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December 13, 2011

A Mirror for Higgins

Who knows if John Higgins would have approved of all this.  In June, a major journalism prize at a fancy awards banquet  in NY City will bear his name. We can thank some very good people at Discovery Communications and Time Warner Cable for making this happen. Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Journalism’s prestigious Mirror Awards has named its in-depth/enterprise reporting prize The John Higgins Award. Higgins was an iconic and influential cable trade reporter/editor at Multi and B&C who passed suddenly, too young, at 45, in November 2006. The Mirror Awards Web site says that more information about the awards will be posted soon. I wrote above I’m not sure Higgins (that’s how he referred to himself) would have approved. First off, he wasn’t an awards hound. That just wasn’t his thing. Still, his work was consistently the best, most in-depth and most-read in cable. Second, knowing his disdain for donning anything but a white shirt, black tie and black suit and shaving only on days beginning with the letter "T", I can’t imagine mirrors were particularly important to him. Third, the Mirror Awards, although open to all in print, broadcast and online media, normally go to the more prestigious popular press, not trade press. The NY Times, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Time, The New Yorker are among past Mirror winners. Higgins was a trade hack through and through. More than that, he was proud of it. Still, I’m guessing had he been able to receive news of a Mirror Award in his name, Higgins would have enjoyed the whole thing, flashed his patented calico cat grin and reveled for a moment, knowing his legacy was still alive. One thing I don’t have to guess about is the reaction of Higgins’s brother and sister, Bill and Moira. “We’re kvelling at the idea that John is remembered and honored,” Moira told me, using the Yiddish word for being extraordinarily proud. Bill wrote to me, "Good reporters die all the time, don't they? But John has not faded away; people are still talking about him. I continue to be impressed at the size of the impact he made on people in the [cable] industry." Upon hearing of the award, Bill exclaimed, "Hot dog!"  Yes, he's definitely Higgins's brother. Of course, in one respect this news is sadly ironic, having Higgins’s name associated with an award normally won by mass media members. One of the few regrets in Higgins’s professional life was the popular media's inability to recognize his talent and give him a job. Higgins should have been at places like The NY Times or The Wall St Journal. He certainly would have succeeded there. On the other hand, we're glad he's part of cable folklore. People still talk about his work and about him, his love of restaurants, jokes and culture.  They also talk about the huge memorial staged in his honor at MTV weeks after his death. More than 200 people attended, from all parts of the country. It’s hard to imagine a reporter, in the trades or the mass media, getting a more loving send-off than Higgins received that evening. But now he’s moved into a pretty exclusive neighborhood, and the place already has a mirror. [Disclosure: In addition to blogging at cablefax.com, I am employed by Time Warner Cable.]

December 7, 2011

State of Play: An All-Star Team on BBC America

(Dec 7) Often at parties and other social functions people ask about current shows, ‘What should I be watching?’ is the question usually. Fewer inquire about favorite shows of the past. Thank goodness. The memory banks sometimes seem crammed to capacity after 10+ years of writing TV reviews and far more than that watching as a non-reviewing private citizen. Some of the obvious choices come to mind easily: The Sopranos, Hill St. Blues, Mad Men, Hustle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, Sex and the City, The Avengers, This Week with David Brinkley, Rumpole of the Bailey, House of Eliott, House of Cards. After that, it gets tougher. If I had a bit of time to think, one of the series that certainly would occupy a place on the list would be State of Play, an intense, 6-part BBC drama/mystery/political thriller/love story, produced in 2003 and shown here in 2004, by BBC America. Fortunately, BBC America has had the good sense to show State of Play again, beginning this evening, at 10, as part of its Dramaville block. Consider it the best early holiday gift you can find on cable. And no, if you saw the film of the same name with Russell Crowe, I'd argue you haven’t really seen State of Play. The TV series, beginning again on BBC America tonight, is vastly superior to the film. Looking back on the series—and I do, I watch it yearly, sometimes in marathon sessions; I’ll admit, I’ve nearly worn out the DVD screener BBC America sent to review 7 years ago—I realize the cast, while somewhat popular at the time, has become a who’s who of British acting. There’s the wonderful Bill Nighy as a sardonic newspaper editor (yes, I know what you’re thinking: Are there any other kinds of editors?); a young Kelly Macdonald, now a regular on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as a smart, frumpy, but sublimely sexy investigative journalist; Philip Glenister, previewing his acumen at playing a very tough cop, which he’d get to do to perfection a few years later in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. There’s much more. The lead parts are played wonderfully by David Morrissey, as a politician who’s been unfaithful to his wife (by the way, in real life this could never happen, right?), and the understated John Simm, as a former political aide who’s jumped to the newspaper business. And I haven’t even mentioned smaller but important characters. There’s the hilarious Rebekah Staton as a nosey secretary at the newspaper; the sultry Polly Walker as the politician’s spurned wife (who doesn’t stay spurned for long); James McAvoy of X-Men and Atonement fame, as an eager cub reporter with a bit of a lineage problem; and Marc Warren, best known here for his turn on BBC's Hustle, shown on these shores by AMC several years ago. Ironically, it’s Warren’s character, Dominic Foy, who gets badly hustled in State of Play. The actors aren't the only stellar talent here. The behind-the-camera team also is a breed apart. The director is David Yates, who probably could retire on the money he's made directing the past four Harry Potter films. And the writer is Paul Abbott, who might be best known in the U.S. for his fine, semi-autobiographical series currently running on Showtime, Shameless. As you might have guessed from the long classification I gave to State of Play at the top of this blog ("an intense, 6-part BBC drama/mystery/political thriller/love story"), it’s fair to say that this series encompasses many areas of human emotion and interaction. It's satisfying on many levels and reaches most of the pleasure points and a few of the displeasure ones. Oversimplifying the plot terribly, the story revolves around a team of London newspaper reporters (remember, this is 2003, when newspapers had large staffs and money; oh, those were the days). The journalists uncover a scandal that spirals up to the highest levels of government, but begins benignly with two crimes that seem unrelated. The only drawbacks? Besides Macdonald’s Scottish brogue, which can be difficult to decipher, State of Play is, as I wrote above, intense. It’s definitely lean-in viewing, particularly in the early episodes, when details of multiple incidents unfold like artichoke layers. Perhaps it’s better to set your recorder to tape the 6-part series each week and then watch it in chunks of 2 episodes, maybe starting during your Christmas break. You can thank me later.

