Admiral William McRaven [Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations; 10 Life Lessons]

I have an obsession with Admiral William McRaven. Everything he does seems more impressive than his fellow man, everything he speaks seems curated and weighty in his deep baritone, and everything he writes is worth reading and re-reading and then discussing with friends.

This post, therefore, recommends a person, and all the works he is attached to. Unfortunately, the reason I am able to do this with Admiral McRaven is because his body of work, spoken and written, is smaller than I would like. As I recommend the stuff I find valuable, it ends up being the majority of his work that is accessible to us.

I, and probably you, first heard of Admiral McRaven as the guy who gave the speech about changing the world by making your bed. But I only knew it for the two-minute viral clip of him discussing the merits of making your bed every morning and how doing so can start and end your day in a way that inspires you to arise and complete tasks which leads to more tasks and more tasks and eventually leads to a better future for yourself and others. It is a tantalizingly specific task attached to almost absurd consequences. But a sign of the brilliance of Admiral McRaven is that when he says it, it doesn’t sound absurd it all. In fact, the advice sounds like just the type of detailed execution that makes a life like Admiral McRaven’s so impactful.

When I first saw that clip, I doubt I even registered the man’s name. He was just another nameless commencement speaker amidst the smatterings of videos that get released during graduation season.

Conversely, the second time I encountered Admiral McRaven was by name only. I read No Easy Day, a powerful book about Matt Bissonette’s time as a Navy SEAL, from his training to his participation in the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden. The book inspires awe and respect for what these men and women are willing to put themselves through to serve their country. Their actions make something as simple as being able to create a blog and constantly post my inane thoughts about books, TV, and movies seem both miniscule and like an important gift. We have cliched the statement that ‘our freedom comes at a cost’, but there is nothing cliched about this book and the entailing of exactly what that cost is and who pays it.

That encounter with Admiral McRaven, by name only, came towards the end of the book, after all the grueling training, after many missions, after that all-important mission to capture Bin Laden, when the men are flying back with Bin Laden’s body. They exit the plane, carrying the body bag, and they lay it at the feet of the man who organized the operation, Admiral William McRaven. Because of the significance of that moment and that act, the name stuck with me. And years later, after I read more of his work, and became familiar with what he had done, I- unrelated to any experience with him- wanted to watch that video of the ‘army guy’ who told the world to make their beds. Low and behold, they were one in the same.

That connection was significant to me, because in-between my first acknowledging the name McRaven and then connecting it to my first time hearing him speak or write, I had read his book and his NYTimes pieces and had become a massive fan of all he stood, and continues to stand, for.

It was a year or more after reading his name in No Easy Day, and the half-assed internet research that went along with it, trying to understand the importance of this man, that I eventually picked up his book, Sea Stories. I strongly recommend it to any American, especially those who appreciate stories of patriotism and sacrifice. These concepts, and what they mean and what they look like and how to do them justice is at the heart of a lot of social and political conversations. And I don’t often know how to keep America as the identifying narrative that holds together so many conversations that try to divide. But America is a thread that does hold these conversations together, its flaws, its accomplishments, its freedoms, and its struggles. Sea Stories then, for anyone who did not serve, becomes, in the minor, a memoir of a man who understands patriotism and sacrifice more intricately than I ever will, and has served America in great and terrible moments, and clearly articulates, through his own experiences and brilliance, the positive thread interwoven through all these moments. He shares, in a positive voice, what he has learned through successful raids that change the course of history and parachute jobs that literally almost tore him in half, what a patriot is, and what sacrifice looks like, and it helps put into perspective my complaints and fears as well as my privileges and freedoms. In short, he puts our conversations, that feel so unstable, on a bedrock of what it takes to maintain the liberty to have those conversations. And by doing so, it changes those conversations for the better.

The book transformed my fascination with Admiral McRaven into a form of fandom, and so, months later when Admiral McRaven wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times, I opened it and read it as soon as I could. It was political, but that struck me more, not as a negative, but as a representation of the significance of the moment. A normally A-political warrior who served under both President Bush and President Obama, and has been candid about his appreciation for each, spoke out about his fears for the Republic in October of 2019. 

Unfortunately, amidst the cacophony of news, and the quantity of stuff being written, and the number of voices of dissent, I am not sure the significance of this one voice was greatly appreciated by more than leading news people, Admiral McRaven fans, and the President. But, there was no doubt about it, it was significant, not to mention well written.

More recently I listened to McRaven’s interview with David Axelrod on The Axe Files and, as listening or reading anything of his usually does, I was re-ignited with a weird sense of loyalty to this man I have never met and a stronger sense of patriotism than I am used to feeling for America.

Therefore, I want to recommend a man to you, Admiral William McRaven, and his body of work in the military, his speeches and interviews, and all he has written. Because his story and the perspective it provided him, mixed with a skill for language both spoken and written- and an amazing voice- are powerful reminders of a lot of the liberties we take for granted, and an inspiration to have the tough conversations and do the tough things, but for the right reasons and towards a more positive outcome.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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The Dance [Pride and Prejudice]

Jane Austen was a trail blazer for plenty of reasons, but I am imagining one of most mainstream ideas that she captured first and arguably best was keeping two characters, destined to be together, maddeningly far away and desperately close, and then yanking and pushing those characters closer and further away. 

This is the premise that made Pride and Prejudice one of the greatest books of all time, and a model by which other loves stories, from teenage television shows to literary fiction to the most critically acclaimed films and the most poorly made made-for-Netflix films fashion themselves.

But unlike a lot of novels who, over time, get asterisked with the frustrating caveat that, “it was revolutionary at that time” Pride and Prejudice still, after all the love stories that have tried to mimic or surpass it, has not been definitively outdone by any subsequent book, show, or movie. 

Elizabeth Bennett still remains a role model for lovesick teens and twenty somethings scouring the bar scene for their Mr. Darcy, giving socially unsatisfactory men everywhere more chances than they deserve. The longevity of P&P’s dominance is monumental and shows no sign of stopping. If it has not since been dethroned as the queen of love stories, then it seems it may just reign eternal.

