TV Review: Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre (A&E)

The 84-minute Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre filters the horrifying and historically fascinating tale of what unfortunately became known as the Guyana tragedy through the lens of the women who planned, coordinated and carried out the 1978 massacre, which left 918 men, women and children dead. Though it aired on cable TV’s A&E, I watched it on Apple TV streaming. The program purports to focus on four women, Marceline Jones, Carolyn Layton, Maria Katsaris and Annie Moore, and their impact on the People’s Temple and its founder, the Rev. Jim Jones.

A&E marketing calls the massacre a “tragic end”.

But the November 18, 1978 act of mass murder and suicide was more of an attack than a tragedy, a distinction Americans still fail to make 40 years later. Though more detailed than advertised and not exactly focused on the women as much as it claims, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre certainly accounts for each of the four women, scattering clues, facts and segments across its run time. Drawing from key readings of highlighted documents, extensive audio clips with subtitles and exclusive interviews with Jonestown survivors and family members, including Jones’ biological son, as well as never-before-seen archival footage and photos, it retraces the timeline. I remember when this happened — days after Iran’s Moslem dictatorship seized the American embassy in Teheran — and followed various dramas and documentaries about this historic application of religion to reality. I learned new information, so this one is worth watching.

A&E’s Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre

Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre starts with an overview of the women’s roles within the church from its explicitly multiculturalist origins in the Midwest to its insidious spread and rise in the Sixties in Northern California, where so many death cults, such as the Manson Family, Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army, festered and originated. While it’s not included here, I recall reading that the era’s Jane Fonda had at some point declared herself an enthusiast for the People’s Temple, sharing the Reverend Jones’ faith in collectivism, socialism and social justice. These are their terms, not mine, and the most compelling aspect of this movement and program is how it made and tracks a religion out of the climax of the New Left, down to its environmentalism and multiculturalism. Forty years after their loved ones were slaughtered, Americans continue to equivocate about the evil of these ideals.

“[T]his [New Left] ideal had become instead this insular, paranoid, violent community”, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown author Mary Maaga asserts without accounting for her use of the word instead in this sentence. Of course New Left dogma became mass death but this documentary doesn’t identify, let alone examine, the philosophical roots of Jonestown.

Instead, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre delves into facts, withholding analysis and judgment, documenting Jones’ drug addiction and sex orgies, as the Church preyed upon the Midwest’s and California’s poor and black families and becoming a model for future cult leaders, sects and swarms of militant religious women and sister-wives. As the People’s Temple herd dodges family lawsuits and concerns with a move to Guyana in South America, Jones fights for custody of one of the children he may have fathered, which is a catalyst to media scrutiny. With complicit parents as pawns, believing in social justice as their children work in the Guyana commune toward mass death, the four women plan and coordinate the mass murder-suicide, which began on that black day with the socialist commune’s parents giving their children cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The women had ordered the poison and tested it on pigs before Congressman Leo Ryan’s constituent welfare check on Nov. 18.

With footage from the day of the massacre, which does not (and should) include video of the People’s Temple members’ military gun massacre on the congressman and practitioners (here, they’re called “defectors”) trying to escape the compound, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre  shows that what one person calls “the most peaceful, loving community” suddenly, chillingly executes its highest morality: altruism. Another adherent praises Jonestown because there were “no cars”. Viewers should note that the preachings and practices at Jonestown are widely accepted today. Suicide and murder for the sake of earth, God, or others on a large scale was shocking in 1978.

It is not shocking now.

Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre reports on the women who strategized, schemed and made the massacre possible, reminding everyone 40 years after the People’s Temple’s mass death that, while it’s easy to overestimate Stalin, Hitler, Khomeini, Arafat, Mao and other mass murderers such as the Rev. Jim Jones, women (and men) who sanction, support and teach them are also guilty. A&E’s Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre, explicitly names the evil that these women did — they systematically conceived and activated the mass slaughter of innocents. That this account is predominantly made by survivors and scholars who are women is incidental.

Exhibit Review: American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

I was excited to happen upon the final scheduled tour stop of an exhibit titled “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center in the strip district last week. I had seen the PBS documentary on Prohibition’s history, which is very good. With resurgent Puritanism in today’s Me, Too hysteria and emotional calls for government-controlled drugs and drug addiction treatment, I was ready for an account of how America had fallen for, and ultimately rejected, a band of hysterical women and preachers railing against consumption of alcohol.

