Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: full30.com

You may have been to Full30.com already, as it’s the home of InRangeTV, which we’ve been remiss about promoting, and have been meaning to plug. We’ll let Ian and Karl explain what InRange is:

InRange is a collaborative project between Ian McCollum (Forgotten Weapons) and Karl Kasarda. After watching the gun program landscape of cable television decline into a wasteland of explosions and ginned-up drama, they decided to produce a show that would appeal [to] the intelligent and sophisticated gun owners and gun enthusiasts worldwide.

In an internet video world that’s dominated by the childish play of FPSRussia and the soporific ramblings of 30-minute gun reviews, is there room for a show for the thinking gun enthusiast?

Here’s a far-out example: Karl in a 2-gun match with an updated FG 42. Before you laugh at the idea that a 70-year-old design can keep up with a “modern” AR (which is, after all, a 60-year-old design), watch to the end and see how Karl did out of 47 shooters. And here’s a follow-up with Karl and Ian discussing the features of the modernized FG. It’s like hanging out with two fellow gun nuts — in HD. “We’re putting out this video because we think this is an awesome gun,” Ian says.

In addition to those, there are a handful of other videos from InRange already posted. They’re all good, whether it’s Karl describing the forgotten battle at Dragoon Springs where a small Confederate foraging patrol found itself overwhelmed by… Apaches, one of their patented historical-gun matchups at a live 2-gun match, or an interview with AR pioneer Jim Sullivan.

“But wait!” our inner Ron Popeil cries out. “There’s more!”

Because Full30.com isn’t just the host of InRange TV, even though InRange is our favorite channel there (imagine a cable network with different channels; that’s what Full30 is for people interested in gun-related videos).

Some of the bigger guns (pun definitely intended) of YouTube notoriety are here, including MAC (the Military Arms Channel) and Iraq Veteran 8888. Here, for an example, is a very thorough video by MAC about the FN F2000 and especially FS2000 rifles that hits all the high points (ergonomics, for example, forward ejection makes it ambi-friendly) and low points (STANAG mags only, thank you very much) of the system. The video actually made us want one.

 

Rotten Read Review: Berenson: The Shadow Patrol

Berenson Shadow PatrolThere is a downside to having the sort of personal characteristics that Special Forces either selects for, or develops in, a guy. Prominent among these characteristics is a level of persistence that is not normally found in neurotypical human beings.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and it is, when you’re trying to cover 12 miles in 2 ½ hours with a broken rucksack frame, after a week with little food and no sleep. It comes in handy when you’re dealing with such persistence-killers as the cable monopoly and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, too. Or trying to train a teenager, or a dog. But you can probably imagine some circumstances when it’s maladaptive. For a bunch of guys who probably hold some global collective divorce percentage record, we have a tendency to cling to exes that ought to be set free. And we tend to finish every book we start, even if the book stinks.

In middle age, we can remember every single book we didn’t finish — fewer than 20 –, and we’ve probably averaged four books a week since childhood. We have no illusion that’s normal, even if Dogged Book Syndrome lacks a definition in the DSM-IV.

And that was our exact problem with Alex Berenson’s The Shadow Patrol. (New York: Putnam, 2012). That mindless compulsion to finish a book that we did not like.

It started off well enough. The book has an attractive jacket, with mountains that really look like Afghanistan, unlike so many illustrations that draw their inspiration from the Southwestern USA — or from Warner Brothers’ cartoon version of Road Runner fame. True, the four or five mosques cheek by jowl is a bit puzzling, but we put it down to an artist who thinks Islam is just like Christanity and so various mosques cluster like churches in a New England town square, Sunni and Shia and Ismailis nodding to another on their way to prayers like Lutherans and Congregationalists and Episcopalians (whom you can tell, as their nods are a bit shallower and more uptight).

That’s not a view anyone who’s lived among the Moslems of Southwest Asia might take, but, we can cut the artist some slack. No Afghan mountain tribesman lives in a society more rigid or isolating than the New York arts and publishing circle, after all.

But the book, per the sort of glance one gives a blurb and front matter in a store, had more promise. Many reviewers praised Berenson as a spy novelist. There were red flags, if we’d caught them. Berenson’s a New York Times reporter who’s covered three stories the Times has done a lousy job on: Iraq, Katrina, and the Madoff fraud. Anybody writing for the Times has to be assumed to be hostile to, and mystified by, today’s military. But… against that, there is this: a dedication To all the men and women still fighting. And an acknowledgement of an embed with American troops. Could be promising.

And all those reviewers said he was the best since Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler.

Nope.

While the story starts off promising, with a much-altered retelling of the incident in which a supposed agent turned out to be a double and eliminated a number of CIA officers and contractors with a suicide bomb, it quickly devolves into a canned retelling of all the 99 bad movies about troops smuggling drugs in Vietnam.

Even his infantrymen come right out of bad Vietnam movies — poor, minority, stupid, in the Army only because they lack any other options in life. The rogue troops doing the drug smuggling — how they do it is never made really clear — aren’t even bright enough to do crime on their own, but they have to be led by, wait for it… rogue CIA agents.

It’s one more tale in which the valiant guy with the pedigree like a New York Times writer has met the enemy, and they are, naturally, the renegades and bloodthirsty, soulless vampires of the Stryker Brigades and, naturally, Delta.

Here’s an example of the sort of bullshit Berenson writes:

Francesca would be bummed when this tour was finished. It was his third and last. Not his choice. The Army gave you only three. In the three tours, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, he’d racked 56 kills, a good number, especially with the drones doing so much work these days. Maybe good was the wrong word. Francesca wondered whether all that killing had changed him. Course it had. Back home, civvies called guys like him serial killers. The more he pulled the trigger, the easier it came. He’d given up waiting for God or anyone else to punish him. He hadn’t been hit by lightning or gotten cancer or gone blind. He was in the best shape of his life. Plenty of money in the bank, and more coming. The Joes treated him like a minor god.

