THE PHENOMENON (2020, doc)

October 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One has to hand it to documentarian James Fox. He is nothing if not persistent. And persistency is a requirement for anyone involved with researching and reporting UFO sightings that now date back more than 70 years. To give you an idea of Mr. Fox’s commitment to the cause, he also directed OUT OF THE BLUE (2003, which was also narrated by Peter Coyote) and I KNOW WHAT I SAW (2009), and produced (with his father Charles) UFO’S: 50 YEARS OF DENIAL (1997).

Peter Coyote is back as narrator for Mr. Fox’s latest project, apparently inspired by the 2017 New York Times report of the secret Pentagon UFO program called Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which details US Navy Pilots’ multiple encounters with Unidentified Flying Objects. And just this year (2020), the US Defense Department confirmed encounters classified as ‘unconfirmed’.

For many years now, we have heard the claims that, “We are not alone in the Universe”, and “There is something else out there.” This film lays out the photographic evidence and the eyewitness testimony, as well as researching the secretive nature of the government on this topic for so long. We hear from some of those affiliated with Project Blue Book, the UFO investigative initiative formulated by the US Air Force. Many pilots and crew have documented what they’ve seen, and there is even a 1998 interview with Astronaut Gordon Cooper, providing more credibility to the sightings and encounters.

The film somewhat works as a timeline, but director Fox chose to bounce around in time, which provides some structure, while also working against a chronological perspective. It goes back to 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported an encounter with multiple flying saucers in formation near Mount Rainier, and then details more sightings that occurred over the next few decades, including: 1952 invasion of secure airspace, 1955 military pilot William Coleman, 1957 Levelland, Texas sheriff, 1966 landing in Michigan, and the 1966 Congressional hearings. We learn of “The case that changed everything”, a 1964 New Mexico encounter with Officer Lonnie Zamora, which left evidence such as landing gear imprints, footprints, and a burn area.

As you would expect, Dr. Jacques Vallee and Dr. J Allen Hynek are included here. They are two of the foremost experts on UFO research, and Dr. Vallee was the inspiration for Francois Truffaut’s Dr. Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s classic CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). Director Fox does a nice job mixing the interviews with experts, historians, military personnel, intelligence officers, and eye witnesses – interviews that have taken place over many years. For skeptics, plenty of international work is blended in, as we learn of the students in 1966 Australia, the 1982 Ukrainian nuclear site, and in the “Contact” section, we hear of 1959 New Guinea where the aliens “waved” back, and 1994 Zimbabwe, where students reported being communicated with telepathically.

watch the trailer

GOOD KILL (2015)

May 22, 2015

good kill Greetings again from the darkness. It sounds like a screenwriter’s workshop: write a story centered on a joystick, a computer monitor, a speaker phone and a shipping container. Most would surrender their Pulitzer dream and head back to the day job. Andrew Niccol, on the other hand, is a talented writer/director known for such projects as Gattaca, Lord of War, and The Truman Show. His story is set in 2010 and is “based on actual events” of drone warfare.

It could seem a bit dated to explore a topic that most have known about for years, but Niccol manages to wring out a story that keeps us engaged and more importantly, encourages discussion about the concept of “video game warfare”.

Ethan Hawke plays a fighter pilot who has been reassigned as a drone pilot after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan. Each day he reports to duty on a Las Vegas base and spends 12 hours locked away in a cramped shipping container staring at a video monitor while delicately manipulating a joystick that can kill people 7000 miles away within 10 seconds. These killer drones have transformed warfare, and as far as I know, this is the first film version dedicated to the daily lives of the men and women serving this duty.

Given what we know about fighter pilots, it’s not surprising that Hawke’s character is crumbling emotionally … missing the danger that comes with a real cockpit. His marriage to January Jones is void of any intimacy or communication (partially due to his alcoholism), though surprisingly, Ms. Jones delivers something other than her typical cardboard cutout performance. Watching the suburban lifestyle of these two – grilling, backyard parties, math homework with the kids – brings nothing new to the screen, but tension is palpable as Hawke and his co-drone-pilot Zoe Kravitz are locked away and forced to follow morally-questionable orders from Langley (voiced by the great Peter Coyote). Put yourself on that joystick and imagine what you would do.

The story pushes us to discuss the dehumanization of war, and the idea that the Air Force is now best described as the “Chair Force”. Especially interesting is the official verbiage used by the CIA and military in an effort to avoid “killing” and “innocent bystanders”. Think about the fact that 3 decades have passed since we got caught up in the thrill of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as Top Gun pilots, and now some of the most deadly decisions are made based on a visual feed from a done hovering at 10,000 feet.

Mr. Niccol delivers a thought-provoking movie, which alone sets it above many. The drone’s eye view follows not just the movements of the enemy, but also those of Hawke at home and in his car. Hawke’s commanding officer is played by Bruce Greenwood, who delivers the film’s best line: as Hawke is looking at Greenwood’s fighter pilot photos, he says, you are probably thinking “I must have been a pilot before Pontius”. It’s a great line and one that reinforces how warfare has changed … from boots on the ground to recruits based on their video game savvy.  Surgical strikes are the preferred manner of warfare, so watch this and ask yourself … what would you do?

watch the trailer:




September 26, 2014

roosevelts Greetings again from the darkness. Ken Burns is renowned for his documentaries – two of my favorites are Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001). The power he wields is measured by his ability to get 14 hours of documentary not just researched and filmed, but also broadcast via PBS. Think how many Hollywood producers can’t get the green light for a 90 minute pet project. Mr. Burns is a national treasure who creates national treasures, and his latest is some of his finest work yet.