The exhibit is clear, concise and comprehensive. It flows from an area designed to resemble a church in which the hysterical pleas, denunciations and propaganda of America’s thugs and religionists, and some were both, are excerpted and displayed to sections detailing passage of the Constitutional amendment to ban alcohol. The exhibit moves from there to a replicated speakeasy, followed by an area devoted to exploring the criminalization of alcohol and its impact, turning gangs, thugs and mobs into sources for pleasure, release and self-medication, and the Roosevelt administration’s push for total government control. “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” concludes with the triumphant effort to repeal the amendment and restore sanity, justice and individual rights to American law, reminding those of us opposed to the surveillance state, ObamaCare and the TSA that bad laws, contrary to the Trump administration’s pathetic excuses for not draining the swamp, have been and can be overturned. Repeal is part of our history.

Indeed, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” demonstrates how. But it begins with an extensive display examining the very real problem of alcohol consumption in America at the turn of the previous century. The Industrial Revolution cannot be understated in terms of liberating and enlightening the world. By then, alcohol consumption was high; Americans were already drinking to excess. Accordingly, the most productive single period of history exacerbated the downsides of a magnificent leap in human progress. One of them is alcoholism. This exhibit tells the truth about what went on; like today’s rampant hedonism and drug abuse, drunkenness infected the young nation:

By 1830…[o]n average, Americans over the age of 15 were guzzling seven gallons of pure alcohol each year. This was the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor – or about four shots every day. Three times greater than current levels, it remains the highest measured volume of consumption in U.S. history. The consequences of this national binge would be severe.”

Enter the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which became a 250,000-women army led by Francis Willard whose wooden gavel with white ribbon, with white symbolizing purity, was used to run the group’s meetings. Exhibit materials report that religious denominations that forbade alcohol consumption, such as Baptists and Methodists, led the siege and, in 1893, in Oberlin, Ohio, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), led entirely by Protestant ministers, was born. As with today’s Me, Too harridans, religionists exploited the problem and distorted facts, grafting themselves onto the scourge of alcoholism while leading a religious crusade for Puritanism in the American republic.

They won.

Again, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” shows how. With an accelerated campaign of lies, smears and insinuations, fringe figures, such as WCTU chieftain Francis Willard, war veteran Richmond P. Hobson, who became an Alabama congressman, Democrat populist and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, a Trump-like figure who’d testified against teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the Scopes monkey trial and became Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, and the nation’s most famous religious evangelist, Reverend Billy Sunday, gained power through guilt and intimidation. Railing against the undeniable problem of alcohol consumption and public drunkenness, including fights, absent fathers and husbands and moral decline, they spoke, wrote and organized the campaign based on faith, half-truths, commandments and raw, unfiltered emotions. Reading their pledges, speeches and posters, it is clearly emotionalism. Americans took what they ranted on faith.

The religionists attacked private property. They indoctrinated youths with distortions of medical and scientific data in textbooks distributed through public schools. They invoked sobriety pledges. In fact, the WCTU succeeded in getting every state in the U.S. to require “temperance education in public schools”. The Woman’s Christian pressure group created a Department of Scientific Instruction which produced textbooks and instruction manuals and asked teachers to fill out report cards on how they encouraged temperance in their classrooms. A WCTU textbook, report card, and temperance lesson manual are on display in the exhibit, which reports that an estimated 50 percent of American schools carried the false and misleading religious propaganda. Scientists and doctors cited in the children’s textbooks altered the facts to suit Woman’s Christian Temperance Union dictates.

Visitors can read, listen and re-create excerpts from the anti-American speeches, including Reverend Billy Sunday’s 1916 “booze speech” (“The saloonkeeper is worse than a thief and a murderer…the saloon is an infidel”). A copy of the sermon with handwritten notes appears under his portrait, which hangs above the recreated wooden pulpit. Reverend Sunday believed that liquor was “God’s worst enemy” and “Hell’s best friend.” Willard invoked militant opposition to alcohol. William Jennings Bryan comes off as easily the most persuasive, reasonable evangelist, talking about the downsides of alcohol consumption and downplaying the hellfire and damnation in this particular excerpt. According to the exhibit, Bryan believed:

that Prohibition could improve the lives of ordinary Americans. He also was a supporter of the amendments to establish the income tax, provide for the direct election of senators, and grant the vote to women. Bryan ran for president three times on the Democratic ticket, but lost each time…Later, while serving as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he lived out his temperance beliefs by serving grape juice instead of wine at formal functions.