And the lion’s share of the blame for this success is because of the unity of Austen’s masterpiece. The book and subsequent films rely on three main elements- marriage during the Regency era of Great Britain, dancing, and love. These elements combine to create one large structural back and forth- a dance- that brings young men and women close, and then tears them away, because all elements of that era- structural, familial, physical, ideological- makes love feel impossible amidst a story where it is inevitable. And it might not be possible to have another love story where every facet of the book contributes so perfectly to that most frustrating and tantalizing question of two people in love- will they end up together?

This premise is established in the beginning of the story, visually, with a dance. I am not a scholar of early 19thcentury dance (or any dance… I really don’t like dancing), but as far as I can gather, the dancing that took place in those ballrooms and assembly halls in 1813 had a lot of jumping, turning, and walking towards and away from partners. So, whoever their partner may have been, someone they adored, or someone they loved, they were equal parts dancing with them and leaving them. And in the book and movie this dance is equal parts flirtatious (like when Bingly and Jane are falling in love) and escapist (like when Elizabeth must dance with Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy before he was revealed to be the shit and not a shit). As we watch, we receive a feast of what’s to come in the story, young men and women perpetually being brought together and desperately trying to get away.

This minor visual element that illustrates the conflict resides on a foundation that the time period of the book lays. Stating the obvious, marriage and love back then were not like marriage and love now. It was more systematic, more political and intellectual, less emotional and free, more based on familial necessity and resignation than love and personal desire. And these overarching social structures are the strings that are pulled and let loose, bringing our beloved characters close and then far apart, turning them about and pulling them up into the air like a dance of its own, using the conflict of what a woman feels versus her means versus her families wishes versus the fickle men with which they have to work.

And when these come together, dance and the social structures that invisibly move the dancers, the story is beautiful. Austen, with her words, leads us through the assembly room that her characters inhabit like the greatest dance partner we could ask for. Showing us the visual dance of those in love, letting us eavesdrop on the behind-the-scenes conversations that lubricate the social machinery of marriage, and introducing us to the internal conflicts that keep these men and women apart despite our every wish, both the real and the perceived.

And when they leave that ballroom that we flitted through, they continue their dance, Darcy hates Elizabeth, Elizabeth hates Darcy, Darcy loves Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is repulsed by Darcy, Elizabeth loves Darcy but cannot overcome her shame at her mistreatment of him. They are in the same room, they are cities apart, they are dancing with each other, they are gazing at each other from afar. They dance, and us along with them, as our heartstrings are tugged by the same strings that guide their dance of love.

Every great work is united, each element enhancing the other, and this is why Pride and Prejudice may always hold the crown for greatest love story, because no time period could work so closely with the conflict of a love story and no setting could provide such a striking visual component to tell that story.

I believe the only hope is to invent a new way to portray love other than the waxing and waning of the heart, and I am just not sure that’s possible.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Book List For Young Readers: Nurturing Literacy In Our Youth

I had a tentative relationship with reading as a middle school and high school boy. I loved it. It was my favorite hobby, a task where I did not need to be physically active or socially adept- admittedly not a great reason to recede into a book, but a common one nonetheless. But loving an activity that others don’t is challenging for socially awkward youth, who are perpetually bouncing into each other, miming other’s clothes, actions, and activities. Very few adolescents have the self-confidence to declare themselves a ‘reader’ in the face of a peer group who, on the whole, view reading in one’s free time as a condemnation. 

So my relationship with reading was robust in my home, but at arm’s length in public. I rarely brought my books out of the house- which I still do not do- something I had done proudly before my awkward teen years. And when I needed to go to my beloved Barnes and Noble to restock on materials that fed my fix, I was excited, but would, inexplicably to me at the time, get nervous whenever I saw another human, known or unknown, adult or young person, in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section that was conveniently tucked into the back corner of the upper floor, as if the builders knew this would be a clientele who would want to peruse in solitude. 

This was my experience on one occasion in particular that I will never forget. I excitedly (inside not out) rode the escalator to the second floor of Barnes and Noble, as if ascending into a heightened state of being, inhaling the fumes of book bindings. And I slinked over to the Fantasy section, only to see someone already scanning the same area where I liked to begin my meanderings. I clammed up, but this was not unusual, the store was open to the public, despite my wishes. 

And when this man turned to see me joining him in our aisle of choice, his eyes filled with recognition. He was the father of a kid I knew in the grade below me, he went to our church, and he knew me just enough to acknowledge me in public (if that). But seeing me in this section of Barnes and Noble, a section I was ashamed to allow other people to see me in, he acknowledged me. He wasn’t embarrassed as the adult who presumably would have ‘grown out’ of his habit of reading science fiction and fantasy. Instead, he smiled, in my memory his arms opened up, not for a hug, but as a gesture towards all the options we had surrounding us, that by association, we both were interested in considering. 

This man I barely knew greeted me, talked to me about what my favorite books were, told me about what he was here looking for, and then spent the next fifteen minutes recommending books to me. He introduced me to two series that I dedicated serious time to in the coming year, one I loved and one, not so much, but that didn’t really matter. 


What mattered to me then, and what matters to me to do this day, as I continue to read (less and less in the science fiction and fantasy section, but I still make my way over there almost every time I visit the bookstore like a weird pilgrimage) was that another person acknowledged how exciting it was to love reading and acknowledged me as an equal because of that love of reading. He wasn’t awkward about reading like I was, he wore it like a badge of honor, hoping to help me find new books- a daunting task, especially for a 12-year-old- in order to foster and grow my love rather than let my embarrassment and peer pressure stifle and kill that tentative relationship. 

I have written a lot about the lack of reading in our country and some of the ills that take hold in soil devoid of healthy literate roots. And I also want to write about what we can do to read more. And I wanted to start by recommending, as that wonderful man did for me, some books for young boys to read in middle school or high school, that engaged me, and might engage them as well. 