November 29, 2011

TNT Guilty of Enhancing Innocent Legacy

(Nov 29) In television, as in other businesses, nothing succeeds like success. And mysteries have been and are hot on television. In the television-movie business, network executives often make safe bets by returning to films that were hits in theaters. Such is the case with TNT’s Mystery Movie Night series, beginning this evening at 9, with Scott Turow’s Innocent, a film adaptation of the follow-on novel to his enormously popular novel-turned-blockbuster film, Presumed Innocent.  Presumed Innocent is a genuine cable staple. Like A Few Good Men, it seems this film is running on a cable channel nearly every weekend. This is not a bad thing, it's a fabulous film with a terrific cast and features an appropriately mysterious soundtrack by the great John Williams. With such a well-known property, there are bound to be comparisons with the follow-on, so it took some gumption for TNT and Turow to create their respecitve projects. While TNT’s offering lacks the intensity of Presumed Innocent, it is well made, well acted and is an excellent kickoff to the Mystery Movie Night series. Former hot shot lawyer Rusty Sabich, played by Harrison Ford in the theatrical and by Bill Pullman here, has recovered from the ordeal he had 20 years ago in Presumed Innocent, when he was accused of murdering a former colleague, a younger woman whom he was seeing, despite being married. Move forward two decades and Sabich is a Chicago judge, adored by his colleagues, still handsome at 60 and still very much married. At 60 his son, Nat, is matriculating, hoping to follow his old man into a legal career. While there are signs that Rusty’s marriage to Barbara Sabich (Marcia Gay Harden) isn’t quite happy, from the outside it seems solid. You could expect there to be some tension, of course. At the very end of Presumed Innocent it became clear Barbara had murdered Rusty’s lover. But skipping back to the present—something this film must do a lot and does well—all seems good until Rusty, in a moment of weakness, becomes involved with a 35-year-old law clerk. Rusty then makes another mistake, one having to do with his judicial duties. Following that, Barbara, a fitness fiend, dies in her sleep. This is when Rusty’s old nemesis, Tommy Molto, played beautifully by West Wing’s Richard Schiff, and Sandy Stern (Alfred Molina doing his usual fine job) come into view. I don’t want to reveal much more than this about the plot, but suffice to say, there are a bevy of twists coming viewers' way this evening. Kudos to TNT for taking on such a big project and caring enough about storytelling and filmmaking to give it the production values, writing and cast that it deserves.  As an opening salvo for the Mystery Movie Night series, the bar on a film about the bar has been set high.