Carrie Nation’s weapon to destroy private property

If Bryan was one of the more convincing Prohibition advocates, the most belligerent leader was a religious thug named Carrie Nation, who mostly went by ‘Carry Nation’ for publicity purposes. Beneath this crusading woman’s portrait, a glass case displays the oak and steel hatchet she wielded when she broke into a bar to smash a wall mirror during one of her infamous raids. On her picture, which shows the miserable-looking woman posed for battle, exhibitors report that:

Carrie Amelia Nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache. Using these assets to promote her cause, Nation became famous when she strode into a saloon in Topeka, Kansas, and pulled out a hatchet, smashing all the bottles and the mirror behind the bar. Nation called her raids on saloons “hatchetations.”

The rest of “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” bears out the truth about America’s alcohol ban, though this central question of how a civilized nation elected to impose an applied, total government control on itself remains the most pressing, relevant and timely. This also makes the first section on pre-Prohibition quietly disturbing. As if to underscore this point, the exhibit in this area includes an iPad questionnaire to determine whether you’re what was then referred to as either a wet or a dry. By judging answers to questions about the proper role of government, for instance, including the emerging and rising welfare state, visitors might be surprised to see which side they end up on.

The “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” exhibition, which includes a full accounting of the horrors of this wicked law and its impact, from state-sponsored alcohol spies to the many Americans who died because the ban existed, is presented by the Bognar Family and sponsored by Robert J. and Bonnie Cindrich and Latasha Wilson Batch; with support from local government, the Heinz Endowments and Richard King Mellon Foundation. Pittsburgh is the last scheduled stop on the tour for this exhibit, which runs until June of this year. With a fresh dusting of snow after a winter storm, downtown Pittsburgh was wet, cold and icy during my stay at the Fairmont Pittsburgh, though the weather had warmed to the low forties by Saturday, so I took the bellman up on his suggestion to walk along Penn to Heinz History Center. It’s interesting that the city of bridges is the Prohibition exhibit’s last stop because Pittsburgh is packed with Catholics who drink … a lot. And they’re still saddled with Prohibition’s outrageous regulations.

“Pennsylvania was one of many states where it ultimately became harder to buy alcohol after Repeal than during the 1920s, thanks to laws and controls put in place in 1933,” the exhibit’s lead curator, Leslie Przybylek, told the museum’s communications director in an interview. “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” was originally curated by Daniel Okrent, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. These final months are the last call for an outstanding exhibition about an American injustice.

Movie Review: The 15:17 to Paris

The newest movie directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris, is as plain and perfunctory as its title. Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal oversimplifies the heroes’ decency, mixing in clashing motivations (possibly taken from the heroes’ book upon which this film is based). Mr. Eastwood’s minimalist filmmaking and decision to cast the three American heroes whose story unfolds here puts 15:17 to Paris in a striking contrast to today’s overproduced movies, such as Marvel’s mangled Black Panther, though both movies have conflicted themes in common.

Similarities end there. For starters, unlike Marvel’s movies and like the heroic story of 12 Strong, the extraordinary events depicted in 15:17 to Paris happened. Three Americans chose to act upon their own judgment, tackling an Islamic terrorist rampaging with an arsenal through a train, capturing, detaining and hogtying the jihadist, securing the train and medically treating wounded passengers. The three Americans saying “Let’s go” recalls Flight 93’s American passengers saying “Let’s roll” on 9/11. In this case, saving everyone on board. 15:17 to Paris depicts the Islamic terrorist attack, which is unfortunately never branded as an Islamic terrorist attack, and what made three friends since childhood in California the type of men to shut it down.

That Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and, especially, Spencer Stone, who portray themselves, went from forgotten middle school students to European hostel heroes tracks back within each individual to mutually shared confidence in being a boy with the world as his to master. This exuberant boyhood is cultivated by the boys themselves, who play war with toy guns, study combat with maps and certain gaming scenarios and think of themselves as worthy in themselves, not as means to the ends of others. Raised by single mothers, except for Anthony, a charismatic black kid whose home life goes unseen, these boys struggle from 2005 to 2015 in today’s government-dominated educational system, which ignores or neglects boys. When switched to a religious school, problems persist and deepen. But Alek and Spencer also meet Anthony, who becomes their playmate and, in a way, mentor. Anthony, the least anxious of the trio, is the one who challenges Spencer, who’s the center of The 15:17 to Paris, which intersperses flashes leading up to the jihadist siege.

Anthony’s candor is his armor, as anyone who watched his breathtaking accounts of the attack knows. The white boys enlist in America’s military, Spencer seeking meaning in life and Alek, whose mother says she talks to God, driven by legacy. By the time they trek across Europe, they’ve been three decent, productive boys who seek to acquire knowledge, trade and play to live meaningful, enjoyable lives. Whatever fleeting notions and hunches anyone voices, and 15:17 to Paris sends mixed signals, these three move toward action with a sense of purpose. They expend effort. They practice. They fail. But, always, these boys prepare for life as men.