Don’t assume some kids are readers and some are not. I am painfully aware of how easily my passion for reading could have been stifled, and also how a simple gesture worked like a bellows stoking my embers into a flame.

Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever Trilogy by Stephen R Donaldson

I wanted to start with the series that this man recommended to me that I loved. I loved it because in my fantasy readings, which were vast for a kid so young, I didn’t realize that the magic could also be human, and the writing could be beautiful. Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever was the series that first challenged me. I didn’t totally understand these books the first time I read them. I got just enough of it to enjoy it. And that was okay. We should challenge our youth to read stuff that is ‘too difficult’ for them. I still practice this rule today, and it brought me from reading simple science fiction and fantasy narratives, to some of the great classics of the world, on my own, no grumbling at all. And I don’t think that young readers challenge themselves naturally. I needed someone to point to a series too difficult for me and say this is both good and worth the effort it will demand. 

The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques

This was the series that started my love of reading and specifically, reading fantasy. Brian Jacques’ series about furry woodland creatures defending their precious Redwall Abbey is filled with action, songs, food, puzzles, heart, and warmth. Everything a young boy needs growing up. Somehow the most human and cliched of actions, lines, and behaviors don’t seem so bad when done by a squirrel or a mole or a mouse. And those guises are just enough to curb the cynicism that starts to take root in young male youth. If your son is looking for a starting place, look no further than right here. 

The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks

I started with The Voyage of The Jerle Shannara Trilogy, but Brooks’ world is so vast and the series so diverse, a person just needs to look around and start wherever. I spent too much time trying to find a sense of chronology, to make this magical world fit in a box. I would advise my young self to not worry about that so much. This is a world where stuff has happened and more stuff will happen. Start reading about it.

The Rain Series by Barry Eisler

If you, or your son, are not into magical worlds, there is plenty for you too. This is a cool-killer novel, that grabbed my attention with a blurb that stated, “If Quentin Tarantino had a crack at the James Bond franchise.” I don’t know about that… but I sure enjoyed the heck out of it when I read it, so maybe. 

Ready Player One by Ernest Clime

This book was not around in my youth, but having read it as an adult, it will be one of the first books I point my son or daughter too when I feel like their reading comprehension ability has caught up. In fact, I probably will read it again with them, and I would encourage you too as well. Nothing supports reading like reading together, and if there is a book that I feel confident most youth and adults would enjoy, it is Clime’s dystopian novel filled with 80s iconography and virtual reality.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This book was around in my youth, but I didn’t get around to it until I was in college, and what a shame. Even as a person older than its intended audience it had quite the impact on me. It is philosophical and profound, but also filled with fighting and wars and aliens and teen angst, enough for any young boy to relate.

There are plenty more where this came from, but that is the point. Find a way to get our young people started reading. Let the awesome stories take care of the rest.

Did you like this post? Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Keanu: The Walking Meme And Genuinely Good Guy [Always Be My Maybe]

I was watching Always Be My Maybe with my wife on Valentine’s Day, munching on cheesecake, pecan pie with ice cream, and M&Ms when Keanu Reeves walked onto the screen as the mysterious date for the lovable and luckless in love, Sasha Tran.

He strode into the pretentious restaurant, a caricature of fine dining, dressed in black and wearing lens-less glasses. I murmured to myself, “Its Keanu.” And my wife asked, “Who?”

The fact that my wife doesn’t know Keanu Reeves aside, this is actually a challenging question to answer. Who is Keanu Reeves? And even more challenging, who is Keanu Reeves in this context? This is not the action star Keanu Reeves. This is the internet meme, Keanu Reeves, the conglomeration of all his films, good and bad, cheesy and sentimental, action and comedy, melded with the viral reaction to his wholesomeness and good-natured sense of humor.

So how does anyone explain that?

I think one would have to start with his action films. His genuine success in movies like Speed, The Matrix, Point Break, and Johnny Mnemonic that made him mainstream and begat more modern action roles like his John Wick franchise. Because at the core of all Keanu’s intriguing elements, is a very successful action star whose movies put him on the A-list movie star map.

Then add to the recipe his cult comedy status as the co-lead of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which was his first big break and played up his dazed Californian demeanor and stigmatized him as a bit of a moron. To see that man become Neo and the lead in other action movies created a whiplash effect in viewers, like watching a child TV star doing serious drama films, or anyone from Harry Potter doing anything else.

Then stir in his serious roles, for good or for bad, like Hardball and Lake House. Two movies that span the spectrum that is Keanu. They show him at a high and a low, people taking him seriously and people thinking he is a hack. Because as Keanu navigated so many different types of films from the 90s to the aughts, he always seemed chided for his series roles and/or pigeon-holed as someone who could not do them. Because of his roots in Bill and Ted and for doing blockbuster movies like The Matrix and Speed, people seemed to take his serious work with a grain of salt. The Lake House felt like critics making their case in point based on one film misstep.

Thus, we have the dry mix for the Keanu who could confidently stride into Always Be My Maybe, context required, and do absurd shit. Because during all that time, he was consistent. Consistent in producing great movies that were worth watching over and over again. And consistent in his humility as he did it. As much as people didn’t take him seriously when they probably should have, he never took himself too seriously either. And over time, internet culture did something quite out of the ordinary with Keanu. They recognized his quality and placed him on a pedestal. 

It started with Keanu’s response to Colbert’s question at the end of their interview for John Wick 3. Colbert asked him a question rooted in the not-so-serious way people viewed Keanu at the time- what did he think happened to us when we died? Keanu, unperturbed at why Colbert might be asking this question of him, replied, “I know the ones who love us will miss us.”

