 25th Hour and Summer of Sam—are great. A lot of his other films try too hard. This one teeters right on the edge. Really well done, but walks a tightrope with the over-the-top performance of John David Washington, who plays a real-life African-American cop who infiltrated the KKK.

Bridge of Spies: This 2015 Steven Spielberg spy movie was really interesting to watch. Set during the Cold War, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who is hired to represent a captured Soviet spy, but he is eventually pulled into the role of negotiator for two American captives as well—a pilot captured by the U.S.S.R. and a student detained in East Germany. Well-produced, well-written, well-acted, with just one forgivable misstep (a completely absurd and unnecessary action scene). This is based on a true story.

Beirut: Jon Hamm is a negotiator pulled back into Beirut after a tragic exit years ago. A terrorist group has taken a hostage and requested him as their intermediary. A suspenseful espionage movie if one is willing to suspend disbelief a couple times.

Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s WWII flick about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. A pretty remarkable story and great production value, but WWII films are a crowded field, and it’s hard to top Band of Brothers.

Captain Fantastic: This movie is strikingly similar to Leave No Trace—a father (Viggo Mortenson) lives with his family off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. A little more heavy-handed than Leave No Trace, but thought-provoking and entertaining nonetheless.

The Drop: Based on a short Dennis Lehane novel, this tight film stars Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (Gandolfini’s last film). Both actors bring plenty of gravitas, and the whole film oozes menace and bad intentions. Fans of The Wire will like this suspenseful crime novel-turned-film.

Incendies: Another intense film from director Denis Villeneuve. At the request of their deceased mother, a brother and sister conduct a search for their estranged father and brother in a war-torn Middle Eastern country. Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2011. In French with subtitles.

Source Code: A mind-bender from director Duncan Jones (his Moon is excellent). Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. Army captain injured in Afghanistan, now inserted into an experimental machine that allows him to experience the last 8 minutes of someone else’s life. In an action version of Groundhog Day, he must repeatedly relive the same sequence of a terrorist attack until he can figure it out.

The Meyerowitz Stories: Noah Bombach (The Squid and the Whale) delivers another of what he does best: neurotic New Yorkers who feel like they’ve dropped out of a Salinger novel. Here, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play the sons of Dustin Hoffman, an aging, jaded sculptor. Ridiculous people who provide some good laughs.

The Lobster: A bizarre movie about a hotel where people to go to find a mate. If they fail to hook up in a designated period of time, they are turned into the animal of their choice. A commentary on our strange dating rituals.

Southpaw: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer on the skids. The boxing isn’t totally convincing, but better than most boxing films. Acting is solid, and overall entertaining. Unfortunately, the only real surprise happens in the first act—after that the film is pretty predictable.

Watchmen: Zac Snyder’s ultra-slick take on the ultra-dark superhero comic. I prefer this kind of movie—that turns the superhero genre on its head—to the more predictable fare of most superhero flicks. The director’s cut, at over three hours, luxuriates in the moodiness.

Molly’s Game: Based on the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran an illegal high-stakes poker game for big names in Hollywood, business, music and crime. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed, and Jessica Chastain plays a convincing genius. Solid.

Hostiles: Christian Bale plays a veteran of the American-Indian Wars who is ordered to escort an aging Cheyenne war chief from New Mexico to Montana. A riveting Western with a dark heart.

A Couple Classics

Bladerunner: Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic was ahead of its time. Set in a grim, futuristic 2019, this story of artificial intelligence gone wrong holds up in every regard. I’d somehow never seen it. A slow, brooding pace, worth the watch.

Image result for stripes movie poster

Stripes: Still holds up. The first half of the movie is one of the best comedies ever. Second half loses some steam, but the Murray-Ramis combo is comedic gold, with some John Candy thrown in for good measure.


Some Heisters

Logan Lucky: A funny, well-produced heist movie. A gang of goobers plot a robbery of a NASCAR track. Lovable cast, well-played comedy, in the capable hands of director Steven Soderbergh.

The Crew (Braqueurs): An intense French heist film. After pulling off an armored car robbery to perfection, a crew of thieves draws unwanted admiration from a crime boss who wants them to do a job for him. Solid action, solid characters, an impressively tight run-time of only 81 min. In French with subtitles.

Den of Thieves: An intense, well-produced heist movie. Not shy about leaning into all the conventions of the genre. If you like Heat, worth checking out.