He wasn’t too worried about payback in the next world either. He’d watched close through his scope for souls leaving the man he killed. Hadn’t seen a single one. Only the red mist, the cloud of blood and tissue that shrieked from the body when a bullet cut through. The afterlife was a fable for little boys and girls. Not real men like him.

Yeah, that’s definitely how snipers think. And that’s why they start smuggling drugs and murdering Americans.

If you’re some assclown with a cube on 43rd Street, that’s how you think they think, anyway.

Berenson’s dim insight into the inner lives of his own characters doesn’t end there; it’s pretty universal. Another character is supposedly a convert to Islam, a conversion that not only is never explained, but that makes no visible impression upon the character, who can’t even bestir himself to salat. It seems more likely that what we’re seeing is Berenson’s projection of his own wishy-washy and disbelieving relationship with his own ancestral faith, whatever it isn’t.

The guy can write reasonable dialogue, and he can write a reasonable action scene, although some of his stuff, again, indicates he slept through his embed and falls back on movie fandom to understand guns and gunfights. In one crucial scene, a character sneaks up on a sniper team armed only with a Makarov and no spare mag, and a knife. (It’s OK, though, because his Makarov fits ten rounds in the eight-round mag; yes, there’s allegedly a 10-round Mak magazine out recently, but you won’t find it in Afghanistan).

Realistic? Did we tell you he kills them?

…even though they detect his approach?

…. and without any injury to himself?

… and… and…  (here’s the best part) … he sneaks up to them on a motorcycle?

That’s how dreadful this book is.

 

Saturday Matinee 047: Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga_Din_DVD“You’re a better man that I am, Gunga Din.” That closing line of the Kipling poem became the wrap-up line of this 75-year-old gem, which awkwardly merges the story of the loyal-unto-death bhisti with the comic episodic novel Sergeants Three, and an extra dose of Hollywood formula: the happy bachelors scheming to sink their buddy’s impending marriage. The acting’s sometimes over the top, the historical accuracy minimal and so many scenes and situations from this movie have become setpieces and tropes that you would be excused for thinking that Gunga Din, too, was an imitator rather than the originator of these ideas.

But if you aren’t entertained by this film, there’s something wrong with you.

Acting and Production

Gunga Din was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which broadly resemble some parts of the Khyber Pass area, but have been used in so many Hollywood westerns that the striking scenery comes off as generic1. Many of the sets are clearly redressed movie-ranch Western sets, exotic enough to convince home-bound Americans of the Depression era, but unlikely to ring true to our many Afghan vets today.

But the acting, and the fanciful script’s taut dialogue, drive the story along and make the viewer, even from the vantage point of 2014, suspend enough disbelief to enjoy himself. The three key actors are the three sergeants: Cutter, McChesney, and Ballantine, played by Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Sergeants Three

The three leads are, thanks to the script’s lively dialogue, a merry Three Stooges, British Raj-style: they clown around but somehow, always, seem to get the mission done for their stuffy Colonel and his toady, Sergeant Higginbotham.

Sam Jaffe as Din and Joan Fontaine as the hopeless love interest are some of the more familiar and skilled of the supporting actors — for Jaffe, this was a career-making credit (it didn’t hurt that he was friends with John Huston, which later helped him overcome blacklisting for his Communist sympathies).

Vast quantities of money were spent on the location shoots and setpieces, some involving hundreds of extras. As a result, the film lost money despite a high gross, according to IMDB.

Accuracy and Weapons

In 1939, moviemakers had a different approach to accuracy than they do now, and it’s likely that the movie had no researchers, and made no effort whatsoever, apart from naming a couple of distinguished veterans of the Northwest Frontier as military advisers.

Cary Grant as Cutter in Gunga Din

The uniforms are representative, not right, and the guns aren’t even representative; the troops have ahistorical bolt actions (Krags, which weren’t invented yet, and were never used by the British anyway), the sergeants tote American double-action revolvers (specifically, Colt New Service pistols, which postdate the setting by decades, too), the Thuggees (the bad guys) have a variety of exotic weapons that spring from the art director’s imagination, and their rifles are — drum roll please — trapdoor Springfields, mostly (and more Krags).

GungaDin_Trapdoor_springfield

Both sides have cannons — the bad guys, Napoleonic looking muzzle-loaders, and the good guys, mockups of late 19th-century artillery — but neither one recoils when “fired.”

GungaDin_cannon2_02

The indifference to accuracy extends beyond the firearms. Today’s Social Justice ninnies would be aghast at the casting of a Jewish guy from New York as a frontier Indian of the 1880s, but as mentioned above, Sam Jaffe’s performance as the title character is extremely good.

The bottom line

Gunga Din is a lot of fun, and it’s a compact film: the then-standard under-two-hours running length ensures that it motors right along (there’s an even brisker 94-minute cut, but the original ran for 117). To some extent it comes across as trite and something you’ve seen before, but that’s because it has been so thoroughly ripped off by other Hollywood shows. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is only one example of an update of the story; they even have the evil temple leader looking like his 1939 prototype.

Hey, everybody steals. The important thing is to steal from good work. This is good work, worth ripping off.   

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page :

http://www.amazon.com/Gunga-Din-Cary-Grant/dp/B00049QQJQ/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031398/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Gunga_Din

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: it has a 92%, “fresh,” rating.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gunga_din/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunga_Din_(film)

NOTES

1. How common is the main location (Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California)? An IMDB search finds Gunga Din  — and 342 other titles filmed there!