For instance, during an alert at Lackland Air Force Base, Spencer goes rogue. But, in doing so, Spencer shows strength and preparedness. Called out by his instructor, he knows exactly why he chose to disobey orders (and he has a point). Alek, deployed in Afghanistan, becomes the reason his fellow soldiers must divert from plans, endangering the team. But Alek, later visiting Germany, honors an ancestor’s military service, demonstrating a commitment to think, re-think, act and become his best. In a smaller way, brandishing a selfie stick while being a tourist with Spencer, Anthony, too, learns from his mistakes. Each superficially bounces like a rolling stone toward the unseen, the unknown, like many young Americans. But each acts like he knows that he’s taking charge of his life and that he likes and knows that he’ll earn it.

This may be Mr. Eastwood’s point, and movies he directs, such as Sully, American Sniper and Jersey Boys, reflect the idea that Western man is good, decent and honorable. Clint Eastwood is too journalistic and pragmatic to fully dramatize this theme but his movies tend to be good, sometimes excellent.

With the actors portraying themselves coming off as more self-conscious than natural, The 15:17 to Paris is less a docudrama than a stone-faced re-creation. It’s too scripted, stiff and staged. Yet 15:17 to Paris reconstructs their lives and re-creates their goodness, making the climactic terrorist attack by the religious fundamentalist (Roy Corasani) more tense and dramatic. Every encounter in Europe, especially boarding the Paris-bound train when they help an old man, is benevolent. Whether speaking in the foreign language of the land they visit, flirting with young women or trading while traveling, no one is the Ugly American, to use that hackneyed term. The men, as I previously wrote, represent the heroic American — each a kind of handsome, upright cowboy.

Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris contrasts these innocent, cheerful, peaceful Westerners, unashamed of their Americanism and wearing symbols of Adidas, Yosemite and Los Angeles basketball, with the barbaric religious terrorist, whose eye is evil and whose face is blank. The muffled sound of the siege on the train to Paris follows ramblings about God, destiny and determinism and Spencer, who more than anyone saved the 15:17 to Paris, says a prayer. But a French statesman calls these three men what they are: Americans (also a Brit) who “fight for liberty”…to “save humanity itself”. As with his movie about Mandela in Africa, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s underproduced new movie is probably too muddled and plain to convey its theme that the essence of being American means reverence for life — and that it’s usually the American who achieves peace and harmony and fights to preserve both.

Movie Review: 12 Strong

This is a good war movie with moments approaching greatness. If you’ve enjoyed Thank You for Your Service, 13 Hours, American Sniper and other movies about the nonstop, unending U.S. military response to the Islamic jihad slaughter on September 11, 2001, you’re likely to appreciate 12 Strong for its pointed depiction of American heroism.

I figured this would be a proper, which is to say relatively straightforward and unfiltered, dramatization from its setup scenes. 12 Strong rightly begins in 1993, when Moslem terrorists first attacked the Twin Towers. Then, to other acts of war on America in 1998 and 2000. So, right off, there’s at least an attempt to provide pretext to the story of 12 heroes who volunteered to deliver America’s first post-9/11 military retaliation, which is one of the few the U.S. got exactly right.

To underscore this unequivocal rightness, the Army team’s single-minded captain (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) asks the helicopter pilot after the pilot tells him that the aircraft is descending over northern Afghanistan: “On purpose?!” The captain’s short, urgently repeated demand signals the caliber of soldier about to disembark and confront the guerrilla Islamic terrorist state. The band of men do not just listen, obey and follow orders: they make crucial distinctions, take command and act with swift thought and precision, leaving nothing to the aims — and sloth and errors — of others, including those in their own army.

The captain’s leadership is based on study, clarity and reason. From camping his men at an allied Afghan base 40 miles from their terrorist center target to leading the horse soldiers’ charge toward the enemy’s worst weapon, Hemsworth’s captain examines every angle, nuance and trajectory necessary to achieve his goal. Director Nicolai Fuglsig shows fidelity to the essential facts of this hard-fought, extraordinary and, yes, glorious military victory. He doesn’t adorn the movie or characters with frenzied or slow-motion moments of blood splattering and bombs exploding. There’s no showboating. There’s the hard work and grit of men fighting to avenge their country and defend their lives, fortunes and future.