The Place Beyond the Pines: A three-part cops and robbers flick that nearly buckles under its own ambition. It’s held up by strong performances by Ryan Gosling (a motorcycle stunt man turned bank robber) and Bradley Cooper (the cop). This was my second viewing, and I appreciated the big swing more this time.

Family Movie Nights

Every Friday night, someone picks a movie for us to all watch together. Picks rotate week to week.

Despicable Me 3: My favorite part of this fourth Minions movie is the throw-back soundtrack. Generally goofy and entertaining.

Monsters, Inc.: A classic. Playful idea, so well executed. One of Pixar’s best.

Frozen: 95th viewing. Doesn’t get better each time. Seriously, I don’t get the appeal of this one. The plot is odd with no flow. The weird little snowman is the best part, with the music a distant second.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: In the final sequence, a monkey with a thought-speaking device is on the wing of a plane fighting off a gang of deranged gummy bears. This kind of consistent weirdness, paired with the good message of the movie, got this movie thumbs ups from the whole family.

Ferdinand: The girls loved this one. Didn’t operate on two levels (some adult jokes thrown in) like the best Pixar movies, but has some fun action sequences.

Probably Skip These

The Sisters Brothers: This is a bummer to say, because I loved the book. The movie has great acting and production value, but the slow, meandering story is perhaps better suited to a novel. Tonally, it also felt unsure. Maybe just a book that doesn’t translate well into a movie.

The Dirt: This is a biopic of Mötley Crüe, based on the legendary book by Neil Strauss (legendary if you care about 80s hair metal bands). It’s a borderline b-movie, but entertaining if you care about the Crüe.

Connor McGregor: Notorious: Not a huge fan of his. Enjoyed the training sequences and behind-the-scenes footage, but completely uneven. As it builds to the most interesting parts of the story—the fights with Nate Diaz and Floyd Mayweather, it devolves into a series of highlight clips.

Triple Frontier: Netflix, experimenting with the formula, released this in theaters almost simultaneously with their on-platform release. Which is all fine, but it didn’t make for a better product. Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaacson and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) play Special Ops vets who come back together to pull off a heist of a drug lord in the jungle of South America. As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned. Unfortunately, too much time is spent on the first act—Isaacson’s character rounding up his crew—and not enough on the third act, post-heist. Not terrible, but fairly predictable—even the “big twist.”

Avengers: I’ve heard Infinity War is good, so I wanted to watch the first couple Avengers movies first. Mildly entertaining, but I literally scrubbed through 20 minutes of the 40-minute final battle. I can only take so much flying around and energy fields and big explosions. Made me miss some of the super hero movies that wrap up with a simple one-on-one fight scene.

The Boondock Saints: A pointless, violence-drenched vigilante movie with nothing beyond style (and the style isn’t great). Possibly forgivable if it had been made 10 years earlier than it was, before Tarantino and Guy Ritchie came along. But it was made in 1999, which makes it just another derivative Tarantino wannabe. I don’t remember who recommended this to me.

Miami Vice: This is the only partial watch on the list. I like Michael Mann (director), so I’m a bit mystified with what happened to this gritty take on the 80’s TV show. The script is bland, the actors bring no appeal (please stop casting Colin Farrell as a lead), and the story is rushed. I watched half, then stopped for the night. The next day, I realized I had zero interest in finishing it.


The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey by Charles Bowden

March 25, 2019


This is a short, poignant memoir of one great writer by another great writer. Both are favorites of mine. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is one of my top books. Bowden, known in his later years as a writer about the darkest aspects of human nature—the border conflict and, specifically, the violence of Juarez (Murder City)—started his career writing about Nature—the bats, the water table, the land, etc.. Both were desert rats, the Southwest the setting and topic of most of their writing. They were friends, cynics and cranks (though as cranks go, Abbey was in a class of his own).

Abbey died in 1989, Bowden in 2014. This manuscript was found on Bowden’s computer. It cuts between a memorial for Abbey and Bowden’s various memories of the old coot. Rather than a linear narrative, it gives us snapshots, scenes that capture Abbey’s singular spirit. As with most of Bowden’s writing, it is poetic and razor sharp. He has a dark and dry sense of humor. Of Abbey: “He was reasonably polite, didn’t shit on the floor, and was well read.”

Kindred spirits. Loners and rebels, both filled with anger and love at the same time—an anger that seemed to come from their love. They were angry at the government, angry at the violation of the land, angry at stupid people. And Bowden was angry at the people who came out of the woodwork to lionize Abbey (including The New York Times, which gave Abbey a two-page obituary after “pissing on his head for decades”).