How an Original Tiger Wound up in Fury

One of the most remarkable things about Fury is the presence of a real, running, Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger 1 on screen. This is the first time a real, live, Tiger, and not a mockup on some other chassis, a scale model, or a CGI digital emulation, was used in a feature film. Here’s a video of how a high-strung thoroughbred war machine from most of a century ago performed before the cameras:

As Tigers belonged to an empire that was crushed to rubble some 70 years ago, the few of them that have survived have mostly come to nest in museums. But one that was captured in 1942 in the Western Desert nation of Tunisia has been running (occasionally) and entertaining visitors at the Royal Armored Corps’s Tank Museum in Bovington, England for some years now. Tiger 131 was shipped to the set (along with some doting caretakers), and the Museum also provided the title character, Fury the Sherman tank.

The Museum now has a temporary exhibit dedicated to the movie, including some of the props they didn’t originally provide, and wargaming stations that let visitors get creamed by Tiger tanks themselves — at least, in the digital realm.

The Tank Museum also posted this video explaining some of the other lengths the movie makers went to, to make Fury as grimly accurate as they did.

We did note the absence of anachronisms on the screen, at least in terms of props and settings. (Some of the language and human expression is more 21st Century than 1945, but what can you do about that?) If you’re planning to see the movie (about which we remain uncharacteristically ambivalent), these videos contain no real spoilers and may help you look for details you’ll enjoy seeing.

Saturday Matinee 045: Fury (2014)

Fury is a movie of remarkable power. It begins with the crew of an American tank, an M3 Sherman (actually a very late M4A3E8) contemplating their survival — or most of their survival, for one crewman lies dead at his station — through Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Falaise Gap, and finally, into Germany. The war is nearly over, but it’s not letting up.

fury_promo

This tightly bonded crew is joined by a new man, green as his spotless new uniform (a sharp contrast to the personalized but worn and dirty gear that adorns the old crewmen), who isn’t even trained as a tanker. We see and empathize with his terror as he’s pressed in, an outsider, to a crew that seems cold, distant, cruel and crude — and united, against him. Tank warfare is a portmanteau of Hobbes and Churchill — the “natural condition” of tanker-kind is “worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” but all “made more sinister, by the lights of perverted science.”

Fury_220

The parallel to Oliver Stone’s Platoon is inescapable, and you can almost hear a Hollywood pitch meeting: “Platoon, with tanks, in World War II!” But Fury transcends Platoon’s jejeune war-is-bad-and-makes-men-naughty message, in part because director David Ayer seems unclear as to what message he wants to send, or if he wants to send one at all, beyond, “Stuff like this happened. Watch and see. Amazing.”

Acting and Production

The actors are, to a man (and a woman) fantastic. The key fivesome are the crew of Fury itself:

  1. Brad Pitt as the complex, multifaceted tank commander and leader, “Wardaddy”;
  2. Michael Peña as the ethnic-chip-on-his-shoulder driver, Trinia Garcia aka “Gordo”;
  3. Shia LeBoeuf as the devout Christian tank gunner, Boyd Swan or “Bible”;
  4. Jon Bernthal (familiar to viewers of the first two Walking Dead seasons as “Shane”),  as the coarse loader Grady “Coonass” Travis; and,
  5. Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, a new replacement who is stuck in the bow gunner position.

fury-brad-pitt-imagePitt in particular has to play a deep, complex character chock-full of contradictions. Some reviewers have compared his character to the one he played in the shallow, cartoonish Tarantino revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. About the only possible explanation for that is that they reviewed the trailer, not the movie.

In addition, supporting actors in a variety of roles: the other tank crews, German captives, German refugees and civilians, etc., are uniformly good and complement their characters.

The production is well done, with the arguable exception of the sound design and sound effects which are over the top and interfere sometimes with one’s ability to follow the dialogue.

But some scenes are disturbing. Some graphic and gratuitous gore is included as an attempt, perhaps, by people who have never seen the face of war to describe their imagination of it. Others dwell at length at the cruelty and shallowness of the characters on the screen, as if the real purpose of the film is to “deglamorize” the WWII GI by the filthiest depiction that can be made. The characters are deeply flawed, apart, of course, for the Oliver Stone everyman/kid, and the point seems to be that in the skewed environment of war his lack of deep character flaws is, if not a flaw itself, at least a profound maladaptation.

Fury-MovieFury is superior to Platoon in this: there is not a member of the unit that is a renegade bad guy slavering to murder his own people, one of Stone’s paranoid fantasies brought to life in his epic. There are definitely characters in Fury that you are supposed to dislike, but you come to respect them.

The disturbing scenes, the persistent negativism and misanthropic message of much of the movie makes it, at times, hard to watch. It is not a movie for the family, for women, for kids who are not ready for Hollywood’s contempt of anything not tawdry, shallow and artificial, and Hollywood’s inability to distinguish depth from gratuitous grue. (“You can’t unsee that,” muttered Kid at one point, to which we reminded him that wasn’t a real human body part, but a latex prop molded and painted by skilled artists).

The runtime of the movie is about a half hour too long at 2h 14m; cutting some of the disturbing and maleficent scenes might have made a better film.

Accuracy and Weapons

There’s some imperfections in the details of the story, but they’re very small. News stories reported that an actual surviving Tiger tank was used, the only one in the world available for such duty (the handful of roadworthy Tigers are in museums). One gets the impression that the producers had a platoon of researchers; the uniforms are right, the weapons are right (on both sides). The weapons’ effects are at times overstated, with machine gun fire routinely removing entire heads (it can happen but is not the norm). This is as good a time as any to reiterate that the director follows Peckinpah and Tarantino in taking “graphic” into the lands beyond realism, the netherlands of disturbed imagination; at times there is no point to the bloodbath but the bloodbath.

Fury_208

Note the remarkable realism of this scene-setting, with the cartridge casings (as you can see, from live, not blank, rounds) and metal links lying across the turret, and marks from rounds spalling off the armor.

In at least one case — the effects of flame on a tank and its crewmen — the film goes for gross-out over realism, when realism would be plenty gross enough for even the most malicious 5th grader (who comes to mind because it seems his sensibility underlies some of Ayer’s artistic decisions).

