"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 17, 2021


There’s only one thing everyone can agree on regarding the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy: he was killed on November 22, 1963. Everything else around this watershed event in American history has been subject to intense debate and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely assembled puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like triggerman Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.
Stone’s film filters an examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person's point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — the New Orleans District Attorney who then assembles all the evidence at his disposal to deliver a powerful and persuasive case for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Stone saw his film consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a key figure in the assassination, Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C. JFK is the mother of all paranoid conspiracy thrillers, the ultimate one man against the system film with Garrison taking on the establishment, attempting to uncover one of the most nefarious plots in history. It created such profound shockwaves in the real world that Stone was criticized and vilified in the press.
“God, I’m ashamed to be an American today,” says Garrison when he finds out that Kennedy has been shot and we see people in the bar he’s in applaud the man’s death. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson desaturate the colors in the 1963 scenes, which creates a somber tone as the country reacts to the Kennedy assassination.

Six years later, the color returns to the film as Garrison shares a plane ride with Senator Russell B. Long (Walter Matthau) who plants the first seeds of doubt in the District Attorney’s mind about the Kennedy assassination. He points out that Oswald was a lousy shot and couldn’t have made all those shots in that time with that kind of accuracy. He also scoffs at the “magic bullet” theory – that one bullet created seven wounds and came out in pristine condition. “I’d round up 100 of the world’s best riflemen. Find out which ones were in Dallas that day. You’ve been duck hunting. I think Oswald is a good old-fashioned decoy.”
This encounter provokes Garrison to go through all the volumes of the Warren Commission Report and find that, “Again and again credible testimony ignored, leads are never followed up, its conclusions selective, there’s no index. It’s one of the sloppiest, most disorganized investigations I’ve ever seen.” He concludes that this was by design: “But it’s all broken down and spread around and you read it and the point gets lost.” He continues to dig deeper and the testimony of Lee Bowers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who hints at another shooter on the grassy knoll, is the final straw.
Garrison walks the streets of New Orleans with two of his investigators Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders) and Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker), recounting Oswald’s time in the city in a brilliantly written and performed monologue (one of many). He points out to them that Oswald, a supposed communist sympathizer, spent his time in the heart of the government’s intelligence community with the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service and the Office of Naval Intelligence all within spitting distance of each other. As Garrison tells them, “Isn’t this seem to you a rather strange place for a communist to spend his spare time?” He tells them that they are going to reopen the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and this is where the film really begins to gather narrative momentum.

Garrison starts interviewing people that had some link to the conspirators, namely Clay Bertrand a.k.a. Clay Shaw, which gives Stone the opportunity to trot out a parade of name actors such as Jack Lemmon, John Candy and Kevin Bacon to portray a very colorful cavalcade of characters. The interviews paint a vivid picture of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Shaw working with Oswald. Stone uses Bacon and Lemmon to detail the conspiracy on a local level, expounding a ton of expositional dialogue brilliantly, while Candy’s hipster lawyer conveys the danger Garrison faces digging into the murder of the President.

Stone presents a series of lengthy dialogue-driven scenes conveying an incredible amount of information in palatable fashion by having recognizable actors as his mouthpieces while dynamically shooting and editing them. He has a character spout a fact or theory and then cuts to a dramatic reenactment that depicts it in black and white and/or different film stock, often blurring the line between fact and fiction, which is the point. In a case as complex as this it is hard to discern which is which as witness testimony conflicts one another making it difficult to make sense of it all.
A great example of this is the sequence where Garrison and his team explain Oswald’s background leading up to the assassination with Stone cutting to staged footage, actual documentary footage and the famous Life magazine cover photograph that cemented Oswald’s guilt in the public’s mind but might be a doctored image. It is a bravura sequence that marries complex editing, pasting together all kinds of different formats, with past events being discussed in the present with many characters talking as the conspiracy deepens and the thriller elements take hold. It culminates with Broussard disbelievingly saying, “We are talking about our government!” to which Garrison replies, “No. We’re talking about a crime, Bill. Plain and simple…We’re through the looking glass, here, people. White is black and black is white.”
The scene where Garrison first meets Shaw is a fantastic clash between two characters as the former goes after the latter who defiantly deflects and denies any involvement in the assassination plot. During the conversation, Stone intercuts footage that shows he is lying or, at least, that is Garrison’s interpretation. Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant here as he changes tone on a dime, going from amused elegance to angrily indignant and back again all the while maintaining an air of cultured sophistication. Finally, Garrison tires of his act and accuses him of killing Kennedy. When Shaw finally leaves, he gives parting pleasantries but Jones gives Costner a lingering, threatening look. From this point on, the pressure on the D.A. and his team increases as the powers that be attempt to discredit him.