The men include the silent loner (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) who becomes the fixation of an Afghan boy. And his opposite, an expressive fighter who once taught history (Michael Pena, Lions for Lambs, The Lucky Ones). Or the team’s chief warrant officer and voice of reason (Michael Shannon, Mud, The Shape of Water). Some of the 12 Strong have wives, some have kids, and most have gripes and doubts, though 12 Strong stays on track and avoids war movie cliches. They all trained for war in the Middle East and they all want nothing less than victory. 12 Strong does not deal with the fact that Bush, Obama (and, so far, Trump) equivocated, appeased and never came close to wiping out states that sponsor Islamic terrorists let alone declaring, waging and winning the war the enemy started.

The Jerry Bruckheimer (and scads of others) produced film, co-written by Peter Craig and Ted Tally and based on the book by Doug Stanton, does, however, allude to U.S. military incompetence. So-called smart bombs fall on the wrong coordinates. There’s an implication about friendly fire (remember Pat Tillman). And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s bravado, which would thrust America into an unwinnable war in Iraq, gets an apparently and deservedly fact-based dig.

12 Strong focuses, though, mostly on what it takes to render the deadly counterstrike to 9/11. From the Northern Alliance faction leader skillfully portrayed by Navid Negahban to the sharp colonel incisively portrayed by William Fichtner, the team earns and keeps the support of superiors and natives alike to trudge through the passes and trails of the Taliban-run country. Without neutralizing moral judgment on Islam, the religion which motivates the enemy, 12 Strong puts the campaign in clear perspective. Females are slaughtered like American infidels, simply for seeking knowledge. “God is great!” goes the familiar death call as the U.S. first applies its antiquated rules of engagement (which got worse after this campaign). So don’t expect the now-incessant and tired evasion of any mention of what makes the enemy evil. A murderous mullah speaks the truth about his religion.

Also, don’t expect evasion of what makes Americans good. Though 12 Strong is a good, not great, war movie depicting soldiers in a particularly grueling combat, and I do wonder whether the team declined to wear helmets throughout the battles and trek, the two-hour film lets its heroes shine.

Thankfully lacking vulgarity, and with a stirring gallop to answer the Flight 93 passengers’ call to arms, “Let’s Roll”, 12 Strong is the inspiring tale of the twelve soldiers who rolled. They did it weeks after America was attacked in New York City and Washington, DC.  They did in weeks what experts projected would take two years. This combat picture shows that twelve men rolled with the thunderous strength and purpose that America and Americans deserved. It pretty much ended there. It hasn’t happened since. 12 Strong demonstrates with power and skill that this victory did happen.

TV Review: Cold Blooded (Sundance)

A new documentary by director Joe Berlinger is the best orientation I’ve seen or read of the November 1959 mass murder depicted in In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote. Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, which aired in two parts last week on SundanceTV, comes in four, 42-minute parts on iTunes. The thoughtful series is compelling and, surprisingly, life-affirming.

Tracing in a clear, concise but mercifully well-paced, conversational and cohesive narrative, Cold Blooded lays out the chronology, motives and steps of the two criminals who broke into the Holcomb, Kansas, home of Herb and Bonnie Clutter. The criminals were looking for a safe that one of the killers had heard or fantasized about while listening to tales about the renowned, skilled farmer Herb Clutter in prison, though rape may also have been a major motive. What followed the break-in, if you don’t already know, is thoroughly examined.

However, if you do know how 15 year-old Kenyon Clutter, 16 year-old Nancy Clutter and their parents were executed, and the murderers investigated, caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, this notorious slaughter gets a fuller, more nuanced and rational treatment and you’ll probably gain a lot of new knowledge. Cold Blooded is not one of those brash, vulgar, deep-voiced or sensory-overloading cable television shows that tease and sensationalize death for shock’s sake. Cold Blooded covers the case made infamous in Capote’s absorbing In Cold Blood and the subsequent 1967 movie adaptation (which I’ve reviewed and found lacking), but this series revolves around the exclusive, spellbinding and largely untold tale of the Clutter family.

And that makes all the difference.

Cold Blooded excels as objective reporting because veteran documentarian Berlinger — a real documentary filmmaker using documents, not primarily an activist with an agenda confining itself to perceptual material such as pictures — weaves facts, logic and history into a televised tapestry. His expertly conceived work touches on, accounts for and contemplates each and almost every aspect of this mid-20th century crime, which launched Capote’s career in earnest even as it destroyed the talented writer, catapulted the true crime genre and forever melded fact and fiction for better or worse (those of us inclined to opt for ‘worse’ will not be disappointed, yet Cold Blooded manages this without denigrating Capote).