November 21, 2011

Remembering a Journalistic Giant

(November 21)  People make various associations with Thanksgiving: of course turkey and stuffing; family; perhaps football; Black Friday; Golf Channel’s Drive, Chip and Putt for kids, which was always shown on Thanksgiving Day; encountering hellacious traffic on the road. I think of all those, too. But for me, this time of year is always associated with John Higgins, a giant of the cable trades, who passed away on this day five years ago, far too young, at 45. The recollection is cemented by thinking of the many cable executives—he knew them all—talking at his hastily organized but supremely well-attended memorial. Most of them still in disbelief, many recounted how just a few weeks earlier Higgins had phoned to ask how they were going to prepare their turkey. I recall thinking, ‘Ah, that’s how he softened them up so he could get them to spill about cable minutiae. Clever.’ At this point some of you, those new to the industry largely, are wondering, ‘Who was John Higgins?’ I won’t even pretend to answer that question fully. His resume said Higgins—that’s what he preferred to be called—broke into journalism after graduating from Notre Dame. His first jobs were on small, local papers; he was paying his dues. Once, asked to cover a polar bear club function by his editor, he made like George Plimpton and dove into the frigid waters himself. Despite that extraordinary first-person reportage, Higgins’s best work was done at Multichannel News and later at Broadcasting & Cable. Always donned in a white shirt and black suit, Higgins crafted multi-part essays about what quickly became the cable story of the week. But what it says on paper about Higgins can’t really begin to describe who he was and what he meant to the cable industry. *Gruff. Check. * Loud. Check. * Rude. Check. * Hilarious while being gruff, loud and rude. Check. * In reality, a teddy bear. Check. * The best financially-focused  trade journalist in cable, whose phone calls struck fear in the hearts of even the most seasoned PR professionals and the CEOs and GMs they protected. Most definitely check.  The memorial for Higgins I mentioned above was held at MTV in NYC, in a large reception area. Although the space was huge, the City’s Fire Inspector had to be persuaded to look the other way that evening, as the crowd was as big as Higgins's personality. Higgins would have appreciated the epic turnout for him and would have enjoyed the flaunting of rules. The attendees were, of course, fellow journalists, colleagues and competitors—he’d have preferred I call all of them hacks. But also there that evening were the very CEOs, GMs and PR people he terrified and who loved him just the same. With the amount and caliber of senior executives who attended, it was clear this was an event that rivaled any cable trade show. Five years later, cable people still talk about the evening's mix of stories, laughter, blue language and libations.    Oh, yes, true to the Higgins spirit, there was a festive happy hour before the memorial and another one, sponsored by Cablevision, Rainbow and several other companies, after. It lasted well into the morning. As former Cable Positive chief Steve Villano said at the time, “Who ever heard of a happy hour at a memorial? This could only be for Higgins.” Right. [For more about John Higgins and that memorable memorial, please enjoy the essays that ran on this site and in the pages of CableFAX Daily by clicking on the links. Incidentally, several cable friends of Higgins are working to craft a permanent memorial to him. Stay tuned for more details.]

October 14, 2011

Sin by Silence, A Teaching Tool About Domestic Violence

(October 13, 2011) The premise seems simple. A woman is in a romantic relationship with a man who smacks her. The woman leaves as quickly as possible, right? Unfortunately, it’s not always so simple. Domestic violence against women is “a gray area,” filmmaker Olivia Klaus says. She knows her subject. Ten years ago Klaus, a filmmaker and teacher, received a call from “one of my best friends.” Klaus’s friend was in a violent relationship. “I had no idea. And she was one of my best friends,” she says. More than that, “I had no idea how to help her,” Klaus adds, recalling that phone call. A decade later Klaus knows what to do. She found some of the answers during visits to a prison. Her teachers there were women, victims of domestic violence who were and are serving time for defending themselves against violent men. The women whose stories she subsequently filmed in prison killed their spouses or boyfriends after enduring countless attacks. Unfortunately, many of their cases went to trial years ago, when the battered woman defense wasn’t accepted by the courts.   Klaus’s film about women and domestic violence, Sin by Silence, made on a shoestring several years ago, gets its television premiere on Investigation Discovery Monday evening at 8. “I want people to use this film,” she says. “I want it to be used in classrooms and by organizations,” she adds. The stories it tells and the points it makes about domestic abuse “can literally save lives,” Klaus says. Education is critical, she says. “Domestic abuse isn’t going away. The legal system can’t get into people’s houses.” The film profiles imprisoned women who believed they were in loving relationships with stable men. Despite much physical, emotional and sometimes sexual abuse, the women remained with these men. It’s that gray area, Klaus was talking about. Of her friend, Klaus says, “I took her to shelters, but she kept going back” to the violent relationship. That pattern is not unusual. In the film we meet women who say they were too embarrassed to leave. Others had their self-esteem literally beaten out of them. Still others feared they couldn’t take care of their children without their husband’s earning power. As a result, many of the women suppressed the violent side of their mate, concentrating on moments when he was a loving partner. All of them felt trapped. An even scarier aspect of all this is that the violence might not be the worst part of the ordeal. Dr Elizabeth Leonard, a sociologist interviewed in the film, says the psychological and emotional abuse are far worse. “The bruises heal eventually,” she says. Perhaps as important is that some law enforcement officials argue domestic abuse fuels street crime. Anaheim, CA, Chief of Police John Walter says if domestic violence were eliminated, “we could eradicate 50% of street crime.” The violence children see in the home can lead to their using violence as a way of life, a life of crime, Walter says in the film. That the film is going to reach ID’s audience of nearly 80 million households is “a miracle,” Klaus believes. Her distributor, Women Make Movies, “never gave up [looking for audiences]…they got the film to ID.” It’s unusual for a film to do the rounds of festivals and local distribution and make it to national television several years after it was first released, she says, as is the case with Sin by Silence. “We’re hitting a home run very late in the game, but I’m thrilled,” she says in an interview in Washington, DC. Sin by Silence was released in 2009. Brenda Clubine was released just one year earlier. One of the women portrayed in Sin by Silence, Clubine served more than 25 years for killing her violent husband. At the time of her husband’s death she had called the police on more than 42 occasions during a six-month period to report abuse. The evidence was apparent—the beatings left Brenda with three broken ribs, a broken collarbone, several skull fractures and more than a few trips to the hospital. When Brenda’s husband died there were 11 restraining orders against him and a warrant for his arrest. She was approaching him to discuss divorce proceedings.  “The police knew me very well,” but they rarely did much, she said recently at an event staged by Investigation Discovery and the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, DC, to publicize the film. That her husband was a retired police officer was only part of the problem. Back in the 70s and early 80s, not even the shelters for battered women were particularly helpful to Brenda. She recalls phoning a shelter to seek guidance after a violent attack by her husband. ‘We can’t do anything for you since it’s the holidays,’ the shelter employee told her, ‘but we’ll call you back after the holidays.’ Brenda told the shelter employee definitely not to call back, as she feared the consequences should her husband answer the phone. “Fortunately, we’ve evolved since then,” Brenda says. After her conviction in 1983, Brenda, in a watershed moment for her, decided to work to heal her scars, to get her self-esteem back, even if she was in prison. The night she made that choice, six years after her imprisonment, she was informed her young son, whom she had to give up for adoption, had been killed.  Despite that shock, Brenda persevered. Eventually she realized other women in the prison shared her story of abuse and wrongful conviction. She founded the first support group in the history of US prisons formed inside an institution. Later, that group, Convicted Women Against Abuse, helped influence California courts to recognize Battered Women’s Syndrome as a legal defense in cases like Brenda’s. In 2007 Brenda’s story reached Olivia Klaus, who thought she’d finished her film about abused women in prison. Klaus had been attending CWAA meetings since 2001, when her friend’s plea got her interested in domestic violence. “I got involved the first night,” she said the other day. Brenda’s story became part of Sin by Silence. Thanks to CWAA, some 20 women, including Brenda, have had their cases re-examined by the court and been exonerated. An estimated 5,000 abused women still remain behind bars. “The justice system is not always so just,” ID chief Henry Schleiff says. Brenda’s appearance at the event in Washington, DC, the other day was one I’ll not soon forget. I’ll recall her poise, articulateness and joy. “This film could reach 77-80 million homes [on ID]. Who can count that high? I can’t,” she says, tears in her eyes as she looks at a packed room in a tony Washington, DC, hotel, just blocks from the White House. At 50, she’s on the circuit, dedicated to helping “my innocent sisters” still in prison to receive justice. She’s also enjoying the simple things in life, like using a mobile phone. “I was 20 when I arrested,” she says. “You see people on TV using cell phones, but they don’t show you how to dial them. I had to learn that.” She’s also enjoying life’s more complicated experiences. Her son, whom she was told was dead years ago, is alive. Now in his mid 20s, he found information about her at the CWAA Web site. Some stories that begin tragically can end well.