Stone’s portrayal of Garrison is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the last honest man in government – and he tries to temper this by showing the trouble he faces at home as his wife (Sissy Spacek) complains that he’s never around anymore and that he cares more about the Kennedy assassination than his own family. She is the film’s weakest character whose sole purpose, initially, is to provide strife on the home front. Stone then has her come around to her husband’s way of thinking after he tearfully tells her late one night that Robert Kennedy has been shot and killed. She admits he was right all along and they make love in a scene that is unnecessarily maudlin. These scenes feel shoehorned in and take away from the main thrust of the film. Stone is on more comfortable ground when he returns to more familiar turf as we see the press arriving in droves to Garrison’s office, making it impossible for he and his team to get any work done. Funding for his office has dried up and he is forced to use his own savings to keep the investigation going. We also see infighting among his staff and Ivon and Broussard butt heads as we see the latter scared off the case.
Another bit of tour-de-force acting comes from Joe Pesci in the scene where Ferrie rapidly unravels as he fears for his life based on what he knows about the plot to kill Kennedy. Ferrie gets increasingly manic as he rattles off the people and organizations involved, getting worked up until he utters the iconic line, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!” It’s hyperbolic and over-the-top to be sure but it does illustrate how complex the assassination plot is with fake Oswalds and conflicting eyewitness accounts. After the incredible outburst, Ferrie winds down as Pesci elicits sympathy for this terrible man who is under a lot pressure and is incredibly paranoid. This scene threatens to throw the film right off the rails as Pesci goes for it, acting his ass off, chewing up the scenery in breathtaking fashion.
The centerpiece of the film is when Garrison travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with an ex-high-ranking CIA officer known only as Mr. X (Donald Sutherland). In this bravura sequence he lays out the motivation for killing Kennedy including how and why. It’s an incredible amount of dialogue and Stone wisely cast a skilled actor such as Donald Sutherland to convey it in a coherent and engaging way. X lays out the most important aspect of the assassination: why? “The how and who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia – keeps ‘em guessing like some kind of parlor game preventing them from asking the most important question – why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up?”

X posits that Kennedy was killed because he wanted to break up the CIA, make peace with Russia and end the Vietnam War, which not only pissed off a lot of powerful people but would cost a lot of money as he tells Garrison, “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is the war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.” He encourages Garrison to “come up with a case. Something. Anything. Make arrests. Stir the shitstorm. Hope to reach a critical mass that’ll start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government’ll crack. Remember, fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth.” This is the film’s idealistic mission statement. Judging from the critical reaction towards the film, Stone certainly succeeded in stirring up the shitstorm and in the court of public opinion he helped reshape the perception of the Kennedy assassination.
These increasingly dense and dynamic exposition scenes lead up to the mother of all courtroom scenes as Garrison goes in knowing he’s going to lose and goes for it anyway. It is Costner’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster moment by way of Gary Cooper as Garrison debunks the Warren Commission Report’s account of Oswald by audaciously showing the real Zapruder film that depicted the Kennedy killing in real time. Stone edits in recreation footage with actual footage of the assassination as Garrison lays it all out. The filmmaker also recreates Kennedy’s controversial autopsy and shows actual photos of the man taken at the time.
This scene involves a massive amount of dialogue and information to convey and Costner handles it like a pro, making this exposition compelling, especially at the end when the actor performs his final speech without the aid of intercutting other footage. It’s Costner out there on his own, even getting emotional towards the end at the most powerful moment when Garrison address the jury, “Show this world that this is still a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important. It’s up to you.” And with that last line, Costner breaks the fourth wall. That line is meant for us and is one of the most moving parts of Garrison’s speech.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and he eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Columbia University’s Professor of Journalism Zachary Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.”
Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser on the film.

In 1989, Stone met with the three top Warner Bros. executives – Terry Semel, Bob Daly, and Bill Gerber – who had been interested in his work for some time. At the time, Stone was trying to make a film about Howard Hughes but Warren Beatty owned the rights. Stone then pitched JFK to them in 15-20 minutes: “I told them I wanted JFK to be a movie about the problem of covert parallel government in this country and deep political corruption.” Semel remembers Stone asking them, “’Are you concerned politically? Would it affect your company? Are there negative reasons why you wouldn’t do it?’ My immediate reaction was, ‘No, we should do it.’ If it’s entertaining and it’s intriguing, a great murder mystery about something we all cared about and grew up thinking about, why not?” A handshake deal was done and the studio agreed to a $20 million budget.
Stone could have shopped JFK around in the international market but chose WB because, “I knew the material was dangerous and I wanted on entity to finance the whole thing and the history of WB, given Terry Semel’s record of political films (All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields), was my first choice.” Kevin Costner signed on to play Garrison in 1991, which pleased the studio who wanted a bankable movie star attached to the project. In addition, independent producer Arnon Milchan came on board as an executive producer and doubled the budget allowing Stone to cast a star-studded supporting cast around Costner.
Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. That took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film in the press surfaced in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most as he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”
The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation," and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in Warren Report. Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback ... I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence
Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the Costner’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars ... the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.
Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top-notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.
Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far.” In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant.” A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.” Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade.
Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. This isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama. It is a fever dream straight out of Stone's head. He’s a Baby Boomer upset that the death of Kennedy obliterated the idealism of the '60s and uses the film to vent about it. JFK is an important work in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Stone’s film presents an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing with one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill the President. Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that this film openly advocates. For better or for worse, it helped cultivate a conspiracy culture that has only grown larger and more unwieldy with the rise of social media. JFK continues to serve as a powerful piece of cinematic agitprop whose conspiracy theories can be questioned and criticized but its power as an engaging and moving thriller cannot.