Among Cold Blooded‘s exclusives: audio and video segments with the two surviving Clutter kids who’d moved out of the house before the murders and consented to these interviews on the condition that their privacy be paramount; other relatives, friends and the son of investigator Alvin Dewey. Crisp, not gimmicky, photography, brisk, not fast, pacing and carefully labeled archival footage add to the sense of realism through reflection and selective recreation of the crime. Berlinger found and uses See It Now (1952) clips with Mr. and Mrs. Clutter from an episode of the CBS News program.

Key facts are reported in scrupulous detail, from killers Perry Smith’s and Dick Hickock’s brutal and abusive backgrounds, which both include devastating physical harm including the beating of a boy’s penis by a nun and a major head injury. From Mexico, Iowa, Las Vegas, Barstow, California and Sarasota, Florida to precise retracings and reports in Olathe, Kansas City, Garden City and other Kansas towns and cities, including Holcomb, of course, Cold Blooded generally addresses crime and punishment essentials, though some aspects are underexplored.

The killers are not overexamined, which is typically the case with the Clutter murders, and the same goes for Capote, a flamboyant and intelligent writer who became an alcoholic and died at age 59 in 1984. Capote’s research in Kansas with To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is covered, too, as well as the 1967 movie directed by Richard Brooks starring Robert Blake, who, like O.J. Simpson, was later accused of murdering his wife and found by a jury responsible for her wrongful death.

Berlinger’s ability is on full display. He perfectly paces the segments. Interviews with persons associated with the case, whether they’ve known the criminals, prison, defense, prosecution, police or intellectuals, are sensitive, revealing and insightful. Titles are clearly marked with names and dates which last longer than a half-second. Several interviews are striking, poignant and inspiring. One Clutter relative kept a journal. Reading from it, the relative shares remarkable and poetic elegies. Others possess that distinctly American Midwestern sense of justice. A cemetery caretaker offers simple and profound thoughts. Capote is neither deified nor caricatured, as is often the case.

Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, who was a suspect, tells in a wounded voice his tale of intense, lifelong alienation and deep, abiding loneliness. But he returns later in the series to offer an unyielding and highly moral, even sacred, memorial tribute which rightly honors the dead and puts this horrible crime in a proper perspective. Berlinger lets the audience exercise their own judgment. This makes Cold Blooded an aching and overdue story about the good, decent and innocent victims of a then-newly emergent, partly thanks to Capote, type of American crime which never came to an end: the roving, random mass murder, from the hippie Manson killing of the productive for being productive in 1969 to last month’s unsolved slaughter of the happy for being happy in Las Vegas. In this purposeful recounting and powerful remembrance, facts, evaluations and evidence provoke the audience to contemplate this historic, evil crime and think about what’s gone wrong and why.

Putting the exterminated Clutter family in fuller view, Cold Blooded doesn’t let the viewer turn from injustice — which is the least the innocent and the living deserve.

 

Book Review: The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

Buy the Book

In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers, on sale in early October, a historian tracks the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Unfortunately, this massive volume lacks philosophical perspective. It’s as though war and history professor and author Childers, who recently retired from University of Pennsylvania and has researched his topic, is overwhelmed by the scope, impairing his ability to select the subject’s essentials for a cohesive theme. But, while this massive book, with maps, notes, photographs and an index, is overstuffed with information and certain assertions, it is also packed with history.

In The Third Reich, Childers starts with compelling prose, tracing young Adolf Hitler’s rise from activist community organizer to the raging racist-nationalist-socialist who would become Germany’s dictator. The Third Reich includes the familiar catalysts such as the Versailles Treaty. Childers accounts for how Hitler organized the Nazi party. From the failed Munich putsch in 1923 to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933, the reader gets what amounts to a condensed biography and facts about World War 2 in Europe and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

Using German documents rarely used by previous historians, The Third Reich strives to be as comprehensive and accessible as William Shirer’s epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With more dates, names and events than demonstrated links, contextualization and examined causes, however, The Third Reich is at best an additional volume in one’s library of books about Nazi Germany. Like The History of the Holocaust and other scholarly Nazi-themed non-fiction, it is useful especially as a reference.

Childers tells compelling stories throughout the book, such as Hitler’s response in 1908 when an arts school rejected his drawings for a second time: “The whole academy ought to be blown up,” Hitler said. As most readers probably know, he neither smoked nor drank. He rarely ate meat. Adolf Hitler, the author writes, appreciated Puccini and Verdi. But he was “utterly enthralled” by Wagner’s operas.

Spurned by intellectuals and sponsored by society matrons taken with his charisma, Adolf Hitler crafted his persona. Hearing him speak in Munich, one observer gave what Childers reports was a common response: “I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I listened to this man…the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another [Martin] Luther…his magnetism was holding these thousands as one…I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.”