October 11, 2011

Veteran Actor Scott Wilson Gets His Due on HBO, AMC

(October 11)  “There are no small parts, only small actors,” has been attributed to several people, ranging from hoofer Ginger Rogers to influential Czech writer Milan Kundera. An example of what they (and others) meant can be seen in a few weeks on HBO and AMC. In an upcoming installment of HBO’s terrific new series Enlightened (episode #3, October 24, 9:30pm), veteran character actor Scott Wilson makes the most of a small part. He appears toward the end of the show and gets only about 120 seconds of screen time. Still, the warmth of his voice, his searching eyes and delivery help Wilson establish a character in just a few seconds. The 69-year-old is part of a scene with the series’ star, Laura Dern, that’s a microcosm of one of Enlightened's main themes: how to blend the good stuff in life with the cold realities of daily living. Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, just back from a month in a behavioral modification retreat in Hawaii, is trying to apply what she’s learned there to the rough and tumble of her work, home and romantic lives. When her return to the corporate world goes awry, she decides to try "to be an agent of change” by “being of service,” and seeks work at a homeless shelter. That’s how she meets Wilson’s character. I will let you discover the pleasures of this scene without revealing more detail than this. The interaction between these two actors is well worth the 25-minute investment required to watch this episode of Enlightened. There are far more delights in this series, too, but few match the emotional intensity of this brief and very memorable moment. Another series will give viewers a chance to get a lengthier look at Wilson, whose long career—he began in films in 1967 with a memorable turn in In Cold Blood—and active role at SAG have established him in the business as an actor’s actor. In fact, British actor Andrew Lincoln, who stars in AMC’s critically acclaimed and ratings-grabbing series The Walking Dead, says he came to the U.S. in part to work with actors like Scott Wilson. Viewers can watch Lincoln’s wish come true during season II of Dead, which begins Sunday at 9pm. Wilson begins a recurring arc in episode 2 (Oct 23, What Lies Ahead) as a doctor and land owner who helps Lincoln’s character, deputy sheriff Rick Grimes, although not quite the way Grimes thought at first. Still, the larger canvas he receives in Dead gives viewers more time to appreciate Wilson's work, which again is strong. He plays a calming influence in this episode, and does it well. He's posed against Grimes and nearly every other non-dead character in the series, who are, understandibly, under much strain what with nearly dead zombies looming around every corner. Since Wilson's character, Dr Hershel Greene, appear in several episodes that we've yet to see, it's difficult to assess his performance overall. Based on the early episode and his resume, we’ll be surprised if Lincoln's wish doesn't yield an enjoyable dividend for viewers. That's the same for Dead, whose first two episodes are appropriately creepy and point to a promising season despite a number of changes both in front of and behind the camera.