I think this translation into desert sage, Western god, or whatever is a diminishment of both him and his words. He was a man born to strangle gurus with their own entrails and everything he ever thought or did is pointless if he is suddenly indispensable and irreplaceable…

It’s very depressing to know and like someone and then have them die and be made into a saint. It is like watching them being buried alive.

Abbey was no saint. Whether or not you take seriously his suggestion to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam (fictionalized in The Monkey Wrench Gang), he had a kind of personal terrorism. He was racist, for one. Had “the gut responses of the nation’s mountaineer-rock-hard-white-trash hillbillies.” Sexist, another. Always chasing tail. He had no interest in political correctness. Was rough around the edges, one might say. Wasn’t out to make friends. Didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought. And yet—this is what Bowden hates—people want to whitewash all that and make the man out to be holy. It’s untrue. It erases part of who Abbey was. Abbey wouldn’t have wanted it.

“If there’s anyone here I’ve failed to insult, I apologize,” Abbey once said. Bowden observes, “In the five years since he died, he’s cleaned up his act. No one talks much about a lot of things he said or why he said them…Somehow they’ve slipped a giant condom over his life’s work.”

Abbey was buried in an unmarked spot in the desert, a place only his friends knew. Of course, there is at least one book about searching for his final resting place. To which he would probably tell the people, “leave me the hell alone.” Bowden tries—again this wasn’t necessarily written to be published—at the very least, to tell it like it was with Abbey. To be as true as one can be about a person. “Life is too short not to be a maniac,” Bowden muses. Abbey, that old desert eccentric, probably would have appreciated this approach.


Charles Bowden (left) meeting Edward Abbey (center) on Abbey’s back porch in the early 1970’s. Photo by P.K. Weis.

The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies by Susan Jacoby

March 24, 2019


This book opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” Knowledge isn’t just about being smart. It’s the underpinning of a functioning democratic society.

Plenty of recent studies, articles and books have decried and given reasons for the rising ignorance in America. Here, Jacoby describes this confluence of forces—institutional failings, ideological zealotry, media technology, etc.—some reaching back centuries, some just years, that contribute to a dangerous rise in anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism in the United States.

She notes that this isn’t something specific to the Age of Trump. Rather the election of Donald Trump is symptomatic of this anti-intellectual age. He was a “part of a recognizable pattern rather than an aberration.” His declaration at the Nevada Republican primary that, “I love the poorly educated,” was just a more blatant form of what politicians have been doing for decades—adopting an “aw-gee-shucks, I’m just an ordinary person like you” folksiness. It’s, as everyone knows, complete bullshit. Trump may not be intellectually elite, but he’s no peanut farmer.

Anti-intellectualism is just another form of identity politics. By definition, the majority of people are not elite. But “elite” has become, at lease in politics, a slander. “Elite” is synonymous with egg-headed. Privileged. Out of touch. Not like us. We want our brain surgeon to be elite. We want our athletes to be elite. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to who will run our country, Americans want “someone you’d want to have a beer with.” When Trump says, “I love the poorly educated,” he’s embracing one of the key problems in the U.S. today—our failing education system—and turning it into an identifier. He’s not saying, “everyone should have access to good education and I have a plan.” Rather, he’s saying, “It’s great to have uneducated people like you. It’s something to be proud of. Screw those smart people.” It’s not just that he has support among an uneducated base. He literally appeals to them as uneducated by name.

Jacoby’s topic is broader than politics. It’s about how we regard expertise, how we think of education, how we consider views that contradict our own, how we value the institutions that teach us about the world (e.g. our texts, our schools, our media). Many Americans no longer value the opinions of experts (see climate change). They speak of the “ivory towers” of academia as if universities are breeding idiots (because what could a person who’s spent a decade studying a subject possibly know about that subject?). Our textbooks and curriculums and news media—everything that helps us understand how the world works—have become battlegrounds for political and religious zealots. We only believe facts that confirm what we already believe. We opt for entertainment over actual learning. Our media strives for moral outrage and entertainment over accurate information. Everything that an educated populace depends on is currently being eroded by our cultural tribalism, our economic system and our technology.

In order for us to have constructive conversations about how to fix our problems, we have to have a baseline of facts. An agreed-upon reality as a starting point. We don’t. Instead, we have a bunch of people who dismiss information as “fake news” if it doesn’t confirm what they already believe. This could be called “political bias.” But when it comes to facts, it’s more accurate to call it willful ignorance. When you have a President, or media, or internet chat groups, or whatever, telling people things that are flat-out false, then those purveyors of falsehood are literally making people stupid.