Focusing on one of the most prominent American family – one that dominated politics and history for years – the stories are presented in chronological order, interconnecting the biographies of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor with the key events in history that they helped shape. But it’s not all politics, as we also learn about the families and the individual make-up (flaws and all) of the 3 principals. We learn of the Republican Roosevelts of Oyster Bay and the Democrats of Hyde Park.

Mr. Burns has set the bar very high for his productions, yet somehow we still managed to be struck by the photographs, archival footage and insights of these people and the times. The sheer number of previously unseen photographs and footage is staggering. Add to that the commentary from writers and historians, and it’s easy to imagine this being the foundation for a high school or college history course … one that students would actually enjoy.

There are seven parts to the whole, each presented in chronological order:

Pt 1 Get Action 1858-1901. This segment focuses on a young, asthmatic Teddy as he overcompensates for his weakness by charging through every obstacle. We see the photo of young Teddy watching Abe Lincolns funeral procession pass 14th and Broadway. Teddy’s perpetual motion takes him to Harvard and the continued formation of his political views. His famous quote is remembered: “Not all Democrats are horse thieves, but all horse thievesn are democrats.” His way with words seemed to have no end. Teddy’s foundation seems a polar opposite to his 5th cousin Franklin, who is quite pampered as a child. The film displays the torturous February 14 when Teddy experienced the death of both his wife and mother. This segment takes us through the Rough Riders, San Juan Hill and the death of President McKinley.

Pt 2 In The Arena 1901-1910. Theodore Roosevelt takes charge as the youngest ever President and immediately begins to battle corporate greed, push for the Panama Canal, and preserve the American wilderness. We watch as FDR courts and then marries cousin Eleanor. This segment shows Teddy inviting Booker T Washington to dinner at the White House, the first African American to do so. We learn that when TR wasn’t speed-talking, he was speed-reading, taking in a book per day. He also became the first President to leave the country while in office, visiting the Panama Canal work site. At FDR’s wedding, Teddy was the one to give away Eleanor. Upon leaving office, TR takes his African trip with son Kermit.

Pt 3 The Fire of Life 1910-1919. The beginning of WWI and how TR campaigned to get the US to enter the war, while FDR was named Asst Secretary of the Navy, and served in the NY State Senate. The chasm between the Roosevelt clans – Oyster Bay vs Hyde Park – widens, as TR joins the Bull Moose Party, and is actually shot in the chest (and somehow continued giving his speech). TR took his Amazon Rainforest trip with Kermit and was stricken with malaria. It’s also in this segment that we begin to understand the most unusual relationship of FDR and Eleanor. She knew of his fondness for certain other women, and it’s in this time when the marriage transitions into a parnership. It’s also during this time that Theodore, age 60, dies in his sleep.

Pt 4 The Storm 1920-1933. The war ended, women could vote, and prohibition arrived. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke while in office, and it’s during this time that FDR is stricken with polio. We see and hear much of FDR’s struggle with the disease and how he worked to hide it, so as not to be seen as weak or limited. 1929 brought the New Deal speech and Eleanor begins her real politicking.

Pt 5 The Rising road 1933-39. The country is battling the Great Depression, and Eleanor’s actions create some controversy. FDR struggles with how best to deal with Hitler, while a quarter to one-third of the nation is unemployed. George Will’s commentary is especially effective here as he points our the two great crisis facing FDR: the depression and Hitler. The fireside chats (30 in 12 years) connect FDR to the citizenry and go far in establishing trust. It’s in this time that Eleanor’s friendship with a couple of other ladies (including Lorena Hickock) begins the questioning of her sexuality. FDR releases two huge pieces of legislation: The Wagner Act (NLRB, organized labor) and the Social Security Act. He delivers his “Ecomonmic Royalist” speech and talks about this generation’s “renedezvous with destiny“.

Pt 6 The Common Cause 1939-44. The preparation for WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor are discussed, but the controversy over the strategy is not really examined. FDR continues his close relationship with Missy (his secretary) and Daisy (his cousin). It’s mentioned that the right people are somehow in place during certain moments, and Churchill and FDR fit the description. Eleanor continues her work for the poor, blue collar and African Americans, while the preparation for war effectively ends the depression.

Pt 7 A Strong and Active Faith 1944-62. The plan for post-war peace is complicated by FDR’s cerebral hemorrhage, and during his record fourth term, he dies at age 63. The last hour or so really gives Eleanor her time in the spotlight and she works for Civil Rights, the UN, and against Joseph McCarthy (“our Gestapo”). We see her become the grand lady of the Democratic Party, and even meet with newly elected John Kennedy, though she did not support him. It took death at age 78 to slow her down.

The insight into the obstacles all 3 Roosevelts overcame is fasincating. We hear recordings of each, and the voice acting fills the gaps – Meryl Streep as Eleanor, Edward Herrmann as FDR, and Paul Giamatti as TR. Peter Coyote does a nice job throughout as the narrator, and numerous other actors are utilized through the production, including the final screen appearance of Eli Wallach. This is an incredible documentary covering some giants of US politics and some of the most historical events.

**NOTE: there are also photos and video of FDR’s speech at Ebbets Field, where he cracks about being a Dodgers fan, but never having attended a game there.

watch a PBS promo: