Film review of The Front Runner

February 2, 2019

Film review of “The Front Runner”, by Don Perlgut, for AJN 31 January 2019

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman and Jay Carson; starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons and Alfred Molina

****

“The Front Runner” tells the true story of the 1988 Kennedy-esque US Presidential candidate, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (played by Australia’s Hugh Jackman), whose campaign – he was the Democratic front runner for the nomination at the time – was overwhelmed by the story of an extramarital affair. This was the first time that tabloid journalism and political journalism merged, changing the nature of US national politics and celebrity. The sordid nature of that event seems quaint by comparison with subsequent sexual escapades by Bill Clinton and Donald J. Trump. The implicit question that the film never answers is why did Hart’s candidacy fail, whereas Clinton and Trump (so far) prospered?

Although Senator Hart is now a footnote in history for all but the most ardent devotees of American politics, the film’s neatly written script successfully resonates with the current “Me Too Movement”. Here was a brilliant man and attractive politician who simply could not see that his playing around outside his marriage would have political, moral and personal consequences: “It’s not 1972, it’s not 1982,” one of his advisors tells him. “The public cares about this.” Despite his brilliance, Hart – the film implies – lacked empathy for the lives of the women he was with. The public judged him badly for this.

The film’s Jewish director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman and grandson of Holocaust survivors, has established a stellar career of dramatising “of the moment” issues, from corporate human resource management (“Up in the Air”) to teenage pregnancy (“Juno”) to big tobacco (“Thank You for Smoking”).

Reitman does a great job with an outstanding cast that includes J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager, Vera Farmiga (Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air”) giving a perfectly controlled turn as Hart’s wife Lee and Alfred Molina as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee. Jackman – an excellent physical match for the good-looking Hart – provides a strong performance. But the most touching acting comes from Mamoudou Athie, who plays a fictional African-American “Post” journalist who acts as the film’s moral centre: his character’s scrupulously fair but firm pursuit of the truth in questioning Hart is truly memorable.

“The Front Runner” is based on the book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”, written by Jewish journalist Matt Bai, who was once shamed by evangelical Christian and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich into admitting that he had not gone to synagogue that week. A large number of Jewish actors appear in minor but memorable roles, including Kevin Pollak (who has played more than 20 Jewish movie characters) as an editor of the “Miami Herald”, Ari Graynor as a “Post” reporter, and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Molly Ephraim and Josh Brener as campaign aides.

Although “The Front Runner” never reaches the heights of classics of the political bio-pic genre like “All the President’s Men” (Nixon) or “Primary Colors” (Clinton) or even the (currently screening) “Vice” (Dick Cheney), this film is a highly engaging, sharply directed and crisply edited slice of our current political and cultural moment. It neatly illustrates the engagement and co-dependency between the media and politicians.

When the head of CBS News said of the Trump campaign in 2016, that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, he captured something that screenwriter Matt Bai says began with Gary Hart: concern for a “tsunami of triviality” has helped the rise of Donald Trump. Hart foreshadowed this in his withdrawal statement that closes the film, paraphrasing his idol Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”


What would a next Labor Government do with Australian vocational education and training: read this book

November 18, 2018

Speculation about changes of governments in Australia even reaches international audiences. So what would a change of national government mean for Australian vocational education and training? I have been monitoring the statements of the Federal Labor Opposition and report below.

Few areas of Australian public policy are more fraught than the recent experience with vocational education and training (VET). For years, commentators have criticised the marketisation/privatisation of Australian VET. They are particularly scathing over the failings of the (now defunct) VET FEE-HELP program, which may have cost Australian taxpayers up to $7.5 billion. Even the economically dry Productivity Commission described that program as “a well-documented example of how policy can fail if governments do not ensure proper policy design along with suitable regulatory oversight.”

The failures have been compounded by consistent ability of VET funding to keep up with other education funding, as the Mitchell Institute has shown: funding has gone backwards in the last ten years, especially notable compared to funding increases in university (53% up), schools and pre-schools.

The results of funding scarcity and VET brand “trashing” continues to have a “long tail” impact: Australia’s lack of a national VET policy means that not-for-profit community providers have continued to lose out.  The recent VET FEE-HELP reforms, while necessary and welcome, are not sufficient. Despite numerous well-publicised private for-profit VET college failures, it’s not over yet: On 9th November, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted Federal Court proceedings against Productivity Partners Pty Ltd, trading as Captain Cook College, alleging “systemic unconscionable conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law” going back to 2015, and impacting 5,500 students.

So how is VET shaping up in the Federal sphere? If you are looking to work out the Federal Labor policy on VET, the easiest way is to read the speeches of Shadow Skills Minister Senator Doug Cameron.

An interesting theme runs through Senator Cameron’s speeches: his most quoted source is Dr Phillip Toner, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Senator Cameron has quoted Dr Toner three times this year: in his speech at a Federal VET Policy Forum in Melbourne on 16 July, at ACPET’s national conference in Canberra in August and at the AEU National TAFE Council meeting in Melbourne in April.

So what does Dr Toner advocate? The best way is to read his chapter, entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, published in a recent book that he co-edited with Damien Cahill, Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired (Black Books).

Toner’s article is 1 of 19 case studies of how “marketisation” has failed Australia. The other chapters deal with early childhood education, private health insurance, prisons, aged care, employment services, public sector engineering, electricity reform, labour market policy, financial deregulation, housing, the National Broadband Network, monetary policy, productivity, inequality, free trade agreements and foreign investment.

In other words, it’s the most complete handbook of what Australian governments have done to deregulate and to send services out to the “market”.