Fisher, Bob. “The Whys and Hows of JFK.” American Cinematographer. February 1992.
Petras, James. “The Discrediting of The Fifth Estate: The Press Attacks on JFK.” Cineaste. May 1992.
Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.
Scheer, Robert. “Oliver Stone Builds His Own Myths.” Los Angeles Times. December 15, 1991.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The World's Greatest Sinner

Without a doubt, Timothy Agoglia Carey is one of the most eccentric character actors in American cinema. This is a man that was fired from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) for faking his own kidnapping. One only must see his scene-stealing performances in the likes of the aforementioned film where he breaks down and cries hysterically before a firing squad or in The Killing (1956) where he speaks most of his dialogue while flashing his clenched teeth to witness the wonderful off-kilter choices he made that enhanced the films he was in. Unfortunately, he rarely got to headline a film with The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which he starred in, wrote, directed and produced, being one of the rare exceptions. Freed from the constraints of the Hollywood studio system, he created a crudely made, yet fascinating look at the cult of personality.
The film begins, appropriately, in bizarre fashion with the title song playing over a black screen and the sound of an explosion segues into the opening credits with classical music playing over the soundtrack inducing wicked tonal whiplash. In a gleefully audacious move, the story is narrated by none other than God (and then, bafflingly, abandons it for the rest of the movie) who introduces us to Clarence Hilliard (Carey) by describing him as “just like any other male the only difference is he wants to be God. And that’s coming right out of the horse’s mouth.”
He lives in domestic bliss with his wife Edna (Betty Rowland) and his two children, working as the head of the department of an insurance company. One day, he decides to give everyone the day off which doesn’t sit too well with his boss (Victor Floming). It doesn’t help that Clarence has also been telling potential clients not to get insurance, telling one person not get a funeral policy because, “When you die, your body starts to stink.” Not surprisingly, he gets fired from his job, comes home and tells his wife that he wants to write a book and get into politics (?!).

While he earnestly tells her about his aspirations she falls asleep so he tells his pet horse Rex about a dream he had: “I’m gonna make people live long. I wanna put something into life. I wanna make life be eternal.” These are the seeds for a cult that he plans to start but how will he get people to follow him? One night, he goes to a rock ‘n’ roll concert and observes teenage girls screaming in excitement at and worshipping the lead singer. The next day, Clarence hits the streets, literally, preaching eternal life to anyone who will listen. He wants to make people super human beings, promising, “age won’t exist anymore.”
Clarence transforms himself into a rock ‘n’ roll preacher in a show-stopping sequence that evokes Elvis Presley and James Brown in raw energy and showmanship as he sweats, yells and dances with wild abandon. It is a truly astonishing performance to behold. He eventually changes his name to God Hilliard and becomes drunk on power, alienating his earlier followers and even his family. He meets a shady, political fixer whose credentials are that he worked for one of the leading political parties but fell out of favor thanks to “a few jealous underlings” and “got into a few difficulties.” He dazzles Clarence with political doublespeak and tells him, “If you can stir the people’s emotions, you can win.” The first thing he does is get Clarence to drop the rock ‘n’ roll preacher shtick, which he agrees to do by dramatically smashing his guitar over a desk.
He is soon running for President of the United States on his eternal life platform. Eventually, his rhetoric changes to that of a fanatical dictator: “We must gird ourselves with an armor of inspiration. We’ll reach them in the big cities! In the small towns! And the crossroads! We’ll weed them out! Any place where there’s people, we’ll get our message to them!” Carey lays on the fascist imagery as Clarence’s followers wear armbands of their party and have their own book documenting Clarence’s manifesto. Soon, he is speaking at larger and larger rallies until he has a crisis of confidence and of faith at the film’s climax.

The making of The World’s Greatest Sinner was almost as wild and unpredictable as the film itself with the inspiration coming from Carey’s desire to shake things up in Hollywood: “I was tired of seeing movies that were supposedly controversial. So I wanted to do something that was really controversial.” He began filming in 1956 in El Monte, California, where he lived, at his home and on the city streets, using locals as extras. This continued sporadically until 1961 on a budget of $100,000 under its original title, Frenzy. While making The Second Time Around (1961), Carey was approached by a young musician by the name of Frank Zappa who complimented his acting. Carey told him, “We have no music for The World’s Greatest Sinner. If you can supply the orchestra and a place to tape it, you have the job.” The aspiring musician composed the score and then went on The Steve Allen Show and said it was “the world’s worst film and all the actors were from skid row.”
Filmmaker Dennis Ray Steckler (Incredibly Strange Creatures) also got his start on the film. After several cameramen had been fired during filming, Carey brought Steckler out to Long Beach to shoot scenes of extras watching Carey on stage and then rioting. Steckler later claimed that at while was in a closet loading film, Carey threw a boa constrictor in with him. To top it all off, at the film’s premiere, Carey fired a .38 pistol above the heads of the audience, causing a riot.
The World’s Greatest Sinner warns about the dangers of demagogues like Clarence by showing how he whips a large crowd into a blind frenzy showing how they are swept up by his fiery rhetoric. Carey shows how this can be dangerous as his followers riot, destroying property in his name with the camera lingering on a mob of people trashing and turning over a car. He has affairs with multiple women, including a 14-year-old girl. This kind of behavior and these kinds of tactics anticipate T.V. evangelists that became popular in the 1980s and in recent years people with little to no political experience or knowledge getting into office based mostly on their cult of personality and ability to appeal to people’s basest instincts.