September 15, 2011

The Wire and Bill Belichick

(Sept 15) There are few if any revelations in NFL Films’ year-long tracking of Bill Belichick. On the other hand, the result, Bill Belichick: A Football Life (premieres Sept 15, NFL Network, 9pm ET), provides viewers with an intimate look at the process of coaching an NFL football team—the endless succession of practices, the meetings with owners, pep talks, pre- and post-game speeches, one-on-one skull sessions with the quarterback, the work on the sidelines and those darned weekly calls with the press. The film brings all this to fans with a clarity that  previously they could only imagine. For this alone A Football Life is like no other football documentary you’ve seen. This is logical—noboby has been wired for an entire year by NFL Films. That the subject chosen for wiring was Belichick, the notoriously press-averse coach/guru of the New England Patriots, is dessert with a healthy heaping of irony. Ever wonder what coaches and officials say to each other before and during games? This film allows you into those conversations. When the team’s going badly (a rarity with Belichick-led clubs), what does the head coach say to his staff? What does a seemingly anti-rah-rah coach like Belichick say to motivate his players? We get that, too. The intimacy is such that we even sit in on meetings between Belichick and Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft. We eavesdrop on a phone call between Belichick and Red Sox skipper Terry Francona. Then there are the less cerebral but nevertheless cool insights. What does an NFL coach’s office look like? His desk? How about his dressing room? Indeed, we don’t get a cavalcade of words from the reticent Belichick, whose demeanor never seems to change, even with the ups and downs of on-field action. It's in this sense that the film whacks at a few sacred cows. The theory is the person or persons you follow with a camera need to be outlandish in some way for the film to succeed. That's generally the case with reality TV. And while it's different for documentaries, it took guts for NFL Films to trail for 1 year a hitherto unknown coach, an interesting person and perhaps the man most likely not to do or say anything unusual.   Indeed, Belichick emerges from this documentary as a regular guy mostly, if not a decent fellow. Quiet for sure, but with an amazing head for football. We see him before the season relaxing quietly on his modest boat. He tools around a golf course, too, displaying a better-than-average putter. Even his demeanor on the football field is pleasant—provided it’s the pre-season. Belichick’s pre-season pre-game chats with opposing coaches and field officials seem downright collegial. He finishes every conversation with a version of ‘have a good season.’ Belichick even fraternizes with opposing players, complimenting the Ravens’ Ed Reed during warm-ups on a terrific play the All-Pro safety made the previous work. “Are you kidding me?” he says admiringly to Reed. He even has a sense of humor. On the sideline of pre-season game, Belichick tells injured receiver Wes Welker that he’s the EWS receiver for this game. “What?” A flummoxed Welker responds. “EWS. Eat. Warm up and Sit,” Belichick retorts, barely cracking a smile. Still, you never lose sight of the fact that it’s Belichick, a man who could make Marcel Marceau seem garrulous. We see him in his own version of Purgatory, enduring the mandatory weekly press conference. Told that incoming NY Jets’ coach Rex Ryan has said he didn't take the job so he could “kiss Belichick’s Super Bowl rings,” a reporter asks Belichick, “Has anyone ever kissed your rings?” Belichick sits at his desk, munching on a sandwich.  He clams up. “No, I don’t think so,” he says with Spock-like stoicism, completely devoid of humor. The best moments of part I (part II premieres Sept 22, 10pm ET) have little to do with intimacy. In what seems to be a staged segment, Belichick reminisces with, what is for him, great emotion. He’s in the locker room of The Meadowlands, prior to the Patriots playing there for the final time. The stadium was demolished after the 2009 season, the year Belichick wore the NFL Films’ wire. The reminiscences come from Belichick’s many years as an assistant with the NY Giants, under Bill Parcells. It’s a terrific insight into how hard a coaching staff works during the season. Perhaps even better, though, is a segment where Belichick dissects an upcoming game, predicting with terrific accuracy what will occur on the field. NFL Films intersperses plays from the game with Belichick’s predictions. Clearly, the man’s talent for coaching football is worth a documentary by itself.