Small arms are often considered an afterthought in tank warfare, but any tanker will tell you that, for most targets, the tanks co-ax and TC/loader guns are vital, and every tanker needs personal weapons when dismounted. These weapons are all right on target, with Brad Pitt’s character having idiosyncratic, but plausible, personal weapons: a captured MP44 and a personalized M1917 revolver.

Fury_222

Certainly Fury, the tank, is all but a character in the story. The Sherman was the product of an American concept of tank warfare that saw tanks primarily as vehicles for engaging enemy infantry, artillery and positions. It was second-best when put against any of the German armor of the day, especially on two of the three key tank axes of power: armament and armor. The Sherman was superior in mobility, and its systems were in some ways more sophisticated than those in foreign tanks, notably in its gyro-stabilized shoot-on-the-move capability. But American crews weren’t always trained to get the maximum out of their tanks. As a result, casualties were staggering; the 3rd Armored Division lost 580 percent of its tanks in Europe.

Rather well, the movie and the characters say little about the tank and its brethren, but show you what it can do and what it cannot. You can tell they have taken on a task beyond little Fury’s iron capabilities when the crew themselves show their fear.

One thing the movie does fairly well is get across the idea of the claustrophobia inside one of these steel coffins.

An accurate detail we don’t recall seeing in a movie before is the telltale marks of bullet splashes on armor. These are done, done well, and done in continuity, with more showing as the battle wears on — just keeping continuity on the enemy effects on the tank must have been a huge job for someone on the set. Whoever that anonymous crewperson was, their efforts bore fruit.

The most glaring goof is that the rounds in the turret are all color-coded inert blue. At another point, a grenade’s delay is stretched out to a seeming eleventeen seconds to allow plot developments to move along.

Fury_227The Germans are less suicidal than the mooks in most American war films, like the death-seeking human drones in Saving Private Ryan. For most of the show, they’re bold, cunning and take considerable killing; in the climactic battle at a crossroads, they finally indulge in a most un-Teutonic human wave attack.

The bitterness of the US troops to Germans in general and the SS in particular may seem out of place if your frame of reference is other war movies, but it is not actually out of place, based on primary sources. Some of the Americans are not-Geneva-cricket cruel to enemy POWs, but there’s a strong implication that this is tit-for-tat retaliation, and certainly such events did occur. The men-lose-their-veneer-of-civilization-in-war theme is straight outa Platoon, and it’s one of the weakest parts of a complicated, multilayered movie.

The bottom line

Fury is a powerful film. It took us quite some time to get to this review because we came out of the theater knowing we’d had a powerful experience, but extremely ambivalent about the experience we’d had. There are not many good movies about the armor branch, and none that focus on the interactions of a single crew, with the weak exception of The Beast, a 1980s B-movie depicting Russians in a lost tank in Afghanistan, that was itself an adaptation of a stage play.

We don’t think Fury will become a perennial classic, beloved of viewers like Saving Private Ryan. It may do better in the esteem of film professionals. It’s a film the average viewer should approach with some caution, and it will indeed give you food for thought, something rare in a war actioner.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (unreleased, it’s still in theaters at this writing; for pre-order at this time) :

http://www.amazon.com/Fury/dp/B00OMC2LH2/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2713180/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Fury_(2014)

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: critics 78, top critics 70, audience 88, all on a scale of 100.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/fury_2015/

  • Metacritic review page: it has a score of 64 on a scale of 100 based on critical reviews, and 7.5 of 10 based on audience reviews. (Metacritic is new with this review).

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/fury

  • Wikipedia  page:

no page

Attkisson’s Stonewalled: a Disappointment

stonewalledRight now, a common Washington trope is playing out on Metro platforms and in Georgetown salons: people are discussing a book they haven’t read, in this case Sharyl Attkisson’s Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment In Obama’s Washington.

Unlike the bulk of the people discussing it inside the beltway, including, apparently, some of the people writing about it (like Politico’s partisan hack Hadas Gold), we’ve actually read the thing. We pre-ordered the Kindle edition so that we could review it here. And we read it with great anticipation.

That anticipation didn’t really pan out; ultimately, we were disappointed by the book. Attkisson is a remarkable reporter: she doesn’t just persevere, she perseverates, and this makes her a lightning rod in ways that she herself doesn’t seem to understand. Her topics tend to be highly political ones: she was an early adopter of the ascientific idea that vaccines cause autism, an idea who scientific repudiation has come and gone, leaving her still perseverating in the original, discredited, theory.

But that made her beloved of news producers, who tend to be the sort of highly verbal, shallowly-educated people that are suckers for such a pseudo-scientific theory. Likewise, reporting on Bush Administration scandals raised her profile at the network. Conversely, her reporting on the ATF gunwalking scandal, or on the loss of the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, cut against the grain of the news producers’ politics and, perhaps more important, worldview, and ultimately made the telegenic and dogged reporter persona non grata at her career-long employer, CBS.

She learned what happens when you challenge, rather than reinforce, The Narrative: you become a journalistic unperson. The best parts of the book are the ones where she recounts being on the outside of her own profession as the doors of epistemic closure slam shut in her face. Those are also the most disappointing ones: she recounts many tales of journalistic malfeasance, but, whether out of a forlorn-hope desire to work in the industry that has unpersoned her, or out of a residual and unrequited loyalty to her old love, CBS News, she seldom names names. This leaves these anecdotes hanging, unsuspended by the salient facts that alone would make them believable. She, in essence, is writing, “The news racket is biased,” a fact that anyone with brain-stem activity should understand, but supporting her argument with only this particular: “because, trust me.” Well, didn’t you just come from that same dishonest cesspool of slanted, biased and fabricated story-telling? Why should we trust you?