Although her politics are evident, Jacoby covers topics from both sides of the political spectrum, calling out anti-vaxxers and New Age crystal wearers, universities that create “safe spaces” (i.e. protecting students from “dangerous” ideas), and conspiracy theorists of all stripes. She covers the rise of fundamentalist religions and junk science (e.g. Social Darwinism). The rise of am talk radio, which later became the politicized TV news media, which later became the wasteland of misinformation websites and social media.

Jacoby strikes an elitist tone (ironically) and weakens her point when she delves into the arts. Not everyone needs to read high literature or watch art house films. It’s okay if most Americans prefer America’s Got Talent to Jeopardy or Harry Potter to Infinite Jest. These are matters of aesthetics and preference. And yes, maybe they signal a preference for light entertainment, but it seems relatively harmless. Likewise, her criticism of the study of pop culture (like Friday the 13th or Stephen King) ignores the clear value such studies might have for a future film director or fiction critic. She also seems like a closed-minded luddite when she dismisses video games and other technology, as if there are no examples of educational games or people empowered by technology. But overall, her points are solid (and unsettling).

This book was originally released in 2008. At the time, The New York Times wrote “there are few subjects more timely.” It was updated and re-released last year, having become only more timely over the ensuing decade. This is not an elitist screed. It doesn’t denigrate the uneducated. But it does make a compelling and important case that the ongoing attack on education, rationalism, intellectualism and expertise are an existential threat to the foundations of our democracy.

Related reads:  Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party Crashing by Gavin Edwards

March 17, 2019


If you don’t love Bill Murray, you can stop reading.  And you might as well turn in your America card and move to North Korea where they don’t value funny stuff. Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Kingpin, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, Moonrise Kingdom, St. Vincent…No matter how you rank them, #10 on a list of top Bill Murray movies would still be an excellent movie.

Part of this book is about that—a full Bill Murray filmography, with a short review of each film. But the bulk of the book is dedicated to the dozens of stories collected from friends, actors, directors, and random people who have had a Bill Murray experience. Often this means Bill randomly dropping in on their lives, create an unforgettable moment, then disappearing (sometimes with the warning, “No one will ever believe you.”).

Betty Thomas, film director and former Second City cast member with Bill, described him as having a “charming assholeness.” It’s true—if it were any other person, he’d be getting punched out or thrown in jail more often. But it’s hard not to laugh. And beyond a good joke, Bill seeks opportunities to wake people up, to turn a mundane, forgettable moment into something they will remember forever.

This is what I love most about these Murray stories. If comedy is a gift from the performer to the audience, what Bill does transcends comedy. He recognizes that he has a special ability to bring joy to people’s lives in a way that feels surreal, almost magical. One friend likens him to Santa Claus in that way. On the screen, he’s a familiar, beloved face. On the street, he’s mythological.

Here are a few of my favorite stories:

  • Bill walking down the street telling a random passerby, “Look out! There’s a lobster loose!”
  • Bill using a book of “Japanese for lovers” as his go-to translation book for interactions while in Japan, asking the sushi chef, “Do your parents know about me?” or telling a stranger, “I don’t really love you anymore, so I’m going to change my phone number.”
  • Guest announcing the Cubs game and betting his fellow commentator a case of beer that Rick Sutcliffe—the Cubs pitcher—would steal second after making first. Word got down to Sutcliffe that Bill had a case of beer on him, so the next pitch he took off. Sutcliffe, slow even by pitcher standards, had not even attempted a stolen base in ten seasons. But with Bill’s faith behind him, he somehow made it.
  • As co-owner of the minor-league baseball team, the St. Paul Saints, Bill’s signature move every time he was asked to throw out the first pitch was to chuck it over the grandstand and out of the park.
  • Throwing multiple elderly ladies into sand bunkers at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
  • Showing up at a wine store in a torrential downpour on a scooter wearing the actual helmet Evel Knievel had worn when he jumped the Snake River.
  • At Soldier Field, after the Grateful Dead’s final show, Bill stuck around for hours to help the grounds crew clean the place (he’s also been known to lug around equipment with the grips on sets of his films).
  • On the set of Broken Flowers, Bill left the set, walked across the street and let himself into one of the neighboring houses. He didn’t knock, just walked in. A few minutes later, he walked out with a plate of cookies the occupants had given him and shared them with the crew.
  • Bill appears as a cameo in Dumb and Dumber To. But he’s in a full-body hazmat suit and gas mask, so he’s hardly recognizable. When asked by the directors what he wanted to be paid for his work, he said he only wanted the two beds with crustacean headboards that had been used in one of the scenes.
  • On “Bill Murray Day,” a new holiday invented by the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, Bill was doing a Q&A. For the last question, he called on a guy in a Ghostbusters costume. The dude asked what it was like to be Bill Murray. A throwaway question, but Bill took advantage of it to deliver an answer that gets to the core of who he is. He asked everyone in the crowd to answer, “What does it feel like to be you?”