August 27, 2011

President Bush Shows His, Nat Geo’s Personal Side

(August 23, 2011) When asked to name cable channels that represent a personal touch, you might think immediately of OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which claims to be Oprah’s personal take on programming. When it comes to channels that concentrate on biographies, the obvious first connection is the Bio Channel. National Geographic Channel doesn’t come quickly to mind, but it should. Recently it’s presented several very personal views of the world, beginning with a terrific piece last November profiling several days with peripatetic Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her staff, which included plenty of footage of Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, who later would become known for being the wife of former Rep Anthony Weiner. There was also a good segment on the Nat Geo series Locked Up Abroad about Joseph Pistone, the real-life FBI agent who infiltrated the Mafia and became the subject of the film Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Frequently the Nat Geo Channel screens such films for critics and guests and invites the piece’s subjects, making things seem even more personal. Secretary Clinton was there for her film. She watched it for the first time with the group assembled in Nat Geo’s auditorium in Washington, DC. Afterward, the Secretary was surprised with a large birthday cake by Nat Geo; Steve Schiffman, the Nat Geo Channel chief, led the audience in singing happy birthday. This past Tuesday, a day where an Earthquake in Virginia spread panic in DC that was eerily reminiscent of 9/11, Nat Geo previewed George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview (US premiere Aug 28, 10pm; premiere in 166 other countries in September; Nat Geo said Thursday it will make the film available to Armed Forces Network, allowing US troops overseas to view it). While the former President wasn’t in attendance, several people seen in the film were, including one of the pilots of Air Force One on 9/11 and several Secret Service agents. One of the most important people in the film, besides Bush himself, was there, multiple Emmy-winning director Peter Schnall. Nobody but Bush speaks during the hour-long film, which lacks a narrator. Yet the unseen interviewer, who manages to induce the President to speak personally about 9/11, is Schnall. In fact, in remarks after the screening, Schnall said his main goal in making the film was to get Bush to emote and reminisce about that infamous day. With no pun intended, mission accomplished. While it seems impossible to separate politics from the presidency, there appears to be no political agenda in Schnall’s line of questioning. But as important as Bush's personal reminiscences are, the insights about how the airborne White House functioned during the anxious hours immediately after the attack are even more valuable. How the President decided to ground all US air traffic. Why he ordered any aircraft that failed to respond to be shot down. How all this was done with a slew of misinformation—caused by "the fog of war," Mr Bush insists—flowing into Air Force One. Like him or hate him, George W. Bush was the person in charge at the time of the most violent attack on American soil and Nat Geo has given us a video record, in the President's words, of his thoughts at that historic moment. But to go back to the personal theme of this blog and pursue it further, Schnall feels he was given access to Bush because of the personal trust and relationship he had with the former President’s staff as a result of a film he did for Nat Geo a few years back about Air Force One. During filming for that piece, the White House staff gave Schnall access to the then-President for 10 minutes on the aircraft. After 30 minutes he and the President were still deep in conversation, Schall said Tuesday night. When Schnall met with Citizen Bush in May to begin 2 days of interviews that would become the 9/11 film, he was greeted by the former chief executive. “Hey, you’re the Air Force One guy!” Historians may wish Schnall had pushed the former President a bit, particularly on what appears to be a snap assessment that the 9/11 attacks meant “we were at war,” as Bush says with great emphasis. Is this a relatively new President attempting to act presidential or was the Commander in Chief making a reasonable guess based on a piece of intelligence that we don’t hear about in the film? Perhaps it's a question of semantics, recalling the debate over expressions like ‘the war on terrorism’ or ‘the war on drugs.’ Of course, whether or not Mr Bush would have answered Schnall’s questions on this or other topics is unknowable. Schnall insists the only question he asked that was not answered was whether, 10 years later, does Mr Bush have regrets about his handling of 9/11. “I don’t like that question,” Bush responded, according to Schnall. That exchange is not included in the film. Nat Geo not Mr Bush edited the film, Schnall and Nat Geo SVP Production Michael Cascio insisted Tuesday. This is a film whose director put a premium on getting personal reminiscences, not on understanding geopolitical strategy. And Schnall succeeds in recapping how the President experienced 9/11, from his early-morning run on a golf course in Florida, to his public appearance at an elementary school there, to his frustration with being urged by his team to avoid immediately flying back to Washington, for security reasons. And again, getting personal, there are numerous moments in the film that make Bush seem like the common man. He relates how he immediately wanted to know about the safety and whereabouts of the First Lady and his daughters. In this he's like the rest of us who lived through that day, as we wondered if our families, friends and colleagues were OK. Another personal insight—Bush recounts the moment that evening when, finally back in DC, he was able to see his wife. “We didn’t have to say much,” a heartfelt hug was communication enough, Bush relates. There was also the incident, told beautifully by Bush, where he and the First Lady, exhausted by the day’s horrific events, were settling in for a few hours rest in the White House, as were the couple’s two dogs, residing comfortably on the presidential bed. Within minutes all were awakened by a Secret Service agent and hustled, with the pooches, to the underground bunker. Word was the White House was being attacked. After finding out the attack was a false alarm, it was an F-15 patrolling DC airspace, the First Couple “trudged back” to their bedroom. The dogs trudged back, too. And Mr Bush's temper flares a bit, also. Ironically, for an event that eventually had 2 billion people following it on television, nearly one-third of the world’s population, the President couldn’t get a clear TV picture on Air Force One of the awful scenes. As the plane sped through different DMAs, TV signals would come and go, Mr Bush says. More important, the communications between Air Force One and the underground bunker in Washington, where VP Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice were located during the initial hours, was poor. The former President complains about this several times in the film. While there’s little humor in the piece levity has its place. A young soldier was driving the President after he landed at one of two military bases he landed at before eventually flying back to DC that evening. The young man was driving “at nearly 100 mph,” Bush says. ‘Son, slow down,’ Bush says he told him, ‘Al Qaeda's not here.’ Several light moments were left out of the one-hour piece. Schnall said the President managed to contact his parents, former President George and Barbara Bush, who were somewhere in the Midwest. ‘What are you doing there?’ the son asked. The parents’ responded: “Don’t you remember? You grounded us.” And while in NY City, several days later, Bush was surveying Ground Zero, a segment that provides some of the best footage in the film. Bush told Schnall that New Yorkers cheered his motorcade as it approached the site. Schnall said the President recalled, ‘It was the first time New Yorkers waved at me with all five fingers.’ A final note about Nat Geo Channel and its personal touch. Prior to the screening it handed out cards urging people to show solidarity with the victims of 9/11 by doing an act of public service that day as part of the I Will campaign. Doing that and watching this film are two good ways to remember that day.  