She does not break any news on Fast & Furious and Benghazi, and indeed, some claim that she overstates her own prominence in those stories. While she did break the ATF Gunwalking scandals on the broadcast networks, William LaJeunesse was breaking them on cable news at Fox, and both of them stood on the shoulders of the writer and blogger who broke the story, David Codrea and Mike Vanderboegh. But, while some have accused Attkisson of not giving credit to the bloggers, she actually did. Here’s a snippet of her story of what happened when she reached out to them:

We found that a lot of the background regarding this emerging controversy was anonymously posted by ATF insiders on the blogs of gun rights activists Mike Vanderboegh of Sipsey Street Irregulars and David Codrea of Examiner.com. So my producer and I contacted Vanderboegh and Codrea, who were in direct contact with some of the principal players. We asked the bloggers to pass along my name and number in hopes that their sources would be willing to talk to me. After a few days passed with no luck , I registered with the forums of the blogs and posted a public notice. It said that I was interested in pursuing a possible story for CBS News and needed insiders to contact me.

It worked.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, which oversees ATF, responded to Grassley’s inquiry, in writing, and insisted that no one in the government would ever let guns walk . This is a wildly false claim they would later recant once the evidence became irrefutable.

“Who approved the strategy? What were they thinking?” he asks. It’s his job to prompt reporters with the questions any viewer would want answered.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “We don’t have the answers. But this first story will shake the tree and we’ll get closer to some answers.”

Kaplan is sold. I’m lucky he’s from the school of follow-the-story-where-it-lead s rather than the school of you-must-know-in-advance-where-it’s-going-and-how-it-ends-and-then-we’ll-decide-if-the-public-should-know. This is how real news is committed.

It seems like in today’s newsrooms, the impulse to pursue a story is in unhealthy tension with the impulse to slant everything for the home team. One casualty of this is, to her apparent surprise, the public’s trust in the media. Essentially, no one talks to them but someone trying to spin something, and even they, they’re talking from a point of contempt:

I wasn’t actually the first network news reporter following the trail. Early on , when my producer and I contacted the bloggers Vanderboegh and Codrea, they told us that an investigative reporter from NBC had already called them. But he ticked them off.

“He’s an asshole ,” Vanderboegh told me more than once. “He demanded our contacts’ names and phone numbers. Hell no, we’re not handing over names and phone numbers to some asshole, pardon my French!”

I realize that the bloggers could well be saying the same thing about me pretty soon. The gun rights crowd is, by nature, mistrustful of reporters. So are the ATF agents whose confidence I need to gain. You can’t lie to them. You can’t mislead them. They can smell insincerity a mile off. And you most certainly can’t cold-call them and demand names and numbers of their confidential contacts.

Indeed, she is, in that last paragraph, treading within inches of the tripwire that would detonate the explanation of why the media is so mistrusted and loathed today, scoring in the low double digits in credibility surveys: they lie to us, they mislead us, and they reek of insincerity.

Still, note what she did there. She gave full credit to Codrea and Vanderboegh, whom she described accurately as having a dog in this fight (“gun-rights activists”) and, especially, to the necessarily-anonymous ATF agents who blew the lid off the DOJ’s lies in this case. (However, she didn’t note that Mike and David did forward her contact info to the whistleblowers). And she gave full credit to CBS’s Rick Kaplan, a controversial figure in news who nonetheless did right by her. But note what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t mention the NBC “asshole’s” name, and when other CBS insiders become more obstructive in the days ahead, she will not out them.

The NBC asshole was Michael Isikoff, so deeply in the tank for Democrats that in the 1990s, while at Newsweek, he agreed with his producers and the White House to spike a story reflecting ill on the then-President, Bill Clinton. That story was an exclusive on Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. After Isikoff agreed to spike it, someone at Newsweek leaked a draft to Matt Drudge. It is doubtful that Isikoff had any interest in ATF whistleblowers, beyond giving them up to Holder; indeed, according to Vanderboegh, it was one of the whistleblowers who gave Isikoff that fundamental-orificial title, saying, “Don’t send any more shit to us from that arrogant asshole. . . He’s probably working for DOJ.”

Where she is at her best is describing the mechanics of how the Democrat-Media-Axis shushing machine works, using political people, hack journalists (whom she very seldom names), and the hired hands at Media Matters. (For instance, she details how Media Matters developed a “target folder” on Vanderboegh, and peddled it to journalists, two of whom turned it into a story over their own byline — and no she doesn’t name those hacks either, but they were  But if you’re not interested in the inside-beltway details, you might not get much out of this book.

Yes, the news is largely slanted and the people running it are mostly repellent human beings. CBS News is in the tank for the Obama Administration; not surprising, as the head of one is the brother of the chief of staff of the other, and they clearly work together to shape and slant CBS’s coverage in ways to the brothers’ mutual advantage. For example, David Rhodes, the CBS brother, did Ben Rhodes, the political-hack brother’s, bidding by burying a CBS interview that exposed a trenchant Obama lie.

But it’s very, very frustrating that she’s still covering for most of the fish in the CBS tank, with a few glaring exceptions, like Scott Pelley, whose partisanship and dishonest reporting is beyond concealment.

Finally, we should pass on some notes about the book’s hasty preparation, indifferent editing, and extremely poor transfer to the Kindle format. There are repetitive parts, contradictory parts, continuity problems, typos, and the usual slipshod work that has come to characterize the big New York publishers, in this case Harper Collins. For one example, no attempt was made to include true page numbers, a trivial undertaking that Harper’s minions couldn’t be arsed to undertake. Sure, every copy editor wants to be something else, but that’s no excuse for doing such a hack and amaterurish job of copy editing, and the other Harper Collins editors similarly underperformed.

The bottom line on Stonewalled is that it’s a good read if you’re interested in the mechanics of media culture and in how the news gets slanted. If you want new dope on any of the scandals Attkisson broke during her former career as a CBS reporter, you’ll be disappointed. Perhaps that’s because, despite the impediments that New York’s managerial monoculture placed before her, she managed to get the story out, regardless. That’s something about her to admire, even if the book falls short of relevance outside that media monoculture.