The answer was simple and profound and kind. Just enough to shatter the façade of ‘Keanu the gimmick.’ The clip went viral and started a healthy life for Keanu on the internet. Part of this internet aura was due to his mystery. We don’t know a ton about him, which is fine for the internet, we will create our own story for him. And the stuff we do see, or the small moments we can turn into some sort of narrative, makes him seem like a genuinely good dude. His girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn child in the late nineties. She died in a car accident two years later. He now dates an a-typical Hollywood A-lister girlfriend. 

Alexandra Grant and Keanu Reeves attend the 2019 LACMA 2019 Art + Film Gala Presented By Gucci on Nov. 2, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif.

People have taken to sharing quirky stories about him performing acts of kindness for fans, like helping people get to their destination after an emergency plane landing, buying lunch frequently for the small-time workers on his movie sets, or giving them a 20-thousand-dollar Christmas bonus.

And then there are the photos of him that the internet glommed onto and created stories around, like Keanu hanging out with a homeless guy or his hands hovering just above women’s shoulders, not quite making contact, as they take photos with him.

He seems like a decent and kind man at a time where most other men in power, especially in Hollywood, seem like genuine grade-A asshole misogynists. And thus, the cream that is Keanu rose to the top.  People played back his greatest hits, revisit the power and impact of Hardball appreciating his iconic characters like John Wick and Neo. They took his comedy more seriously, not as a representation of a lack of intelligence but as good acting and genuine fun.

Now, peruse any internet social or Google ‘Keanu’ and instead of the usual Internet degradation that follow the rich, the famous, and the prominent, there is nothing but goodwill and wonderful stories for a man that, through decades of being taken not-so seriously just kept being a good guy.

I didn’t know how to explain that Keanu to my wife as he acted like a pretentious douche bag who was overly sexual around women and looked down on those poorer than him. The best way to do so would be just to say, ‘everything you see Keanu do here is the opposite of who he actually is,’ or at least what the internet has created about him.

Keanu Reeves has become a walking meme, and we don’t deserve him. 

Did you like this post? Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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More Miniseries Please

In the aftermath of the wildly popular show The Queen’s Gambit, I heard many people reflect on how nice it was that the show was just one season, and then they recommended it to others with the comfort that they wouldn’t need to overcome their commitment issues or cheat on their current television relationship, it was just one season, with a promise for no more.

“Why don’t more shows do this?” people would question in response.

Indeed.

Miniseries have always been a part of television, but often from an informative historical bend, where the story was already told and had a definitive ending. Therefore, the miniseries was the medium that best fit a finite amount of necessary storytelling. Out of this was borne great series like John AdamsBand of Brothers,The PacificFrom the Earth to the Moon, and more recently Chernobyl. But even so, the miniseries seems like an underutilized tool considering our current binge-culture.

This might be because the movie industry and film fans have been slow on the uptake, not in embracing streaming and the binge culture it fostered, but in recognizing how that culture changes the medium’s consumption. For example, the number one complaint about The Irishmen (a great example of how Hollywood has adapted to streaming culture) was its length.

Think about that… In an era when people binge seasons of television shows in a day and entire shows in weekends, they were daunted by a mere three hours of runtime. These groups might be mutually exclusive- that those who binge television are different than those who want movies to be of a certain length- but I doubt it. It seems more likely that the medium changes perspectives, and it will be hard or impossible for people to want to sit through a three-hour movie. Instead, a viewer wants the option to stop every hour at an episode break that a movie doesn’t offer. 

I got into this debate with my wife, who is loath to start movies at night for two reasons… 1. Because she doesn’t want to spend that much time watching something, and 2. Because she refuses to stop a movie and restart it the next day.

I take issue with the first point because she also is constantly pressuring me to watch more than one episode of whatever TV show we are currently on, (right now it is Friday Night Lights, does it ever end? Promise me it ends…). And yet to her, two episodes of a show is not equal to a whole movie, which is a weird type of math I can’t follow.

As to her second point- after she almost murdered me for pausing a movie that she joined after I had already begun- I argued that stopping a movie (at a well-chosen stopping point) is tantamount to the end of an episode, and sometimes, when a show deploys a cliffhanger tactic, an even more appropriate pause for the story being told. No dice… She was furious.

I doubt my wife is alone in her disassociation of a story and its medium, and this might be why The Queen’s Gambit was so refreshing. And it’s not just The Queen’s Gambit. Recently audiences enjoyed, When They See Us, Chernobyl, Watchmen, and Fleabag (even though they added a second season), and if we reach back a bit further True Detective (season 1)There were lesser-known greats like Sharp Objects, Top of the Lake and nonfiction miniseries like Tiger King, The Last Dance, and OJ: Made In America. 

So yeah, the miniseries has always been around, but it seems to be finding a revitalization in current entertainment consuming culture and deserves even more opportunities. I argued (thought I argue it less now) that Stranger Things should have been a one season miniseries. I wonder if Mindhunter– which was maddeningly ripped from our grasp after two seasons, story unfinished- could have been a miniseries that gave us the entire story amidst David Fincher’s waning attention.

Regardless, here’s to hoping 2021 brings us more miniseries that create collective experiences in storytelling due to their accessibility and entertainment value and keeps blogs, like this one, flooded with great content.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Alan Shepherd’s Speech And Re-Election Chances [The American President]

The American President ended on an oddly positive note. Shepherd finally clapped back at the low-life Rumson who exploited the President’s chivalrous silence in response to all character assassination attempts. Then the president triumphantly walked into the chamber for the State of the Union Address after announcing two Bills he would put before Congress, two pure, unadulterated, good for America, no back room deal bills. On top of that, he regained the backing of his staff, and he even got the girl in the process. And the viewer gets the sense that everything ends well, that all will be okay for President Alan Shepherd.

But would this extend to the reelection, nine months from where the movie ended? I am not so sure. Objectively, President Shepherd was not in a better place than he was before he gave his rousing speech to the press corps. His approval rating was still at a dismal 41%, the 20% reduction in emissions he supports is still unlikely to pass, and now his crime bill that would have been a victory if only in name, was now less tenable because he rewrote it to take away assault rifles and handguns from Americans who are loathe to give away their assault rifles and handguns. I find it hard to believe that his one speech and a new posture on fighting back overcomes all these obstacles and changes the hearts and minds of Americans on embittered arguments.