August 1, 2011

Starz Encore Captures Moby Dick

The nerve of Starz Encore--how dare it interrupt cable's longest-running programming stunt, Discovery's Shark Week, with another fish tale? Oh, but it's a very large fish. One whose liver is as long as two horse-drawn carts, we're told in Starz Encore's stimulating 2-part adaptation of Melville's classic Moby Dick (premieres August 1 and 2, 8pm). The Starz version of the story begins traditionally enough, sort of. It starts with an incident that wasn't in Melville's book.  Still the rescue of a young boy being beaten concludes traditionally enough, with the narrator character telling the young boy not to refer to him as Sir. "Call me Ishmael," is his well-known response. From there, Encore's story of the whale goes in directions that many readers expecting the traditional narrative surely will protest. Gone are the novel's extensive narration, its dense language and journies into cetology. Also missing from this TV version are the darkness and brooding of the devil-like Captain Ahab. But this is not a complaint. In fact, is there a better reason to re-tell a classic than to reinterpret some of it? And in the hands of William Hurt and scriptwriter Nigel Williams, Ahab is no less a compelling character than he is in Melville's reckoning. While much of Ahab's darkness is hidden in Hurt's reading, he remains a megalomaniac, bitterly obsessed with getting "revenge against an animal," says his first mate Mr Starbuck, played effectively by Ethan Hawke , in one of the strongest performances we've seen from this sometimes maligned actor. But back to our captain. This Ahab is more a man for our times. He's very much a modern CEO, part PR guy, business executive and psychologist, mixing carrot, stick and schtick to meet his objective. Sometimes his hot-tempered blasts rival those of his mammalian sea enemy. At other points he coddles "the boys." He cajoles his 30 rather clueless charges so effectively with a mix of bluster and treacle that his seamen eventually drop their original mission. Instead of killing as many oil-rich sperm whales and returning safely to Nantucket, they join Ahab's deadly obsession with the white whale. Another difference from Melville's book--this Ahab show signs of being a loving husband and father. He has a beautiful wife (Gillian Anderson) several decades his junior and a young son. From the early scenes with his wife and boy you almost believe Ahab is a family man. Yes, we can hear the traditionalists screaming, 'We never meet Ahab's wife in the book!' Ah, but this is Starz Encore, so at times Ahab's downright flirtacious with his attractive wife. He's an emotional and comforting father with his boy. The captain and his kin are living quite comfortably on Nantucket, although chez Ahab is perilously close to the docks, where father can watch his ship, the Pequod, being built, albeit too slowly for this supremely driven sailor. Eventually, in a push for productivity that will remind contemporary viewers of a dollar-hungry executive rushing products onto the market before they've been  fully tested, the ship's been deemed seaworthy. With that, Ahab's family concerns are put aside. "I always have to go [to the sea]," the peg-legged captain tells his good lady with the type of fatalistic resignation we saw from Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, when his mate, Adriana,  suggested they leave the Mafia for new horizons. His refusal also is reminiscent of other mobsters' pleas. As Hyman Roth said in Godfather II, "This is the business we've chosen..."  Yes, this Moby Dick reminds us of memorable moments from classic films and television, but is that a bad thing? Not really, since there's so much to admire here. There's the camera work on the open seas, and the richly detailed ship, a glorious vessel really. The music and the costumes are fine, too, despite the latter spending  much time soiled by the elements and covering unshaven, unkempt sailors (well, the ship was asea for nearly one year).  Clearly this is not a story for the clean shaven, and appropriately there's much filth. Starz Encore gets the atmosphere right, too, with sets featuring a noisey, dirty Nantucket inn, complete with the requisite grogs, tankards and wenches. There's also a Nantucket church whose pulpit, as in the Gregory Peck Moby Dick,  is a ship's bridge. This time it's mounted nicely by Donald Sutherland as a preacher who foreshadows the Pequod's voyage, noting that men can make plans, but there are forces far greater that control destiny. And of course there's an appropriately menacing whale and plenty of action, as in when sailors hit a whale with a harpoon, which is attached to a rope. The ensuing ride can be thrilling or a ticket to an early, watery grave. These and more combine to help you forget you're in the digital age, even though this whale is a creature of our computer-generated times. Still,  viewers will feel that they're  on an exciting and possibly dangerous ride, circa 1850. And if  being able to lose yourself in a different era is a test of  good entertainment, then this Moby Dick has done well. When you return to reality and look at this Moby Dick with contemporary eyes, you find its characters and script mesh well with your world view. We're guessing Melville, whose novel failed to gain him life-long attention during his lifetime, would be pleasantly surprised. His story, which he began writing in NY City and finished in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, is told with care, creativity and more than a  little bit of bravado by Starz Encore. And it still resonates. [caption id="attachment_1276" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="William Hurt portrays a non-traditional but effective Ahab in Starz Encore's Moby Dick."][/caption]

