Posts Tagged ‘Philip Baker Hall’

(Part 18 Of An Ongoing Series)


It has become a dramatic convention to project onto whistle-blowers our need for heroism, when revenge and anger are often what drive them.

Marie Brenner, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

…Jeffrey Wigand, who’s out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!

Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), The Insider

I’d officially been a Smoker for quite a while by the time The Insider was released.  So I not only knew the health hazards of tobacco, but, thanks largely to Jeffrey Wigand, I was also fully aware that Big Tobacco knew the hazards too, and had lied about knowing the hazards, and made their products more powerful and addictive anyway.  Knowing all this, I still chose to be a Smoker, and I’d never be able to blame Big Tobacco, and I was fine with that, because Teenage Rebellion and Freedom USA and all that.

I wouldn’t call myself a Smoker anymore, though I still smoke occasionally, buying and consuming about 4 packs of Big Tobacco cigarettes a year.  And even though I smoke far less than I did as a teen/early 20-something, I’m more irritated than ever about all the Anti-Smoking Noise out there.

Yes, Big Tobacco was pretty much evil in the pre-Wigand days.  Michael Mann opens The Insider with 60 Minutes journalists Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) fearlessly standing up to hot-headed, gun-toting Hezbollah maniacs- which illustrates nicely just how intimidated CBS is later on when they initially cave to the wishes of God-wealthy Brown & Williamson.

But a funny thing’s happened since 1999.  The cat’s out of the bag, and everyone knows just how unhealthy and addictive cigarettes are.  There’s only so much we can hold Big Tobacco accountable for now; everything else sits on the shoulders of those who choose to smoke.  Now it’s the Anti-Smoking movement that’s gone propaganda-crazy, and the defenders of truth aren’t guys like Jeffrey Wigand who go after Big Tobacco, it’s guys like Robert Arthur of Narco Polo who have to stick up for Smokers.

Smoking Lies 0911

Don’t get me wrong- Jeffrey Wigand was a hero, despite being temperamental, possibly paranoid, and morally gray- going after Big Tobacco only after Brown & Williamson fired him from his lucrative job and threatened his family.  In fact, it’s all those complexities that make Wigand (and Russell Crowe’s portrayal of him) so compelling, and so quintessentially 1999.

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(Part 15 of an ongoing series)


And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “Something That Happened…”

Narrator (Ricky Jay)

This happens.  This is something that happens.

Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman)

Surprisingly, the movies of 1999 weren’t extraordinarily apocalyptic.  (In subtext, maybe, but not overtly.)  There was the Biblical Schwarzenegger vehicle End Of Days, and The Matrix briefly flashed-back to its Robot Armageddon.  But after years of Independence Days and Deep Impacts, Hollywood was pretty much burned out on catastrophe as the millennium turned.

Not PT Anderson, though.  Magnolia is no asteroid blockbuster, but it does boast Anderson playing God with Old Testament audacity, raining down his Frogpocalypse (Afrogalypse?) to punish the sinners and redeem the saints.  And considering how much time Magnolia spends masturbating with coke sprinkled on its dick-tip, it’s not nearly the fiasco-tastic ego-trip it could’ve been.  Like, do we really need a 5-minute intro showing us three eerie coincidences from real life (Spoiler: they’re not really from real life) in order to suspend our disbelief about the eerie coincidences during the remaining three hours?  No, we absolutely don’t- especially if we’re still on board once the frogs start falling- but it’s an engrossing sequence anyway.

Do we also need two old men (Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall) who worked in TV, cheated on their wives, traumatized their children, and are now dying of cancer?  It’s a little, as they say on Project Runway, “matchy-matchy.”  Anderson could’ve combined both characters and we’d still get the message loud and clear: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  But Robards and Hall are both great as usual, so who’s to complain if they get to toss out a little award bait?

Of course if I had to choose just one, I’d give Robards all the dying asshole scenes.  The fact that he’s actually dying (really, in real life) injects an uncanny energy into the film.  Like a dying man, Magnolia is terrified and fearless, infected with frighteningly bold vulnerability.  How else could it pull off an Aimee Mann sing-along from right outta nowhere?

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