Take the approval rating for example. Twelve presidents faced reelection in the presidential job approval ratings era (taken in June). Four of them lost reelection- George HW Bush (37%), Jimmy Carter (32%), Gerald Ford (45%), and Donald Trump (41%). The last of these was the exact same approval rating Shepherd had in January of his election year, and the end of the movie. Notably President Truman won reelection with a 40% approval rating, but every other president was above 46%.

Now we can assume President Shepherd’s rating will rise towards his high point of 63% with his new approach to combatting Rumson’s attacks. However, it is hard to imagine that they return all the way to 63% considering the reasons the ratings dropped are all still problems, the president merely addressed the issues, he did not solve them. Because he seems to be a terrific rhetorician and has a history of good will with his country, his rating will go up. But he is still dating and sleeping with a lobbyist, he will still have to engage in character attacks (which he avoided the first time and wonders to his chief of staff out loud if he even could have won the first time if he had had to undergo them), and now he lost the backing of strong legislative pushes, and a legislative victory to tout in his re-election campaign. 

Just because the president went through a transformation of conscious doesn’t mean that the Senate will undergo the same transformation and push through these two bills. And in fact, we aren’t really supposed to believe that will happen. This is a statement by the president, that he will stand on values and a push towards what America should be, both to the people of that America, and through the film to the people of this America. 

So maybe we can assume his approval rating starts to swing back up to a normal looking 45 or 46 percent, but that still does not put him in the range for comfortable re-election, and short of a war in Libya, I am not sure how it would get there. 

The only remaining avenue for a revitalization of Shepherd’s re-election is his rhetoric. He proves himself to be a terrific speaker with a quick wit throughout the entire movie. He carries himself well, is easy to listen to, and has a commanding and comfortable presence. The dude is super electable, and it is no surprise he won his first campaign. But we get an example of what the next year of battles with Rumson are going to look like, and I am not sure his speech was as triumphant as his staff thought. 

I like his opening… “For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being President of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I’ve not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I have been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character.”

It’s strong, it’s on the offense, it turns Rumson’s rhetoric into the president’s favor. It’s a strong opening. But then the speech gets a little wobbly. Shepherd goes on to defend two points of attack against him- his ACLU membership and his girlfriend’s protesting by burning the American flag. 

He does a decent job of defending his ACLU membership, but the ACLU is the ACLU to whoever has an opinion on it, and it felt weird addressing it in the first place. So I guess that makes it a wash.

The second issue was worth addressing, however, and a much more difficult topic to address. Flag burning is a bad look… The President dating a flag burner… not great. The president’s earlier argument, that he posed in private, about how long ago she did it and how he didn’t know her then felt like a slipperier but safer escape from this attack. But he didn’t choose to do that, he goes high risk/high reward and plays the freedom of speech card.

He has some decent lines, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag.”

This has got some ‘oomph’ to it. It says I’ve been there, and I’ve wrestled with this and there are no easy answers you simpletons. But he should’ve stopped there, because then he ends with a quasi-endorsement of flag burning. At the very least it can be perceived as a statement that he will tolerate it, “The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.”

Yeah… no. That doesn’t work for anyone in America. Call it a mistake, condemn it and say you have to tolerate it though because that is America, but this… is a questionable stance at best. 

He bounces back some with another terrific call out of Romson’s rhetoric, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.”

This gives me some confidence in his ability to fight back. It’s clear and eloquent and puts a thumb on exactly why people responded so strongly to his and Sydney’s relationship and what feels so bad about that reaction. 

But I even quibble with the context of this argument though. He frames the entire speech, and this awesome section around the idea of a ‘serious man.’ America needs a serious man (him) and does not have time for a trivial man (Rumson). But where in the last couple of months that this movie documents does President Shepherd show himself to be a serious man? The bombing of Libya to be sure, but he honorably skated over that action, and that news cycle was replaced with news of him dancing with women at State dinners and then inviting that woman over for a sleep over in the residence. 

So I think this is a good speech, and a good beginning to a counter campaign, but I am not sold it is the pronouncement of victory I am supposed to feel when he says, “My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.”

Oh well… at least he got the girl. 

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Can We Talk About [Vice]?
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The Apache Relays: The Greatest Upset In Camp History [Heavyweights]
Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]

You’re a captain, Ralphie, when I say you’re a captain. [The Sopranos] (Season 3)

Season 3 of The Sopranos was more of a follow up than a continuation of season 2. Most of the storylines that dominated season 2 found a hard stop in its two-episode finale, and the one that lingered- Tony and his mother- was brought to an end by Nancy Marchand’s passing. So instead, we got new storylines, new characters, and a new tone.

Season 3 also marks a tonal shift. Seasons 1-2 feel starkly different from what season 3 brings (which is maintained through seasons 4, 5, and 6). The first two seasons were lighter, quite literally, the shots and scenes were often well lit and on sunny days, and when in-doors there was plenty of light and beautiful or at least comfortable surroundings. Not so with season three. Instead, the shots are mired with shadows. Tony sits in darkness as he talks to Dr. Melfi, the Bing feels claustrophobic and gross, Tony’s house is never lit up to the brightness of those early get-togethers, and there are just as many moments that play out in dark city streets or poorly lit backrooms in the middle of the night than in the broad daylight in front of Satriale’s with Paulie sunning himself. 

These visuals cue a change in the plot’s tone as well. The Sopranos was always dark. But seasons one and two made it easy to root for Tony. They made him a sympathetic hero, plagued by his overbearing mother, the loss of his American idealism, a family that he struggles to care for, and a crime family he would and nearly has to die for. But this isn’t the Tony we get in season three. 