Saturday Matinee 044: 28 Days Later (2002)

28_days_later_dvdIf you’ve seen the start of the TV series The Walking Dead, you’ve seen the start of 28 Days Later, because the directors and writers of the TV show plagiarized wholesale from this movie. In both, a brief prologue leads to the real start of the movie, where Everyman wakes up alone, naked, in an abandoned hospital, in what appears to be an abandoned city, after a long recovery.

The prologue in this case shows how the terrible virus, Rage, gets out into the public: animal rights terrorists try to release cuddly chimps. Propelled by the virus (and the Gods of The Copybook Headings) one of the chimps flies at the nearest tofu-powered PETA person, eating off elements of her screaming anatomy, and you expect it to be Game On! from this point — whereupon a jarring cut drops you in Jim’s hospital room, where the naked man strapped in a bed appears to be the sole survivor of… something.  (The movie is chock-full of jarring cuts, distorted camera angles, and clever shots of all kinds). Someone has slid the keys under the door. Freeing himself from the normal stuff you’re plugged into in ICU, he’s confused, and disoriented. We will learn this all-new world with him.

Jim emerges and you see he’s in a creepy, deserted London, with no living souls about. The suspense builds and releases with false climaxes in the music, and we follow him around as he discovers the hazards of The Infected (who behave remarkably like “fast” zombies) and of the few, scattered, and disturbed survivors.

28-days-later_where_is_everybody

Acting and Production

28_days_later_west_intenseThe acting is great throughout. Most of the actors are young English and Irish journeymen who may not have star reputations, but they deliver solid, mature performances. 28 Days Later was a career-launcher for Cilian Murphy, who plays Jim. Naomie Harris, who plays Selena, the female lead, recently turned up in Skyfall as the new Moneypenny. But if you check the bio of every cast member, you see they’re good, solid, steadily-working pros. (The child actor who played Hannah is the exception; Megan Burns became a singer under the stage name Betty Curse). Christopher Eccleston, who plays Major Henry West with the haircut and intensity of one of the naughtier Caesars, is a standout among the performances.

28-days-later-jim_flees_zombiesDirector Danny Boyle used many actors he already knew, and gave them both powerful scenes and tense, taut editing. The score by John Murphy adds a lot to the film. The low budget does not crimp one’s enjoyment of the action at all.

What he lacks in budget for CGI, he makes up with imaginative camera angles, excellent makeup, and a script that seldom stops moving. Indeed, it’s a lot better than the higher-budget sequel, which is minus any plot and plus the wooden Jeremy Renner.

Accuracy and Weapons

28dayslater_a_weapon_is_where_you_find_itAs you might expect for a zombie movie set in gun-free (nearly) Britain, there’s rather less shooting than in their American counterparts, and the zombies are more likely to be bashed with baseball bats, cloven with hatchets, defenestrated, or toasted by Molotovs rather than shot. Survivors even improvise armor and shields. This is scarcely a problem for the viewer. Jim’s weapon of choice nearly becomes his nickname: Louisville Slugger.

Where firearms do show up, it’s in the hands of the British Army, who at first seem like… maybe… saviors. It turns out they have a reason for conflict with our little band of survivors, and all is not what it seems. Boyle takes his time revealing what’s going on with the small Army outpost, and so horror overtakes the viewer just as it overtakes the protagonists.

The British soldiers’ firearms are period-correct L85A1 rifles and L7 GPMGs, except that none of the L85s ever jams… heh. What are the odds of that? The other British Army equipment and vehicles are mostly long-obsolete stuff (Bedford 3t trucks?) that probably wound up in the film because they were easily rented.

28-days-later-l85

Now, if you are or were a member of the highly professional British Army, you will probably be incensed at the portrayal of these bozos — a mob of mooks worthy of being a Bond Villain’s henchmen, generally. Roll with it, brother. It’s a plot device.

28_days_later_l7a2_gpmgIn any event, the weapons play a secondary role in the film, and can we talk about accuracy in a film about a zombie infection?

Bottom line

28 Days Later was not made as Oscar bait, and it wasn’t. (Some of the critics Rotten Tomatoes quotes saw it as “a sharp political allegory.” They need to get out more). What it was was a taut, intense, zombie B-flick and an excellent couple hours of cartoonish violence. Sometimes, that’s just what the virologist ordered.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (be careful, a lot of versions are fullscreen [yecch] and lack the DVD extras, like the alternative endings and director/writer commentary. This is the widescreen version, with the extras, and $5 at the moment):

http://www.amazon.com/Days-Later-Widescreen-Special-Edition/dp/B00005JMA8/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0289043/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/28_Days_Later

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (Fresh, 87%):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/28_days_later/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/28_Days_Later

In the Read Pile: Guns, War, & Survival

wile_e_coyote and bookEach of these is either underway (yeah, we have a lot of books lying around spine-up), has recently been read, or is in the queue to be read. These are de minimus capsule reviews; if time permits, we’ll link the titles to their Amazon pages later today

Gun books first, in alphabetical order by title; then war books, the same way, OK? We also have one survival-related book that’s neither a gun nor a war volume.

Gun Books

Accuracy and Precision for Long Range Shooting, by Bryan Litz. This is on order, not here yet. We also sprang for a number of Litz’s short articles on Kindle.

The Gun Digest Book of Firearms Fakes and Reproductions, by Rick Sapp. We thought this would be rather better than it is, but it’s pretty disjointed — almost as if someone assembled a pile of essays into a book. Above all, it lacks any kind of a simple checklist for buyers, and while there’s a lot of advice for sellers that might help them keep ethical, it’s scattered here and there. An Appendix called “Data on commonly faked firearms” includes data on Winchesters, Colt percussion and single-action revolvers, and Sharps firearms — period.