What is so incredibly inspiring about The World’s Greatest Sinner is how Carey commits 100% to the wonderfully insane narrative. Imagine if Brad Garrett and Nicolas Cage had a baby and you get Carey. He has the former’s hulking frame with the latter’s bedroom eyes and fearlessness as an actor, not afraid to look ridiculous all in the name of art. The film is shot and edited roughly, almost haphazardly in a non-traditional way with awkward transitions and shifts in tone that is also part of its charm. Carey is not only flaunting Hollywood conventions he is throwing out the rule book as he makes all kinds of odd choices throughout the film, like when Clarence’s boss takes him to his office to reprimand him and it plays over a cacophony of noises so that we can’t hear the dialogue. The screenplay, at times, is truly inspired with such blatantly provocative lines, such as “The biggest liar of mankind is Christ!” This is truly an auteur film – Carey’s magnum opus, a weird and wild film he was somehow able to be unleashed on the world seemingly through sheer force of Carey’s will.
McAbee, Sam. “Carey: Saint of the Underground.” Cashiers du Cinemart. #12. 2001.
Murphy, Mike. “Timothy Carey.” Psychotronic. #6. 1990.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Halloween II


Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 2007 was a financial success prompting the studio to greenlight the inevitable sequel. Enough time had passed after the making of that movie that he had forgotten what a difficult experience it and was willing to go again but this time he would no longer be constrained with having to remake another person’s movie thus allowing him to follow his creative bliss, making a follow-up that was more brutal and refreshingly stranger than the previous movie. The result was Halloween II (2009).
After a brief flashback to Michael as a child, recounting a dream he had to his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), we are brought back to the present with a bloody and battered Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) walking down the middle of the road in a shell-shocked daze after having just fought off and killed Michael Myers (Tyler Mane). Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) catches up to and tries to calm her down. Slam cut to a close-up of her screaming face as she’s wheeled along a hospital corridor on a gurney.
Back at the site of the climactic showdown, an unconscious Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is also sent off in an ambulance while Michael’s body is carried away as well but when the two inept coroners driving the truck crash into a cow (?!), Michael rises and disappears into the night. At the same moment, Laurie rises from her hospital bed to see her friend Annie (Danielle Harris), another survivor from the encounter with Michael, and Zombie makes a point of lingering on these two young women, their bodies damaged by what happened to them, but those wounds will eventually heal. It is the psychological damage that Zombie is interested in exploring with this movie.

He does pay tribute to the original Halloween II (1981) in the first 20 minutes or so as Michael stalks Laurie through the corridors of the hospital and manages to avoid the obvious error or having a nearly empty building for the two to engage in a prolonged cat-and-mouse game that always rang false by having her quickly escape out into the pouring rain, but oh wait, it was a nightmare and a year has passed since the events depicted in Halloween. It feels like Zombie’s fuck you to the original sequel as if to say don’t we all wish that movie was a nightmare we could forget?
Laurie takes pills for pain, anxiety, you name it, still traumatized and living with Brackett and his daughter Annie. It’s a well-played scene as we see these people trying to get on with their lives as best they can considering what they’ve been through. Laurie, especially, is lost in the world. Her parents are dead and Michael’s body was never found, which leaves her frustratingly without closure.
Meanwhile, Loomis has bounced back as a flashy television personality, cashing in on what happened a year ago and Zombie re-introduces his character via a super slick tracking show that would make Michael Mann proud, combined with a very Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk sequence. He’s become a petulant primadonna, which Malcolm McDowell has fun playing to the hilt. The “good” doctor happily cashes in on the fascination with Michael Myers but when someone brings up the possibility of the killer still being alive he loses it and we see the cracks in the façade. He is not above doing an interview in front of the now-abandoned Strode house as he tells his long-suffering assistant, “Bad taste is the petrol that drives the American Dream.”

Halloween II is a more visually interesting movie when we finally see what Michael has been up to all this time, living in an abandoned barn out in the middle of nowhere, killing and eating animals to survive, and having visions of his mother. Initially, it is of her dressed all in white next to a white horse but soon they become more involved. His mother was the only good thing in Michael’s life and once she was gone so were the last vestiges of being human. These visions are beautifully surreal sequences, bizarre tableaus that anticipate what he would delve into to a greater degree with The Lords of Salem (2012), which eschewed gore and violence for atmospheric dread.
The movie has the requisite kills that fans have come to expect from the franchise but here it feels as if Zombie is getting them out of the way as he’s more interested in tracking the shattered lives of the main characters than goosing the body count for cheap thrills. We get considerate character beats, such as Sheriff Brackett extolling the virtues of Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965) to Laurie and his daughter who have no idea what he’s talking about. They provide brief moments of levity in an otherwise extremely grim movie.
A child of the 1970s, Zombie populates his movie with a bevy of character actors who were stars during that time and so we have Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hessman as the owner of a cool independent record store that Laurie works in and Margot Kidder as Laurie’s therapist. Despite working for a studio, Zombie still manages to find room for his troupe of favorite actors, such as Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Daniel Roebuck, many of whom get the honor of being brutally dispatched by Michael.

This being a Rob Zombie movie and his perchance for all things white trash, he trades in the suburbs of Haddonfield, that we normally associate with the Halloween franchise, for his preferred locales – indie record stores, deserted barns and sleazy strip clubs. He employs a desaturated color palette for this grim movie, saving key moments for splashes of color, such as the aforementioned strip club and the Halloween party Laurie attends – both awash in garish reds.
With Loomis’ endless press interviews and book signing gigs, Zombie is showing how infamous crime cases are commodified and exploited by people like Loomis without caring about the damage that has been done and continues with this careless exploitation. It brings out kooky fans and grief-stricken parents of kids killed by Michael that want to vent their anguish and anger on the doctor who has nothing but contempt and indifference for his audience. Laurie continues to unravel, permanently scarred both physically and psychologically by Michael and Loomis’ book only reopens these old wounds.
With both of his Halloween movies, Zombie is not interested in making a gimmicky Scream meta slasher movie or an over-the-top kill-happy Friday the 13th movie but instead grounding the franchise mythos in something approximating realism by showing the toll Michael’s bloody rampage takes on Laurie and those close to her. It’s not funny but sad, leaving one drained by the end of the movie, much like Laurie. Characters live with trauma and try to carry on with their lives but Michael won’t let them. People are killed in horrible, painful ways and those that survive are haunted, their lives shattered beyond repair.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Steel Helmet