July 21, 2011

Ralph Kiner, An Original Met

It’s nearly 11 minutes into Ralph Kiner: 50 Amazin’ Years before viewers are reminded that Kiner, who’s known chiefly for having spent half a century behind the microphone with the NY Mets, was an extraordinary power hitter decades ago. In 10 major league seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kiner slugged 369 home runs, including 54, with 127 rbi, in 1949. More than just a power hitter, Kiner batted .310 that year. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975, Kiner's ratio of home runs to at bats is bested only by Babe Ruth among retired players. Also missing from the special is that Kiner shared or owned the league home run title in each of his first 7 seasons. Perhaps the lack of knowledge about Kiner the player can be attributed to his laid-back personality. TV viewers and radio listeners rarely heard him speak of his playing days. The game on the field always was the thing for Kiner the announcer, not his personal accomplishments. Fortunately, in this special Kiner, now 89 years old, lets the light shine a bit on him. For example, he relates the little-known story of how his talent was honed. Slugger Hank Greenberg, who’d been acquired by Pittsburgh in ’47, took the youngster under his wing, guiding him gently, Kiner intimates. The kid’s best season two years later was the result of Hammerin’ Hank’s tutelage. In a show filled with pleasant memories, one of the best comes from fellow octogenarian Vin Scully. “The thing I remember about Ralph Kiner is not how far he hit the ball,” Scully, 83, says in his trademark mellifluous voice, “but how high and how far he hit the ball.” While Scully, now in his 60th year in the Dodgers’ booth, is the quintessential professional announcer, Kiner's broadcasting style is much rougher. His schooling was done on the firing lines, with a live mic. Kiner admits he went into the booth without experience, but credits his original Mets partners, veteran announcers Bob Murphy and Lindsay Nelson, for being terrific teachers. The trio stayed together for 17 years, alternating between radio and TV. Kiner is adored in NY for his longevity with the Mets, his insight into the game and not a little for his lack of formal skills behind the mic. As such he's known to have a penchant for bungling the basics of announcing. The SNY special is smart not to ignore this. We see a ball hit weakly to an infielder and hear Kiner say, “There’s a base hit to center field,” before he quickly changes his call. And then there’s his fumbling of names. One of the highlights of SNY's special is a collection of what might be called Kiner-isms. Footage has Kiner referring to Mets’ All-Star catcher Gary Carter as Gary Cooper—but he recovers quickly, noting Carter’s gotten a hit every time up. “He’s been movie-like tonight,” Kiner says. Next we hear Kiner meld the names of two players, calling Mets’ outfielder George Foster “George Strawberry.” Another Daryl Strawberry gaffe, he notes that Mets’ pitcher Doug Sisk is tied with Strawberry for the league lead in runs batted in. Of course there are other bloopers that didn't make it into this special. Kiner, unlike Scully, was never adroit with difficult-to-pronounce names. He always had a devil of a time with the name of all-star pitcher Andy Messersmith; Kiner rountinely called him Messerschmitt, perhaps recalling Kiner's service in WWII. Two cherries on the upside-down cake are supplied by a pair of Kiner’s announcing buddies. Tim McCarver recounts Kiner’s introduction of him on camera as “my good friend, Tim MacArthur.” Then Gary Cohen tells of Ralph introducing him during a Wrigley Field telecast as “David Cone.” But, as it turns out, all involved say they can tell these stories because Kiner is able to laugh at himself. In fact, Cohen, who’d listened to Kiner as a kid, felt “I had become a member of the club” when Kiner botched his name. More muffs—Cohen again, noting that Kiner, during a father’s day game, wished “all the fathers out there a happy birthday.” Kiner reprised that line years later, “because he knew it was funny and can laugh at himself,” Cohen says. But then it’s time to get to the crux of it all. Kiner is revered as much for his gaffes as his understated personality and knowledge of the game. Former Mets’ pitcher and now SNY announcer Ron Darling says, “Ralph was the first [announcer] I admired because he’d actually [played baseball] and done it on a Hall of Fame level.” Darling continues, “I know I’m not a Hall of Fame player,” but he has strived to be a Hall of Fame announcer like Kiner. Darling's on his way, winning an Emmy in his first season in the booth. There’s much more in this stroll down memory lane in Kiner’s Korner. And since it's about Ralph Kiner, who loves to tell stories, they are a large part of the nostalgia. And they're not all baseball tales. Kiner smiles a bit when recounting why he never got a second date with Elizabeth Taylor. Admittedly, Kiner, slowed by health problems, is at times difficult to comprehend when speaking. And SNY doesn't have the budget to obtain the kind of vintage baseball footage you get from an HBO Sports special. And we'd have loved to see Casey Stengel brining down the house, literally, when the Ol' Perfessor pulled down the walls of Kiner's Korner, the post-game show, because his microphone wire became entangled in the set. Still, the admiration and love for Kiner, an accomplished yet humble man who continues to work the odd game in the SNY broadcast booth, now known as The RalphKiner booth, is palpable. As former NY Mets GM Steve Phillips says, "although Ralph never played an inning for the Mets, he's one of the most important people in this franchise." More than once in this special someone utters a variation on “everyone loves Ralph.” Amen to that. [Ralph Kiner: 50 Amazin' Years debuted on SNY July 21 at 7pm ET. It will be shown again on July 26 at 1:30pm ET; July 28 at 4pm ET, Aug 21 at 5:30pm ET and Aug 22 at 1:30pm ET.] [caption id="attachment_1260" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="50 YEARS AND COUNTING: Ralph Kiner (center) in the SNY booth with Ron Darling (left) and Gary Cohen."][/caption]
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