Just think about how much you weigh. This is a thing I like to do with myself when I get lost, when I get feeling funny…if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification—which is, I am, this is me now, here I am right now, this is me now—then you don’t feel like you have to leave and be over there, or look over there. And you don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere. There’s just a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate up and down, from your top to your bottom, up and down your spine. And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile. It makes you almost want to feel good. It makes you want to feel like you could embrace yourself.

So what’s it like to be me? Ask yourself: “What’s it like to be me?” The only way we’ll ever know what it’s like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can—and keep reminding yourself that’s where home is. That’s where home is.

Say Nothing: The True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

March 12, 2019


This is an exceptional story about a topic I had little knowledge of previously. “The Troubles” is the euphemistic name for the conflict over Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960’s. For thirty years, Loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK clashed with Irish nationalists, who wanted to break away and form a united Ireland. The mostly Protestant loyalists had the backing of the British, while the predominantly Catholic nationalists created paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The conflict resulted in a relatively low death toll—3,500 people were killed in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe—but was terrifying in its brutality and randomness. Over half of those killed were civilians, and many of the tactics—particularly of the IRA—were taken from the pages of other revolutionary groups, terrorist organizations and organized crime.

At the center of this book is the “disappearing” (another euphemism—it seems The Troubles were ripe with them) of Jean McConville, a single mother of ten. In the middle of the night in 1972, a group of people showed up at her Belfast home and, in front of her children, escorted her to a waiting car. She was never heard from again.

Also at the center of this book is a project sponsored by Boston College. Starting in 2001, a series of interviews with former IRA members were recorded, with the agreement that they would not be released until after the participants’ death. That agreement proved untrue, as the US Justice Department, in cooperation with the police of Northern Ireland, in 2011 pressured Boston College to turn over the tapes. What began as an academic project has turned into a protracted legal battle. The interview tapes are currently locked away in Belfast, with various parts and versions of transcripts floating around. The fallout: a slew of accusations, multiple lawsuits, several arrests and this book.

If all that sounds like in-the-weeds legal tedium, it doesn’t read like it. The Belfast Project, as the interviews were collectively named, is just the underpinning of the book. Keefe weaves a compelling story of the people involved, the historic significance of The Troubles and the human cost of the conflict. “I saw an opportunity to tell a story about how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause, and about how individuals and a whole society make sense of political violence once they have passed through the crucible and finally have time to reflect.”

It’s the reflection here that is the most poignant. Some of the perpetrators of the violence are deeply remorseful of what they did, while others—most notably Gerry Adams, Irish politician and by many accounts leadership of the IRA since the ‘70s—claim innocence (Adams audaciously denies any involvement with the group). And still many others, including Jean McConville’s children, remember The Troubles with overwhelming sadness.

Even with no vested interest in the stories, I found them fascinating and moving. Keefe’s work as an investigator propels this story forward like the best true crime (it calls to mind Michelle McNamara’s excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), and he puts forth compelling evidence for one of the central mysteries of McConville’s disappearance. How and if this book impacts the case going forward is yet to be seen. I would, however, make a bet that this book ends of up on some “Best of 2019” lists. As it straddles the boundaries of revolutionary politics, military tactics, organized crime and unsolved mystery, there are many entry points. When I heard Keefe interviewed on the Slate Political Gabfest, the story sounded fascinating. The book lives up to it.



Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam

March 10, 2019


I had this book on my shelf for 15 years and finally decided to tackle it. It’s an important (if controversial) book, an exhaustive study of the decline of civic engagement of Americans from 1950 to 2000. It might be viewed as a precursor to the current fragmentation of our society, describing the disengagement that preceded our current polarization. As the interpersonal connections that bind our communities together dissolve, our tendency to see people we disagree with as “other” increases.

Putnam uses the example of bowling leagues for the title, but his research includes many other forms of social groups: churches, scouts, little league sports, volunteer groups, bridge clubs, social clubs like the Elks, etc. In nearly every instance, he finds declining engagement.