And necessarily so. Tony has consolidated power, his mother is dead, his family is growing and leaving his home, his struggles cannot hold at the center. So instead, we get a spiteful Tony who makes hell for Ralphie because he just doesn’t fucking like him. Tony’s overt racism makes him try to bring Meadow back into his fold when she is getting away from him physically and emotionally, and when that works, he tries to bully her next boy into submission rather than deal with the harsh realities of Junior’s situation. This eventually costs Junior his life (in a call, by the way, that Tony refused to make, letting Ralphie, pseudo-father to the boy and boyfriend to the mother, make the call instead, a clear act of weakness we had not yet seen from him). 

But even besides revealing a darker side to Tony, this season sees a single mother get beaten to death, a fatherless twenty-something get capped in the back of the head, a capo have an aneurysm on the toilet, racism, abuse of women and children, and precarious mental health situations, on top of the adultery, crime, death, and ruined lives that were a part of the previous seasons as well. 

Season 3 is an important development for the show, a rebuild from not making enough lasting storylines in an amazing season two and from losing the one they did, and a redirecting so the tone and plot stay more consistent into future season. It feels as if in this season the directors and producers settled in and cast a long term vision for The Soprano’s greatness.

However, no one can talk about season three, or The Sopranos in general, without mentioning ‘Pine Barrens.’ Its virtues half been extolled in many pieces, but from the 3,000 foot view I am taking in these Long Overdue Recaps, I did find one aspect of this episode particularly interesting- the state of Paulie and Chrissy’s characters. When I think of Paulie generally, I think of a content appendage, loyal and prone to fits of selfishness and unawareness, but mostly a necessary cog in the machinery. When I think of Chrissy, I think of a malcontent, untrustworthy and always gumming up the works. But for this memorable episode those roles are reversed. Paulie’s discontent had been building all season, and this anger comes out on the Russian, not as a solitary act, but a culminating one and, as we know, begets the whole clusterfuck.

On the other side of the van, Chrissy is newly made, focused, and trusted in this scenario (Tony asks Paulie to put Chrissy on the phone to confirm that what Paulie said was true). Chrissy was right all along even though he was outranked by Paulie and had to walk through his mistakes- he told Paulie to chill out at the Russians, they should have eaten first, they were going too far into the Barrens and were going to end up lost- Chrissy was on a roll. 

In fact, the whole season, besides an episode and a half tiff with Tony, was void of Chrissy’s major blow ups, drug use, and general poor decision making. And I didn’t remember that… which is probably why they made him a hot mess again not too much later.

But, as good as the single episode of ‘Pine Barrens’ is, it does not, to me, outshine the body of work of Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto. He embodies a type of gangster that the show didn’t really have upon his entrance. He is understated in comparison to the caricatures of Paulie and Sylvio. He also provides a new foil for Tony after Junior and Livia and Ritchie all made their exits in one way or another. And he creates a great story. He is so hatable in the beginning, but by the end, as he sits to watch TV after burying the son of the woman he is seeing, a death he was responsible for, he is easy to feel sorry for. Maybe he isn’t likable yet, but he isn’t just the rat bastard who beat Tracee to death. And he went from the scum of the earth, to someone we can empathize with on the fulcrum of Tony’s pettiness and spite- making him grovel for forgiveness, only making him captain after he is forced to, and even then, manipulating it to his own advantage. Ralphie brought some of this spite on himself to be sure, maybe even most of it. But maybe for the first time, we get a glimpse into how deeply flawed Tony is, through his family and through his psychiatry, but maybe through Ralphie the most.

Previous Posts In This Series:
Sometimes we’re all hypocrites. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 2
It’s business. We are soldiers. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 1
Long Overdue Recap Of Season 1 [The Sopranos]

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The Meaning Of ‘Those Goddamn Ducks’ [The Sopranos]
Dictionary of Malapropisms [Sopranos]
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Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps! [Iron Man]

I love great movie lines. My love for movies was carried on the back of quoting movies with my friends as we drove around aimlessly from fast food restaurant, to store, to movie theater, to someone’s parent’s basement. I have already shown this love for movie lines in previous posts (Mediocre [Mad Max: Fury Road]; How can you not be romantic about baseball? [Moneyball]; I Can’t Beat It [Manchester By The Sea]). But I thought I would get more direct and talk about a movie line I like- even if it is of no consequence to the greater film- and why I like it.

Lots of movie lines are great because of their significance (“I think we need a bigger boat.” “I am your father…” etc…). But many many more are great because they hit just right and stick in the center of your brain. And then, as life goes on, the line pops out of your mouth at the weirdest times. People inevitably ask, “Where is that from?” Because it was a line of no consequence, nothing to be remembered. It does not reveal its source. It was just something that stuck due to a sound quality or turn of phrase or emotional undercurrent. I love those lines, and I want to write about those lines.

And the best example of this is from Iron Man. Jeff Bridges, playing Tony Stark’s initially lovable business partner Obadiah Stane, delivers one hell of a line when he confronts one of his many scientists trying to recreate the power source to Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit. The scientist informed Obadiah, that all the king’s scientists and all the king’s men could not put the arc reactor back together again. Obadiah, displeased at the news, tears into the diminutive scientist, 

“Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave!” *pause* “With a box of scraps!”

So why is this line so great?

The Pause

When writing the line above, I took some authoritative license. The line is, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” But anyone who sees the scene, and subsequently hears this line, knows that there is an all-powerful pause in the middle of the line that makes it a line worth remembering.

The pause changes the reading of the line. Instead of becoming a fact of frustration, the pause emphasizes how seething Obadiah was. He is so blinded by rage that as he is yelling at this pathetic scientist, he can’t even remember all the reasons why the scientist should be able to replicate what Stark did. It’s the perfect representation of what yelling does to us. We speak in stops and starts, we remember more reasons why we are upset, and hop back into the tirade. So Stane is indignant that Stark was able to do this in a cave. 

And on top of that! He only had scraps with which to do it!

The Body Language

Obi is a big dude. And the angle of the camera for this line, and the way he stands and confronts the scientist is about as menacing as it gets. 