As he perfected his oratory appeal, Hitler also grasped the ease with which pictures can comfort the masses. Childers writes that

a black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, [Germany’s] old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The [National Socialist] party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—”the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenutz)…”

In stump speeches, pamphlets (and later in Mein Kampf), Hitler called for nationalization of trusts, enactment of cooperatives, profit-sharing, the “breaking of interest slavery” (“whatever that means,” Childers writes), German socialism, a classless, people’s community and the ennoblement of the German worker. All of this only makes Childers’ insistence that the Nazis were right-wing, even placed far to the extreme right on a chart at the book’s beginning, in case you miss his points, more bizarre. Childers writes that Nazis, sounding like socialist American Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed “kings of finance”, “International bank and stock-market capital” and Jews for Germany’s ills.

With the New York Times proving to be as wrong and unreliable then as it is now, reporting after the Nazis’ 1924 electoral loss that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man” who “was no longer to be feared”, the Times forecast that Hitler would “retire to private life and return to Austria.”

But the Nazis pressed on, making their case to the German people. One Nazi explained in 1925 that “We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” So, despite the author’s thesis, it is impossible not to notice that the Nazi philosophy resembles the collectivist anti-capitalism of America’s New Left.

It is equally impossible not to notice in this laborious account the Nazi parallels to the nation’s solid, currently 30 percent-ish, core of heel-clicking support for America’s new president, Donald Trump. For example, one of the men who would become one of Germany’s top Nazis appraises the rising Nazi leader, gushing that Hitler is

a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized…Hitler has thought everything through [and]…always sees the big picture.”

The man making this observation became the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Propaganda is crucial to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Childers asserts. “[H]ere Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, ‘must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Hitler regarded Germans as “feminine by nature”. By feminine, he meant prone to persuasion by emotion more than reason. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have diversity in Nazi ranks. Inspired by Communist cells, according to Childers, who again refuses to reconcile this with his conclusion that Nazis are spawned strictly from the right, not the left, the Nazis sought to broaden propaganda by enlisting women to serve in one third of the cells.

The primary Nazi propaganda model was the public mass meeting, which started with a major speech and resulting discussion, continuing with recruitment and climaxing in “catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees” as part of the fun, which was part of the Nazis’ goal to present a “rough form of entertainment.”

Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

If it does, the Nazi means achieved familiar ends, culminating — like Trump’s 2016 election as president of the United States — in “stunning” electoral totals in leftist strongholds, such as Saxony, echoing the Obama voter’s switch to Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that stunned pundits last November. A Nazi newspaper established in 1927 printed attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” which were, in the author’s words, indistinguishable from anti-capitalist attacks by Communists. Reminding readers of Communist Korea’s threat to launch a 9/11 type attack on U.S. movie theaters when the Obama administration refused to defend Sony Pictures and its targeted film The Interview, Nazi stormtroopers attacked a movie theater in 1930 for showing All Quiet on the Western Front, rampaging through the Berlin theater, releasing stink bombs and mice and assaulting anyone they suspected of being Jewish. The film, like The Interview, was withdrawn from distribution. The 1930 Nazis, like the 21st century Communists, were emboldened.

Titling a chapter “Making Germany Great Again”, Childers makes a partially warranted reference to Trump’s (and, before Trump, Reagan’s 1980) campaign slogan. After all, aside from policy parallels, the name Hitler, like the name Trump, conveyed a one-word strongman sensibility during the campaign. Hitler, Germany’s first politician to campaign by airplane, uniquely used modern means, like Trump using Twitter, to spread his message. And, as did Trump, at “each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.”

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The Third Reich is too focused on Nazi politics and not enough on Nazi philosophy, leaving Childers’ assertion that the Nazis “were charting a radically new course” largely unsubstantiated as the reader wonders: toward what? Why? New as against what previously accepted ideas? He tracks details without supplying reasons (for those, and for an essential and proper philosophical grasp of Nazi Germany, the definitive source is Leonard Peikoff’s penetrating 1982 analysis, The Ominous Parallels).

Childers does get at the core of the Nazi philosophy, if circuitously, in the book’s second half, beginning with his chapter, “The People’s Community” (again, glaringly ignoring any parallels to Hillary Clinton‘s and Barack Obama‘s community organizer-Saul Alinsky influenced mentality). He begins the section with an exposition on the Nazis’ requisite faith in the state, the collective and the race. Goebbels, who’d previously been quoted as admiringly cast under Hitler’s spell for what he (wrongly) ascribed to individualism was by 1933 actively putting such ideals in their place. The Nazi propaganda minister rails to an audience of artists:

Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk [people] will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The [Nazi] revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naive to believe that art could remain exempt from this.”