 “The only way to bring the real experience of war to a movie audience is by firing a machine gun above their heads during the screening.” – Samuel Fuller

Hopefully, most of us will never have to experience what it is like to fight in a war. It is a horrifying; dehumanizing experience and the best cinema can do is approximate it. If the filmmaker has seen combat, such as Oliver Stone, it can give the film an authenticity that it might not have otherwise. This is the case with Samuel Fuller, who served as an American infantryman in World War II, and applied his experiences into several of his films, most notably The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980), however the former was his first war film and had the distinction of being the first one made about the Korean War while it was still ongoing. It was unflinchingly honest in depicting the war and drew criticism from some as “anti-American,” but was widely praised by most critics. It was also a financial success, paving the way for a Hollywood studio contract for Fuller.
The filmmaker kicks things off with his trademark provocative opening scene involving a shot of the titular helmet to reveal the man attached to it: Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans). Fuller pulls back to reveal that he’s the only survivor of a platoon whose bodies lie strewn around him, hands tied behind their back, including his own. He crawls towards a knife lying on the ground but someone gets to it first – a young Korean boy (William Chun). He takes the knife and after a tense moment frees Zack. It turns out that the boy is South Korean, smart, friendly and even speaks soldier lingo surprisingly well. Zack is a gruff curmudgeon that, initially, doesn’t want the kid tagging along but the child wears him down by making a convincing argument for his worth. The infantryman begrudgingly allows him to travel with him, nicknaming him Short Round.
Fuller immediately establishes the constant peril Zack and Short Round are in when they spot two people worshipping at a makeshift temple that turns out to be enemy soldiers in disguise. Even when fatally wounded, one of them tries to stab Zack only for him to kill them without hesitation. Eventually, they encounter a medic by the name of Thompson (James Edwards), also the lone survivor of a massacred platoon and together they meet up with a squad of soldiers tasked with establishing an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple. The rest of the film chronicles their attempt to defend it against overwhelming odds.

The screenplay, penned by Fuller, is chock full of his trademark, pulpy, hard-boiled dialogue with such memorable prose such as, “You got nothin’ outside but rice paddies crawlin’ with Commies just waitin’ to slap you between two big hunks of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka.” It’s exactly the kind of dialogue you’d expect these grizzled soldiers to say to one another.
The film is beautiful shot by Ernest Miller as evident in a moody, atmospheric scene where Zack and the squad of soldiers try to kill two enemy snipers in a fog-enshrouded forest that is also a masterclass in tension as Fuller uses no music, just the sound of gunfire and we see how Zack and another soldier come up with a clever idea to flush out the enemy. This is also evident in the film’s incredible climactic battle scene as wave after wave North Korean soldiers attack the temple the squad is holed up in. It is never confusing what is happening and really manages to capture the heat of battle in an effective way.
Gene Evans is perfectly cast as the perpetually scowling Sgt. Zack with a cigar always clenched between his teeth like a live-action Howling Commandos-era Nick Fury. Zack doesn’t seem to like anyone and only gives someone grudging respect when they’ve earned it. This role was early in his career and Evans acts very natural in front of the camera, disappearing effortlessly into the role. He also does an excellent job of bringing Fuller’s colorful, purple prose vividly to life. The actor understands that Zack’s only goal is to stay alive by any means necessary. He’s not interested in making friends, in case they die, hence his gruff exterior. Obviously, Fuller was impressed with Evans work in The Steel Helmet as he went on to cast him several of his other films, most notably, Park Row (1952).

One of the more interesting aspects of The Steel Helmet is the notions of race and racism. Initially, Zack sees every Korean as a “gook” until he meets Short Round who quickly corrects him by proudly proclaiming, “I am no gook. I am Korean.” He’s fresh-faced kid sidekick but much more than that as he frees Zack, can recognize the kind of rifle he has, and the ammo required for it. He also helps Zack navigate the territory without a map. In turn, Zack allows him to tag along, instructing him to take a helmet for protection, a rifle, and boots for his feet. Fuller refuses to present the North Koreans as a faceless enemy. This is evident in a scene where a captured major (Harold Fong) is attended to by Thompson and tries to get under his skin by asking him why he serves a country that treats African Americans so poorly. He tries out the same tactic with the Japanese American soldier in the squad (Richard Loo) but it doesn’t work on either of them, whose sense of duty trumps any conflicted feelings they may have for how they are treated back home.
The inspiration for The Steel Helmet came from newspaper headlines of the day reporting on the ongoing Korean War. Fuller felt that it was only “natural for me to come up with a tale set in the ongoing conflict, utilizing my own firsthand experience from World War II.” He wanted to debunk the clichés that riddled so many war films in the past. “The confusion and brutality of war, not phony heroism, need to be depicted,” he said.
Fuller wanted to make it his way and approached independent producer Robert Lippert who greenlit it after the filmmaker pitched him the story. One of the major Hollywood studios found out Fuller was putting it together and offered to produce it but under the condition that John Wayne play Zack. Fuller balked at this, realizing that if he cast Wayne, he’d be making “a simplistic morality tale,” and wanted his film to look real with the soldiered being “human and deeply flawed.”