War Books

15 Minutes: Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, by L. Douglas Keeney. As the title suggests, this is a somewhat maidenly, overwrought, handwringing look back at the Cold War war plans. It is somewhat knecapped by the author’s credulous attitude towards claimed nuclear weapons effects, and definitely crippled by a weak index and an utter absence of footnotes. There is a list of sources, but it’s anyone’s guess where any specific facts were found.

Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5, by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen. We want to extract some of Mace’s experience as a BAR man and squad leader into a post of its own soon, but in the meantime, would recommend this searing and well-written combat memoir. Looking back at his time in combat from old age, Mace’s memories are still crisp; the writing is sometimes poetic, which we’re inclined to credit to hired-pen Allen. Some gormless New York publishing house sank a fortune into this book, and then sabotaged it by putting a stock photo on the cover, and worse, one that has adorned a plenitude of other covers. The win for you in that is that the hardcover has been widely remaindered (ours set us back all of $3.97 at Walmart), and the publisher did push many copies to libraries.

Bright Light: Untold Stories of the Top Secret War in Vietnam, by Stephen Perry. We recommend this SOG memoir highly. It’s not as polished or professional a book qua book as, for example, John “Tilt” Meyer’s books or John Plaster’s are, but that makes it more immediate and personal. Steve was the boy next door who went to do his Army service and was screened as a candidate by the then-usual method, the SF Screening Battery. He volunteered for and completed SF medic training, which he describes briefly, and then was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, then at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He volunteered for Vietnam the way it was done in those days, by calling Mrs Billye Alexander, who got him what he wanted. In Vietnam, he and his best friend were assigned to FOB-1, where he was given a choice: dispensary medic, or volunteer to run recon. Steve ran with several Spike Teams including Idaho, Oregon and New Jersey. Some of these stories are truly untold, and it’s good to have them.

No Need to Die: American Flyers in RAF Bomber Command, by Gordon Thorburn. The title refers to the fact that these Yanks weren’t called up, and generally, when they joined up, their country wasn’t even at war. Instead, they joined the Royal Air Force and flew with Bomber Command. While the Yanks who flew — and mostly, died in — fighters for the RAF have received a lot of attention, we’re not aware of any other book about Americans in Bomber Command. They served throughout the command, including in the 617 Squadron “dam busters,” and hit most of the famous RAF night-raid targets. If you haven’t read much about Bomber Command, the scale of the losses are staggering, and Thorburn’s detailed, moving portraits of the men who fought, and, in most cases, died, in RAF blue bring home the human aspect to that loss.

Sniper Elite: The World of a Top Special Forces Marksman, by Rob Maylor with Robert Macklin. Just started this story of a Briton who served in the Royal Marines and later in the Australian SAS. (So this is “Special Forces” in the rest-of-Anglophere sense, not in its more particular US meaning). Despite the off-putting title, it seems like a solid story so far.

Survival Related

The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments, by Claude A. Piantadosi. This is a serious, academic tome that’s also quite interesting: Piantadosi asks questions that interest all of us: what about extreme environments kills people? Altitude, depth, g-force, heat, cold, toxicity, you name it. Can the lethal aspect or degree of environmental conditions that is fatal be quantified with confidence? What do the case studies say? And, what measures might be undertaken to secure survival in those hostile environments? If these questions interest you, this book will, too.

This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

So, Miguel at GunFreeZone posted video of the “Band of Brothers” speech from the excellent cinema version with the talented and committed Kenneth Branagh (then, about the age Henry V would have been). It’s our favorite version, but it’s far from the only one.

Here’s the traditional way of doing it. Mark Rylance, a great stage actor with a shelf full of Tony and Olivier best-actor awards, on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, in 1997.

Rylance’s Henry leaves us cold; the quintessential English hero ought to have an English accent, and this rings to us as nearly a Scots one (Rylance is as English as a bowler hat, but grew up partly in America). He’s got a different sort of the common touch from the one Branagh delivers. Maybe you will like it — horses for courses, to quote another great Briton.

The classic performance pre-Branagh was, of course, the 1944 one by Sir Laurence Olivier, then in his late thirties. It clearly was inspirational to Branagh. Olivier (who was, like most of these actors, of quite common origins) perhaps takes the accent too far in the direction of “plummy.”

A recent TV version had a heartfelt delivery by Tom Hiddleston, complete with a suitably 2013 black York among his anachronistically diverse followings. This video is only the second half of the speech, but Hiddleston does well enough, and his accent strikes us as just about right:

Every military unit seems to have someone who can do the St Crispian speech — even fictional ones, like Private Donnie Benitez from the forgotten Danny DeVito vehicle (directed by Penny Marshall), Renaissance Man. In the movie, DeVito has to teach remedial English to a class of the sort of hollow-braincase losers that Hollywood imagines soldiers to be. Shakespeare turns out to be what engages them:

There’s a whole raft of parodies and ironic uses of the speech, but note that that was not the intent of the Renaissance Man version. Instead, it shows the development of the Benitez character, and bedamned if the drill sergeant character doesn’t undergo the very elevation of station that Henry V promises to his loyal few in the speech. It was a nice touch we didn’t notice on first viewing the film.

And, for comparison’s sake, here is Branagh, although you can go over to Miguel’s and see him there (and Miguel always has something to read).

For an idea of how The Speech has changed war itself, here’s an older and experienced Branagh reciting, word for word, the pre-war speech of Col. Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment on 19 March 03, the evening before the Royal Irish went in.

Collins seemed to have taken Branagh’s performance as Henry on board — and now, here’s Branagh playing him. How recursive can one military tradition get?

Whilst most of the focus has always been on “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” this speech abounds in phrases that resound through the centuries, especially in the hearts of men who have faced combat.

“This story shall a good man teach his sons….” Yes. But our favorite must be, “All things be ready if our minds be so.” Amen.

Hat tip, Miguel, mi hermano.