By the end of this chapter, Thomas Childers finally starts offering a fuller account of what the rise of National Socialism means in theory and in practice:

By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts…[wiping out] the distinction between public and private life. ‘The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,’ Goebbels stated in November 1933. ‘It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up….It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.’ The Nazi goal was to ‘replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.’ In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would ‘no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself…the time for personal happiness is over.”

Not that Nazi Germany, foreshadowing Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter, didn’t have what most intellectuals today would call an upside. Hitler was a health and nature enthusiast and, while Childers plays down the Nazi belief that nature has intrinsic value, he notes that Nazi scientists declared a war on cancer, studying the link between diet and cancer and “endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread”. Nazi medical scientists were the world’s first to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. The Nazi gains are depicted too, for those who favor state-sponsored roads and infrastructure, with Adolf Hitler breaking ground on the German autobahn.

That these supposed gains came under compulsion comes through if not in explicit terms, with doctors being forced by the state to no longer tend to the individual … but to the Volk. “There was no higher moral obligation,” Childers writes, echoing the morality of Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Trump and almost every leading government authority in the West. This duty of the individual to serve the state, the race or collective provides the perfect transition to the Reich Flag Law or the Reich Citizenship Law stripping Jews of German citizenship, rendering Jews as alien “subjects” in their own country.

Accordingly, Jews were choked from their productiveness, banned from practicing medicine, law and dentistry and numerous other work and professions, prohibited by law from distributing stamps. Childers follows with descriptions of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis smashed Jews’ glass windows, crystal and mirrors and then forced them to pay for the damages. Then comes the “Aryanization”, the “Jew tax” and the death and concentration camps, a horror which is fully detailed, except for any mention of the historic revolt by Jews imprisoned at Sobibor. As always for this reader and student of history, these stories are both gripping and horrifying.

Thomas Childers offers good insights on key, isolated parts of Nazi Germany’s history, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American athlete Jesse Owens. In a brief section, Childers describes the Nazi conspiracy to cover up from visitors Nazi plans, laws and atrocities during the Olympics. But he also concludes in one of the few value judgments that the Olympics provided a triumph for Hitler and the Nazis, putting Jesse Owens’ celebrated victory as an American Negro in Berlin in its proper context. Other interesting tales, though they are short bits, include the stories of the Christian White Rose movement, with its heroine Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and comrades opposed the Nazis, and the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (both depicted in decent movies) in which the assassination conspirators were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks in slow executions that Hitler ordered to be filmed. The related story of Erwin Rommel’s suicide is included, too.

Hitler’s own cowardly suicide is recounted in detail, with Childers concluding by quoting Nazi architect Albert Speer, who remarked that the dictator had “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth.”

Hitler as basically anti-reality and anti-reason comes through in an evaluation by one of his field marshals, who observed that “Will, his Will, Hitler believed, ‘had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his order ensured…[leaving Hitler, the field marshal concludes] impervious to reason [and leading Hitler] to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.”

That Hitler’s delusional power-lust, combined with his insatiable desire to serve in duty to the race, tribe and state, could result in diabolically coordinated mass death is likely to be puzzling or inexplicable to the typical American reader. The mass murder of Jews known as the Holocaust is wrongly, tragically known as a causeless horror rather than as the ultimate application of an evil philosophy. “The dead stand like basalt pillars…” one conscripted Jew who survived wrote about the routine of cleaning up after a mass murder, “and even in death one can tell which are the families. They are holding hands in death and it is difficult to tear them apart in order to empty the [gas] chambers for the next batch.”

So, the author’s gravest error is in ending his lengthy and extensive book on Nazi Germany with the term (“moral imperative”) created by the philosophical father of the Nazi German state, Immanuel Kant, whose name is inexcusably absent in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Can one write Nazi Germany’s history without naming and addressing the ideas that made it possible?

Not in terms of fundamentals (and, again, for a history of the Nazis in terms of essentials, read Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). But it’s not as though a compilation of facts about one of the world’s most monstrous regimes is often published in today’s culture of memes, blurbs, Tweets, jabs and pics. Thomas Childers has devoted his career to studying war and Germany and there is value in his The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. He notes that SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a gathering of SS men in 1943 — on the mass murder of millions of Jews: “This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written.” Though it lacks context and what I think are clear and evident causal connections, Thomas Childers proves Himmler and the Nazis wrong as he adds to the written histories of an evil that civilized man should learn, know and never forget.