Fuller worked with a low budget and a tight shooting schedule of only ten days! He had started rehearsals and was only days away from the start of principal photography without an actor to play Zack. One day, Gene Evans and his agent showed up at the production office. Even though he had never been cast in a major role in a movie he told Fuller about serving as an engineer in WWII. Without warning, Fuller tossed an M1 rifle at the actor who caught it and displayed his familiarity with the weapon. Fuller knew he had found his man.
Lippert met Evans and after consulting with Fuller approved his casting but days later associate producer William Burke tried to fire Evans, telling him they were going with a more famous actor instead. When Fuller found out he was furious and went to Lippert. He found out that actor Larry Parks was going to testify at the McCarthy hearings and in danger of being blacklisted. The producers figured they could the well-known actor for a cheap price and use the free publicity he was getting from the hearings. Fuller told Lippert that he and Evans were quitting and immediately walked out. That night, Lippert and Fuller talked things over and the next morning he and Evans were on the set filming.
Capitalizing on the relevancy of the subject matter, The Steel Helmet was a commercial success. One critic called Fuller a pro-Communist and anti-American. Another said the film was secretly funded by the Russians and Fuller should be interrogated by the Pentagon. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, "For an obviously low-budget picture that was shot in a phenomenally short time, Samuel Fuller's metallic The Steel Helmet has some surprisingly good points." Variety magazine wrote, "The Steel Helmet pinpoints the Korean fighting in a grim, hardhitting tale that is excellently told.”

Another striking aspect of The Steel Helmet, and arguably much of Fuller’s body of work, is the lack of sentimentality. He’s not afraid to kill off the most beloved character of the film and in doing so reveals Zack’s humanity, that he tries to keep buried, in a rare, poignant moment of self-reflection. Evans handles this moment masterfully through facial expressions before snapping back to his hardened G.I. At the end of the film, exhausted but alive Zack continues on. What other choice does he have? Fuller ends the film with the title card, “There is no end to this story.” A powerful anti-war statement as Fuller acknowledges what few others do – there is no end to violent conflict. There will always be a war somewhere and that is the sad reality of our existence.
Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002.

Saturday, August 28, 2021



Tom Selleck has had one of the more intriguing what if film careers. If he had been able to get out of his contract for the television show Magnum, P.I. and done Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) who knows how his career would’ve turned out? Instead, he ended up doing a string of entertaining but mostly forgettable fare such as High Road to China (1983), Lassiter (1984), and Runaway (1984) that all underperformed at the box office to one degree or another as people were by and large content to watch him every week on T.V. It wasn’t until the smash hit of Three Men and a Baby (1990) that he had a significant financial success. Of all the movies he did in the early to mid-1980s, Lassiter is the most interesting effort.
Set in 1939 London, Selleck plays a high-end jewel thief by the name of Nick Lassiter. The movie begins with the man plying his trade, expertly breaking into a luxurious mansion and stealing expensive jewelry. He almost gets away with it until the lady of the house catches him on the way out. Instead of calling out to her husband, whom she has been bickering with since they arrived home, she lets Lassiter go but not before he helps her get undressed for her bath and the surprising female nudity signals that this won’t be family-friendly PG fare but naughty R-rated fun.
When he’s not robing the rich, he’s hobnobbing with them at a swanky nightclub with his beautiful wife Sarah (Jane Seymour) where they exchange unfortunately bland repartee, which is a damn shame as Selleck and Jane Seymour have lovely chemistry together. The next day, Lassiter is picked up by Inspector Becker (Bob Hoskins) and framed for a crime he didn’t commit but is given a chance to go free if he works with FBI agent Peter Breeze (Joe Regalbuto), helping steal $10 million worth of unset diamonds from the German embassy, slowing down their espionage efforts in South America.

To do so, Lassiter must get close to the courier, Kari Von Fursten (Lauren Hutton) and her Gestapo bodyguard Max Hofer (Warren Clarke). Breeze describes her as “pretty wild” and we quickly get an idea of just how wild when we see her kill one of her sexual conquests while they’re in bed together, evidently a perverse turn-on for her. Lauren Hutton looks like she’s having fun playing a woman with “unusual appetites,” as one character puts it, and she goes on to describe Shanghai as interesting for its diversions such as “women with animals, drugs, little boys, pleasure and pain.” She certainly looks the part of an elegant Nazi with some weird kinks.
Tom Selleck does an excellent job playing a suave jewel thief who is comfortable bantering playfully with a Nazi femme fatale in posh casinos as he is watching down ‘n’ dirty underground boxing matches. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty as evident in a scene where he and Max have it out in a bloody brawl at Lassiter’s apartment. This role allows Selleck to show off his leading man chops, demonstrating his capacity for romance with Seymour, action, his athletic prowess with the cat burglar sequence, and even a light comic touch in an amusing scene where he communicates with a Nazi guard only through facial expressions and gestures while wearing a frilly woman’s housecoat, trying not to wake Kari sleeping in the next room.

Jane Seymour is well cast as Selleck’s foil. Sarah enjoys their lifestyle but is not crazy about his current gig and doesn’t understand why they can’t just take off to Rome or parts elsewhere. He tells her, “Someone else dealt the cards, Sarah. I’m just playing them out,” to which she replies, “Well, you’re holding a losing hand now, Nick.” She is a strong-willed person that loves her husband but won’t have her life sent in a direction she doesn’t like and Seymour does a fine job conveying her character’s strength.

The always reliable Ed Lauter is cast refreshingly against type as Smoke, a prolific car thief and Lassiter’s best friend. Known mostly for playing cops and authority figures, he must’ve jumped at the opportunity to sink his teeth into a character on the opposite side of the law. He has an excellent scene with Selleck where Smoke and Lassiter reminisce about the good ol’ days when they bootlegged liquor during Prohibition.
Bob Hoskins plays Inspector Becker with his customary gusto. He’s a hard man that knows which pressure points to press with Lassiter but also keeps his personal life separate from his professional one when we see how he reacts to Lassiter paying a house call.
Lassiter features workman-like direction from veteran T.V. director Robert Young (Bitter Harvest) that could’ve been done with a little more pizzazz, a rather pedestrian script by David Taylor (Hanky Panky), and an unmemorable score by Ken Thorne (Superman II) that is low-key to the point of being non-existent, which prevents the movie from being something truly special. Instead, it is just pleasantly entertaining – certainly nothing wrong with that. What saves it from being forgettable is the cast who all play their roles admirably.

Comparing the diverging career paths that Harrison Ford and Tom Selleck respective careers took it isn’t hard to see why the former had a thriving career full of iconic roles in diverse films while the latter returned to T.V. with renewed success. It’s not just that Ford was the better actor but he also had a better instinct for movie roles. Part of it is being in the right place at the right time and part of it is knowing what works best for your talents and I think Selleck eventually realized that T.V. is where he belonged and the proof is in a show such a Blue Bloods, which he has starred in for 12 seasons and counting. Lassiter, in some respects, typifies his film career – entertaining and full of promise but just falling short of excellence.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Air America

There are so many ways a film can go wrong. They can be bungled upon their release, either by poor timing or by a misguided marketing campaign. They can be ruined in post-production by the studio taking it away from the filmmaker and hacking it to pieces. They can be undone during principal photography via circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control or because they have too much control. Some films can be unmade before they’re even made. This is what happened to Air America (1990). What started as a hard-hitting look at the secretly CIA-run airline that brought in weapons and supplies to anti-communist forces in Indochina during the Vietnam War and was to star Sean Connery and Kevin Costner and directed by Richard Rush, eventually became a feel-good buddy comedy starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. that was more Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) than Platoon (1986), only wackier. Where did it all go wrong?

Like with Good Morning, Vietnam, Air America starts off presenting a misfit group of servicemen, this time pilots, flying secret missions in Laos, often aiding and abetting local General Vang Pao (Burt Kwouk) and his lucrative opium drug trade. Billy Covington (Downey) is the audience surrogate, a maverick civilian pilot who's having trouble holding down a regular gig stateside and is convinced by a recruiter that Air America is his only option left.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the serio-comic tone and demonstrates the wildly mismatched sides at war with each other as we see a large cargo plane get shot down by a peasant with a rifle from extremely long range. It’s an absurd image that is soon offset by a shot of the plane wreckage and the dead pilot lying on the tarmac. The movie then swings back to comedy when CIA agent Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant) asks veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson) if the man is dead to which he deadpans, “Well, Rob, if he’s not dead, he’s very, very calm.” It is this painfully unfunny dialogue so early on that does not bode well for the rest of the movie.

Fortunately, the movie improves considerably when Billy arrives in country and is introduced to his fellow pilots. He quickly finds out that, as he puts it, "I was always the weirdest guy in the room. Here I'm not in the running." We meet the most interesting part of Air America: the wonderful supporting cast, populated by genre vets like Art LaFleur (The Blob), Ned Eisenberg (The Burning), David Bowe (U.H.F.), and the great Tim Thomerson (Trancers) who all look like they're having a blast playing oddball pilots and all-around degenerates. It is LaFleur that steps up and sells “crazy” dialogue such as, “I’m coming from the dark side of the moon and I’m going back there, too, soon,” because of the way he carries himself in the scene that convincingly puts Billy on edge. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go on longer so that we can meet the rest of these burn-outs.

Instead, the first half of the movie is all set-up, establishing these rag-tag pilots and their eccentric way of doing things, their flying missions (which seems to involve a lot of crashing), and how Major Donald Lemond (Scrubs' Ken Jenkins) and his second-in-command Rob are in cahoots with General Pang while a cavalcade of 1960s hits (except for an atrocious cover of The Doors' "Love Me Two Times" by Aerosmith) plays endlessly on the soundtrack.

Air America is at its best when we see these guys carousing and cutting loose, which sadly, isn't often. We must make due with little bits of business like seeing Babo (Thomerson) as the third wheel on Billy’s orientation flight, or a scene that shows their off-hours antics, drinking and playing mini-golf. Once again, LaFleur takes center stage as Jack gets in Billy’s face and ends up shooting another pilot’s ball in mid-putt. The two almost get into it and we get a glimpse of how cracked these guys are and that they’ve been at this for way too long. Of all the character actors the filmmakers cast as the pilots they must’ve really been impressed with LaFleur and what he was doing daily as he gets most of the screen-time of any of them including a memorable mission Jack flies with Billy where they are shot down during a supply run. There are some decent intense exchanges between the two men as they realize that they’re also transporting a whackload of the General’s opium and must fend for themselves when he arrives to rescue his merchandise and not them. These scenes are so entertaining and fun to watch that it makes you want to see a movie that focuses just on these guys with Billy and Gene as supporting characters instead.

Rob and the Major provide a rare glimpse of the darker movie that could have been when he tells Billy over drinks, “A secret war is the way to go. No reporters, no T.V. You black out the war like a pro football game.” His superior appears and clears things up just in case what he was saying wasn’t obvious enough, that they treat what they do as a business and a war with no difference between them.

It must be said that Downey and Gibson have some nice moments together and it’s not the kooky pilot shtick but a down moment where Gene tells Billy what’s he all about as he tells him, “We’re all a bunch of trouble junkies. We’ve been mainlining danger and adrenaline for so long nothing else gets us off. It’s kind of sick.” He lays all his cards on the table and tells his young friend how things are in a refreshingly honest and direct way that is well-acted by Gibson. This scene also plants the seeds for Gene’s eventual redemption as Billy’s youthful rebel begins to remind him of when he was that age.

For years, Air America was a passion project for filmmaker Richard Rush who was set to make it for Carolco Pictures in 1985 on a $15 million budget based on the book of the same name by Christopher Robbins. His vision had a main character who was a Vietnamese spy that had infiltrated Air America. He had put a lot of work into the screenplay and considered it his finest, even better than the one he wrote for The Stunt Man (1980), which he held in high regard. Rush was interested in casting Sean Connery and the actor came over to the house twice a week for an hour or two reading the script together. They got along quite well and when Rush was fired from the project, Connery immediately quit.

Rush scouted locations in Southeast Asia and began casting for his film. His first choice for Connery’s co-star was Bill Murray but after extended talks he was briefly replaced by Jim Belushi before Kevin Costner showed interest in the project. Rush claims the actor was very interested but he took too long to decide and Good Morning, Vietnam came out and stole their thunder (and the box office). It didn’t help that his asking price had increased and Carolco did not want to pony up the rumored $15 million for both actors. In September 1987, independent film producer Dan Melnick sold his production company to Carolco and took over Air America. It was at this point that the project changed from a gritty expose that Rush has envisioned into a studio blockbuster that Melnick envisioned. He fired Rush and the two leads quickly departed as well. Melnick remembers, “They hadn’t been able to get a good script on it. It couldn’t attract stars. It was just lumbering along.” Rush asked for his script back and Melnick refused, giving the filmmaker back $1 million of his $1.5 million pay-or-play deal. Rush said he felt like the “victim of a hostile takeover.”

Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow and director Bob Rafelson to take over and they all went to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out, deemed “a repressive society” by Melnick and the team opted for Thailand. When they returned from their trip, a Writer’s Guild strike delayed rewrites on the project. The budget and scope of the movie increased and this necessitated an international movie star. They couldn’t get anyone to commit unless a script was available. Some aspects of Rush’s script survived, such as the dropping of counterfeit money over Laos to destroy the economy and the dropping of oversized condoms as a form of psychological warfare.

To further complicate matters, shooting in Thailand had to take place during the country’s dry season, approximately October through April. Melnick and Rafelson went off to Africa to make Mountains of the Moon (1990) while Eskow returned to work on the script as the strike had ended. Rafelson never came back and he was replaced by Roger Spittiswoode (Under Fire). For the role of Gene, Melnick had originally wanted a veteran actor like Sean Connery or Paul Newman with Mel Gibson eyed to play Billy. Thanks to the success of Lethal Weapon (1987), Gibson was hot at the box office and used his clout to play Gene. A few adjustments to the script were made and Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Billy.

By several accounts, the production was a challenging one with 15 cameras, three units and 49 separate locations used during the 14 weeks of principal photography in rough conditions on location in Northern Thailand where 200 toilets were installed. At one point, 20 members of the crew were stricken with an unknown flu. The production rented 26 airplanes and helicopters from the Thai military and in one month encountered four serious in-flight emergencies that, in one case, almost resulted in casualties.

The original version was going to be made by Rush and starring Connery and Murray. Can you imagine what that would've been like? Alas, their version was probably too dark and too critical of United States foreign policy to be unleashed on an unsuspecting mainstream moviegoing audience. Once Gibson and Downey, Jr. came on board as the leads, it softened all the edges and you get what was finally released: an easygoing, feature-length sitcom that washes over you.

Almost. The last third of the movie tries to stick to the Good Morning, Vietnam playbook by having Gibson's cynical pilot develop a conscience with the help of Downey and show what the General's drug trade is doing to the local population. Gibson and Downey even get stranded in the dense jungle and must make it back to base just like Robin Williams does in Good Morning, Vietnam! Also, Rob and the Major are antagonists to our heroes much as Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh’s characters were in Barry Levinson’s film. You know in a movie like this nothing really bad is going to happen to Gene or Billy and they get to literally fly off into the sunset while a tacked-on epilogue tries to temper things by explaining that the two corrupt U.S. government officials managed to emerge from Laos unscathed, protected from on high to go on being evil S.O.B.s. Air America isn’t an example of a good movie inside of a bad one, trying to get out, but rather a good idea that was tinkered with and a mediocre movie was the end result.


Clarkson, Wensley. Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission. 2015.

Anson, Robert Sam. “Fly the Friendly Skies.” Premiere. September 1990.

Rowlands, Paul. “An Interview with Richard Rush.” Money into Light. November 2017.

Wilson, John M. “The Fine Art of Making the Deal.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1990.