As the scientists begins talking, Stane whips his suit coat open and stands, facing the camera, with hands on hips, the picture of power, dominance. And then, when he delivers the line, he leans over the scientist, bending him back at a 45-degree angle, jabbing a thick finger into his hollow chest. He’s not just angry, he’s violent, and he is powerful. And all of that power and violence is imbued into this line.

The Rhythm

I imagine the temptation when given a line to yell is to rush through it linearly. But Bridges is too good for that. As noted above, the pause shows a patience to his anger, a reflection of just how frustrated he is at all the ways this situation shouldn’t be going the way it is. But also, he draws out some of the words. “Tony STAARK, was able to BUUIILD this in a CAAAVE! With a BOOX of SCRAAAPS!!” 

The cadence is just about perfect, and the rhythm makes it impossible for people not to leave the theater and mutter the quote under their breath, trying to get it just right.

The Turn Around

This part might be a tad overdramatic, but the underlying menace makes it acceptable. Obadiah Stane doesn’t just yell this line, with his hand in the scientist’s chest and his face inches away from the scientist’s face. He also wheels about in order to do it, sending his coat and tie flying in the process. It was so abrupt, cutting his prey off from continuing speaking, and showing Stain’s short fuse. His master plan wasn’t going according to plan, and he might need to start getting his hands dirty.

In some ways this marks a ‘turning’ point for the character. Breaking out of the capitalist-business approach to outdoing Tony Stark and needing to turn to the combative aggression that makes a Marvel villain. 

We see both sides to Stain in this scene. Before he turns around, he is heavy-handedly trying to get his scientists to build what he needs built to create what he wants to create. When he turns around, he becomes an embodiment of the anger and violence that he will rely on to get ahead. This side of him wasn’t unexpected but was a bit startling.

The Retort

This solidification process as a villain rather than just a bad guy happens after the scientist responds, “I’m sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.”

It is its own great line, solidifying the genius of the first Avenger and also pushing Stain over the edge. This line is the final convincer that Stain isn’t trying to overcome science or business or anything within the bounds of his profession. He is trying to overcome Tony Stark. And the rivalry is borne, and Stain must take the fight to Iron Man.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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How can you not be romantic about baseball? [Moneyball]
I Can’t Beat It [Manchester By The Sea]
May You Live Forever [300]
Mediocre [Mad Max: Fury Road]
This Is How I Win [Uncut Gems]
An Ode to Babu Frik: Hey-HEYYYY [Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker]

Captain Beatty’s Style Of Governance: Suggesting To The Highly Suggestible [Fahrenheit 451]

If you have been following along with this three-part series about reading and literacy as reflected by dystopian novels, we have already established a couple points. I recommend you go back and read those posts (here and here). 

But if you want the TL/DR, I established that Orwell and 1984, although the go-to expression of our current political dystopia (i.e. ‘This is Orwellian’), fails to adequately reflect our predicament, fundamentally because we are not propagandized and then cannibalized by our government, we choose our own ignorance through a lack of reading. I then established this choice is a more accurate reflection of A Brave New World as seen by the delightfully oversimplified choice of Soma or Shakespeare. We chose Soma.

However, this still fails to explain the impact of this choice. We don’t read. We bring close pleasures and delights even when it comes to ‘information.’ But how does that lead to any sort of dystopia or political turmoil? How can ignorance and decadence create parallel realities to the world predicted in 1984 and A Brave New World?

For that answer, this post turns to a third dystopian novel about literacy and censorship, Fahrenheit 451. The least referenced of the three, but maybe the closest reflection of what we have seen in America in the last year or longer.

The crux of 451 is what a government is able to do when its citizenry shuns reading for entertainment. The short answer: Whatever the fuck it wants. And beyond the freedom of action, they receive support from the people as long as those people receive a steady diet of daily amusements.

In a way, it is the merging of 1984 and A Brave New World. The government affectations of 1984, where it grows in power because of the lack of accountability, and the plight of the citizen, as they busy themselves in a world of ever-increasing speed and business, making their lives seem full, when in reality they couldn’t be emptier.

In the world of 451 there is a rise of suicides, school violence by children, wars have turned into drive-by-bombings, and books have become all but extinct, deemed too biased and argumentative and, quite frankly, uncomfortable.

The parallels to our own world abound. And the connection between a country that doesn’t read and one that has civil unrest becomes clearer. 451 makes the case that as the world became faster, came a desire to make things simpler, which often means shorter. I believe Captain Beatty (the nemesis of the story) invented SparkNotes when he said, “Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet… was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.”

And as things shortened due to speed, there were inevitably subjects that didn’t make the cut. “Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

Concurrently, there was population growth, causing more minority opinions that created disagreement and conflict. People became afraid of offending and disagreeing. And because the world was becoming more streamlined towards function and entertainment, was everything else really all that worth it? Should I really read that book and gain that knowledge and make my neat world so much messier while eating up so much time doing one small thing? 

Beatty put a finer point on it, one that jabs at Orwell, “There you have it… It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”

Thank God… he says. Why? Because Beatty is the man in power. And being in power gets a lot easier when this is the recipe for cooking. 

The world created by Bradbury in 451 is the end phenomena of a lack of reading and a search for meaning in pleasure- a government that can sell anything. He is thanking God because he did not need to go to the lengths of establishing an Orwellian Ministry of Truth. His constituency was already drinking the Soma. And now, through the power of suggestion aimed at the highly suggestible he can get them to accept anything. In the book this includes who to vote for and wars to support and lies about the origins of government. 

But it doesn’t have to be that.

It could be lies about where a President was born, about attempts from the opposing minority party to hinder your majority party, claims of fraud in an election. The possibilities are endless.

But it is made possible by a lack of learning. An educated electorate would not stand for it. 