The gravity of this problem is hard to understate. Dense networks of social interaction build trust, and societies rich in social capital are more vigorous, efficient, productive and healthy. Putnam argues that from a societal perspective, the weak social ties created by civic and social organizations are even more valuable than the strong ties of family or close friends. Weak ties connect people to others who are less like themselves, building social networks that often transcend ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. These strong networks destroy division, prejudice and the other sinister “isms.”

The root cause for the breakdown of civic engagement? Putnam argues it was partly due to the migration from urban centers to the burbs, but mainly because of TV video games, those old boogiemen. He argues that as those mediums became more isolating, as single-TV household became the TV-in-everyone’s-bedroom households, the social connections suffered.

One might contend that, since 2000, the trend of isolating media has gotten even worse. While technology can play a unifying role, allowing communities to connect across geography, this benefit hardly offsets the isolating effect of the distraction device in everyone’s pocket. We live in a world where there’s no need for social engagement on the bus, in the elevator, even at some dinner tables.

The question I kept asking as I read this: At 18 years old, how well does it still hold up? Has technology made it worse? Or has social media made a positive impact (wishful thinking, maybe)? Making a sweeping generalization, millennials seem to be a pretty social generation—have they reversed the trend? What about the re-urbanization of America?

In 2010, Putnam published a follow-up paper with Thomas Sander. They found that, indeed, there has been a reversal in the trend. However, they point to as singular event as the turning point—9/11. The terrorist attacks had a unifying effect on the nation, but the optimism and call to civic engagement were more lasting for those in their adolescence (or younger) in 2001. The “9/11 Generation,” as the authors call them, “seem to grasp their civic and mutual responsibilities far more firmly than do their parents.”


However, Putnam and Sander also note a divide between “upper-middle-class young white people and their less affluent counterparts,” who aren’t experiencing the same “fundamental promise of American life.” They warn, presciently: “If the United States is to avoid becoming two nations, it must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement beyond the ranks of affluent white people.” This was 2010. Unfortunately, it seems they may have been right.

This is a book about a piece of research. It’s 18 years old now, and we’ve gone through at least three pivotal moments since—9/11, the recession, and the 2016 election. So it’s relevance is rapidly diminishing. And while it’s a readable book, it’s also exhaustive. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading the entire book. For most people interested, a synopsis of the findings is probably enough.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

March 10, 2019


It’s probably safe to say that you either like Chuck Klosterman’s writing or you don’t. The specific subject of any given essay is likely more incidental, since the subject is usually just an onramp for him to loosely explore some bigger topic. In this case, the unifying theme of this collection of essays is pop culture, a topic so broad and well-trod that it’s unlikely you’d pick up this book because you’re a fan of “pop culture.”  You’d read this because you’re a fan of Chuck Klosterman.

In the opening, Klosterman posits a tautology (not unlike my opening sentence of this review), that you can see life in one of two ways—that everything is connected, or that everything is not connected. This is a not super helpful framework, perhaps, but he uses it to set up a loose definition of culture—which is that ideas influence us, whether they are born of low culture or high culture.  His preference, in this book, is to examine low culture.

The Sims video game makes us realize how our modern lives are confined by our daily habits. Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape changed sex for millions of Americans. The Real World changed not only television and the concept of celebrity, but the dynamics of our relationships (specifically those of co-habitation) and the very nature of personality.

Other subjects include: Billy Joel’s1980 album Glass Houses, a Guns ‘n’ Roses cover band, the Lakers vs Celtics rivalry, Saved By the Bell, the Dixie Chicks and Van Halen, the Left Behind book series, the Zodiac killer, soccer and the bias of the news media.

This is a 2003 collection of essays, which means they are dated. Delightfully dated, perhaps, if you were born in the late 60s or 70s. I have said this in my other reviews of Klosterman—maybe it’s my age, level of nerdiness or sense of humor (likely all three), but I feel right in the strike zone. Someone who is, say, a generation and a half older, might dismiss him as some hipster, post-modern essayist who writes irrelevant things about irrelevant topics in a snarky, sarcastic, too-clever-for-its-own-good style. But I think he’s provocative, often insightful, usually funny.

Like his observation that Real World celebrity is the worst kind of celebrity—you will be “the kind of person who gets recognized at places like Burger King, but you will still be the kind of person who eats at places like Burger King.” Or his quip that Billy Joel’s best songs all sound like “unsuccessful suicide attempts.” Or his response to the rapture-like event at the beginning of Left Behind, where all the best Christians disappear from the planet: “Sounds good to me.”