The Narkomovsky Delivery — TV, Russian, 2011

russian_soldiers_from_tvEverybody loves a good war movie or TV show, and every nation in the world has wars in its history to draw upon, some controversial and others unifying. For Russians, the controversial wars include the Civil War and the “socialist internationalism” intervention in Afghanistan; the non-controversial ones include the Napoleonic Wars and what Russians know as the Great Patriotic War and we call World War II. In recent years, there’s been a flowering of creativity in the Russian motion picture and TV arts (which have always been strong, even under the dead hand of Communism). This has produced some interesting and rare (in the Anglosphere) war films.

Because the TV shows aren’t available with English subtitles, you need to know at least some Russian (which would fairly describe our lack of mastery of the language of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn: “some Russian”). Hence, this is a capsule rather than an in-depth review.

Narkomovskiy Oboz — “The Narkomovsky Delivery” — was a 2011 TV drama miniseries set in 1941. It begins with a zoom through a rainy window into a solitary worker at a desk: Josef Stalin. Stalin is reviewing a decree about the necessity of, and high priority for, a delivery of vodka to the boys at the front. Stalin signs the order with a flourish, and the mission is set in motion. The order is disseminated by teletype.

russian_rangerettesCasks of superior Narkomovsky vodka are loaded onto horse-carts and entrusted to a strange military unit for delivery: one tough senior sergeant (starshina) Filippov, played by Sergei Makhovikov; four Red Army women soldiers (of varying levels of martial skill and ardor), and a horse-cart driving old man and his grandson. They also have an woman doctor, shaken by the death of her doctor father in a Nazi air raid, and bound for a frontline field hospital.

They encounter streams of refugees, strafing Stukas, a corrupt KGB guy who wants to commandeer their carts so he can get on with the business of shooting suspected deserters, a political officer who’s conveying those deserters to their final destination, peasants who want to steal the vodka, and German forward reconnaissance patrols. And that’s just in the first episode. Later they’ll shoot it out with Germans and with Russian bandits, meet more refugees, and because it’s Russia, everybody endures lots of suffering.

politruk_with_tt-33While the autumn of 1941 is a bit early for the PPSh the lead actor carries, the other weapons and equipment seem correct, and the uniforms at least plausible. The other arms include lots of Mosin-Nagants, including rifles and M38 carbines (no M44s), and Nagant revolvers and TT-33s. The TTs are more likely to turn up in the hands of political officers than combat soldiers.

german_mg_teamsThe “Germans” have MG34s on their motorbikes, but the bikes are Russian ones… not that big a deal, as the Russian motorcycle is a copy of a wartime BMW. Other Germans have Mauser K98ks and MP38s and 40s, and they speak German to one another. (Where it’s needed for exposition, the Germans get Russian-language subtitles; where they’re in contact with Russian elements, which is shown mostly from a Russian POV, they are not subtitled — a subtle and effective decision by the producers and director).  That they made a real effort for accuracy shows in details like the rare camo uniforms of two reconnaissance soldiers who show up in the third episode, accurate Russian Ford trucks and Russian cars, and a period AT gun (which appears to be a Russian 45mm, a Krupp unit built under license, mocked up with solid wheels to look like a German Krupp 37mm).

Make sure you catch the Bolo Mauser 1896 in the hands of one particularly bloodless Red officer in a chilling flashback.

thrown_bayonetThe weapons sounds are fairly accurate, to include the fast rate of fire of the Russian submachine guns, and the even faster ROF of the German MGs. Also, the weapons tend to have the right amount of wear on them, unusual in a movie — the guys you’d expect to have used their firearms little have shiny, new-looking firearms, and the grunts have worn ones. Of course, there has to be some horrid Hollywood inaccuracy, and it comes when our hero takes out a German — with a thrown knife. Not just any knife — a thrown Mauser bayonet. You can throw Mauser bayonets from now to the recreation of the Soviet Union, and you’re not going to kill anybody with one. Unless you’re an actor!

Twice they use a flashback to bring you backstory on a character, and both times it’s very effective in explaining otherwise inexplicable character actions.

more_russian_rangerettesThe actors are unknown to us, but apparently they include some big names in Russia, and they’re all very competent. The women soldiers are dressed in the shapeless uniforms of wartime Russian women soldiers, not like the Hollywood version, or Lara Croft or something. (Lack of make-up doesn’t stop a couple of them from being noticeably pretty, and just like real life, they get prettier the longer you’re exposed to them). The women are not Amazon warriors, but they’re not afraid to fight for their country and their friends, even if they’re at a disadvantage. That makes them very believable, even as the idea that all these adventures befall one small element seems far-fetched.

another_politruk_with_tt-33Some things that may help you: Russian military ranks and courtesies are much like other nations’, but they don’t stand on formalities. In the service uniforms worn by some of the Russians, the collar tab color (and hat band color) denotes branch. Blue is intelligence organs, Red is political officers (who get treated with notable contempt), green is infantry.

One of the best things about this, to us, was that the bad guys were always human and understandable. Nobody was a mustache-twirling Bond villain, not even the most repulsive of the Germans, or the craven political officer. (Indeed, his character weakness is a foil for the contrast of his behavior in the last act, and before that, for comparison with the selfless sacrifice of another politruk. 

Maybe if our Russian was good, we’d hate this. Maybe Russian historians laugh at it. We found it entertaining — four episodes, about 50 minutes each. We thought it would make a heck of a 90 minute to 2 hour movie, if edited mercilessly and dubbed into English. If you can’t follow the story, at least you can enjoy the guns on the screen.

Episode 1: (Remember, these are all in Russian language, no subtitles). From the creation of the mission to imminent contact with Germans.

Episode 2: The first encounter with niemtsy — Germans. The first casualties. The mission continues.

Episode 3: Among other adventures, a showdown with ruthless armed robbers.

Episode 4: the pretty tough-to-take climax comes quite a bit before the end. But in the end, the mission is complete.

We enjoyed watching this previously unknown-to-us miniseries. We fear the limitations of language will keep many of you from enjoying it as we did, but we put it out there for those of you that are still interested.