There is one thing however, that 451 got wrong. In its dystopian future, citizens are useless. They sit at home intaking meaningless forms of entertainment on their interactive televisions (which are called parlor walls because the screens are entire walls in a room formerly used for conversation). They are prone to suggestion about where to look and where not to look, but always in a passive sense, keeping them from looking behind the curtain to see the not so great and powerful Oz.

What it did not predict was the weaponizing of that ignorance. Using their constituencies lack of understanding and lemming-like fervor to sic them on the opposing side, something our politicians on both sides do incredibly well, but, given our recent past, was taken to new heights when a group of illiterate followers of MAGA stormed the Capitol.

There is one scene in 451 that shows people capable of working together like this in Bradbury’s world as well, and it feels the closest to what the world feels like today. As Montag, a man newly exposed to books and on the run from the government who hunts him because of his literacy, runs towards a river that will whisk him away to safety. His hunters try one last ditch effort to catch him. They speak through televisions and radios; those means of entertainment. And they tell everyone to, for just a moment, look outside at the count of ten. As they count down, people everyone obediently walk to their doors or windows and peer out at once in an attempt to identify and capture the man who read too much. 

From this series…
Part 1: Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]
Part 2: The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]

Did you like this post? Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
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Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]

Can We Talk About [Kingdom Of Heaven]?

Be without fear in the face of your enemies

I didn’t have a ton of interest in watching Kingdom of Heaven

Be brave and upright that God may love thee

And then for some reason, I got a hankering for a sword and sandal film

Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death

And I watched it

Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong

And I liked it…

That is your oath

But I definitely need to talk about it…

Was that good or bad?

I know that I liked Kingdom of Heaven, but after certain movies, I often wonder about the collective opinion. Judging by the fact that there was generally not a lot of buzz around this movie upon its release, I doubt people loved it. More objectively, our normal metrics for measuring the public opinion of a movie, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are split. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 39% and Metacritic a 63/100. 

I imagine it divides along that grossest of lines… public opinion was poor- story was tough to follow, it was a low-grade Gladiator etc… and film critics thought it was solid- beautiful cinematography (more on that later), it had weight and significance etc… 

I’ll be more specific with my own thoughts. I didn’t like the beginning, but I loved the ending. The beginning was all necessary but wonky. We were flying through this story. He’s a blacksmith, his wife is dead, he hates his father, he loves his father, he’s an epic knight, he’s shipwrecked… Upon looking at the entire film, this weird pacing looks necessary- they had a lot to get to and dwelling on the events in the back half rather than the front half was prudent- but it seemed like too many plot elements were being juggled at once. It prevented me from being all-in. However, when I finished the movie, it all stuck in my brain like a parasite. I still can’t stop thinking about it. And thus… this post.

How’d they do that?

I do not delve into analysis of film as an art in any meaningful way. If a movie is shot in an amazing way using some unheard of or challenging method, I could really care less, unless it makes the movie-experience better. So therefore, I am always factoring the quality of the form into movies, without being able to say how they impacted me. For example, one time I watched a YouTube video on how Spielberg’s use of quadrants and camera dimensions aided in the storytelling of Jurassic Park. Cool stuff, but like… just make the movie good, and I won’t have to worry about it. 

The result of this is twofold- I am unable to descend into that gross field of discourse that values the way a movie is made over the film as a whole, but it also puts me into situations where a movie impacts me, and I have no idea why, and that makes me frustrated. I should probably try to bridge the gap, but I don’t know… who has the time?

Kingdom of Heaven did this to me. I enjoy sword and sandal films, and the peak of any such movie is when the army’s gather together and face off. And generally speaking, there is a baseline to that experience. When armies gather together in Troy, it is a similar experience to that in Alexander, and I use these examples because though in the same genre, those two movies couldn’t be more different. But the common ground is there, the collection of armies does not often vary, even in films of a great degree of variation. Plug in other movies if you will… Gladiator, 300. Expand the genre if you want… Lord of The Rings, The Last Samurai. Move to TV shows if you must… Game of Thrones. They all have armies, and they are all presented differently, but on an ethereal level, I experienced those armies in the same way. Sometimes awed by their movement or organization, sometimes awed by their size, but they always seemed the same amount of ‘real’ to me. 

For some reason, the armies in Kingdom of Heaven blew my mind. They seemed so much more real to me. And I know there is a secret recipe for this effect- part music, part visualization, part costume- but I can’t verbalize it. I just love, and can’t stop thinking about, the scene where Saladin sets up in front of Raynald’s castle, a massive, imposing and awesome army. And then the King’s army comes over the rise, even more massive imposing and awesome. And I didn’t experience those armies in the same way as armies in other movies. They were more terrifying, more imposing… more human. A gross collection of men ready to do battle and die. That scene alone makes Kingdom of Heaven worth watching and re-watching.

Full Bloom

I guess Orlando Bloom was made for movies like this. He was Legalos in LOTR, Paris in Troy, and now Balian in Kingdom of Heaven. He does indeed look very… medieval, and he has a solid accent and dark and stormy look in his back pocket. But was this a good addition to that filmography?

The Boston Globe stated that he was “not actively bad.” That might be the correct phrasing, but I wonder if this more has to do with being outshone by others rather than anything Bloom did. Like of all the characters that got time, I wanted to watch Bloom the least, and I was forced to watch him the most. I was sad when Liam Neeson’s character died, and not just because that was sad, but because he was infinitely more interesting than Bloom, and now I am stuck with Bloom. And then on and on we go with Norton as the king, Eva Green as Sibylla (whose name alone is better than anything Bloom did), Jeremy Irons as Raymond, and Brendan Gleeson as Raynald. Then there were relative unknowns who were awesome, like Ghassan Massoud as Saladin and Martin Csokas as Guy and others, all of which were infinitely more interesting than Bloom and on screen significantly less.

It hurt the story to be switching from these awesome performances back to Bloom, who was doing his Bloom thing, and it wasn’t actively bad, but it was bad in comparison. Every movie is a whole different movie with a new actor as the main character, but this one… feels like it would be on a new level.

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