It’s not pretty reading. Here’s how Toner commences his chapter (p.59):

The creation of a ‘training market’ for public and privately funded vocational education and training (VET) is one of the most transparent failures of neoliberal public policy over the last three decades. There is a direct line connecting the early neoliberal economic arguments and pedagogy formulated by VET mandarins – those who designed and managed the VET system in the early 1990s – to its subsequent implementation. The VET market is an exemplar of the great damage inflicted when a naïve , idealised neoliberal conception of how markets work becomes the basis for public policy. Serious quality problems in the VET market arose from a misconceived analysis of both the economics of the private training market, and from the actual level of demand for quality training in large parts of the labour market. Further, the pedagogical system known as competency based training (CBT), instituted to develop competition between registered training organisations (RTOs) and flexibility in all aspects of training content and delivery has actually led to diminished quality of training and malfeasance among many RTOs, employers and students.

After an analysis of why VET matters in Australia, Toner examines the creation of the Australian training market, which has been modelled on the UK experience. He points out that TAFE (83%) and not-for-profit adult and community education providers (15%) delivered almost all publicly funded VET as late as 1996, but this fell to 49% and 6% (respectively) by 2016. The number of RTOs increased from 400 in 1995 to 1931 in 2016, the majority of them private for-profit providers.

Toner discusses the scale of the quality problem (“significant”), and examines the specific economic and pedagogical conditions in the training market that explain the scale and scope of poor quality and malfeasance. Minimal investment is needed, inadequate standards for teaching qualification and teaching resources and the low barriers for RTOs to enter are all exploited by opportunistic providers.

Toner concludes (p. 78) that:

The training market has followed the classic trajectory of neoliberal public policy: ebullient expectations quickly followed by disappointment leading to incessant and expensive – through largely futile – bureaucratic tinkering resulting in intensified regulation and altered incentives…. The time remaining to effect a rescue of the public VET system is rapidly diminishing

Further reading

“Social Service Futures: Marketization and regulation of vocational education and training”, by Professor Valerie Braithwaite, The Power to Persuade, 23 May 2016.

“Marketisation of VET: The New South Wales response 1990s–2017”, by Robin Shreeve and Joanna Palser, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 16 July 2018.

“New figures quantify the extent of the TAFE disaster”, by Professor Leesa Wheelahan, 23 June 2018.

Competition Policy and Human Services: Where Theory Meets Practice, by Rhonda L Smith & Alexandra Merrett, commissioned and edited by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and CHOICE, September 2018.

(This article originally appeared on the website of Community Colleges Australia on 12 November 2018.)

(image above: cover of Wrong Way: How Privatisation and Economic Reform Backfired, Black Books, 2018)


Has My PhD Thesis Become Relevant Again in the Age of Trump?

January 21, 2018

One year into the Trump Administration, I am starting to conclude that my PhD thesis – entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s “Passion” Goes to the Movies – is becoming relevant again.

Part of my thesis dealt with how movies can reflect our cultural, political, economic and social obsessions – although not always directly, and not exactly in the ways we expect. The most interesting films are those that coincide with our immediate fascinations, meaning that a film – often years in the making – has had some “clue” as to what else was “burbling” along in the collective unconscious and our body politic, a long time before it became apparent to the rest of us.

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was such a film, coinciding – and helping to create – a “cultural moment”.

And what is our current “moment”? Or, rather the question is, what are contemporary films telling us about our current moment?

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is an obvious one. Some selections:

  • “When a film is bang on the moment, as “The Post” is determined to be, what will remain of its impact when the moment is past? Maybe Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks are possessed, like many of their compatriots, by a deeper dread. Maybe they think that the moment is here to stay.” – Anthony Lane in The New Yorker
  • “At a pivotal time in American history, the government was preventing the press from getting the news out, on the grounds that it would do injury to national security.” – Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
  • The Post is the story of a legacy, but it’s also a rallying cry.” – Stephanie Zacharek in Time magazine
  • The Post examines a crucial moment in American journalism from more than 45 years ago, although the film clearly invites viewers to see the material’s gripping contemporary relevance.” – Tim Grierson in Screen Daily

And what do the other recent Golden Globe nominees (and possible Oscar winners) tells us about our moment?

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (women’s empowerment, #metoo, Black Lives Matter)
  • The Shape of Water (immigration controls and fear of the other)
  • Get Out (Black Lives Matter and fear of the other)
  • I, Tonya (women’s empowerment)
  • Lady Bird (women’s empowerment)
  • The Greatest Showman (a metaphor for the current President?)
  • Dunkirk (are we strategically withdrawing? if so, from what?)
  • Call Me By Your Name (gay marriage, gender diversity)

Another connector between movies and life – at least life, political-style as experienced in the USA – is the well-known figure of Stephen K. Bannon, who seems to court controversy wherever he goes. In a telling New York Times article dated June 26, 2005 (“On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle”), journalist James Ulmer starts this way, quoting Bannon:

The film producer Stephen K. Bannon isn’t just on a crusade. He’s on a roll.

“Look at Feb. 25, 2004 — a watershed week for the Hollywood right,” he said in his Santa Monica office while scribbling a circle around the word “Lord” on his whiteboard. “On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’ — a great Christian allegory — wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God, and did you guys notice? No, because 99 per cent of the content in the media’s sewage pipes is the culture of death, not life.”

Bannon – one of America’s greatest recent practitioners of the art of reinvention – understood back in 2005 the strong connection between American popular culture and American political life – an important theme in my thesis – and honed his skills in subsequent years. So much so that he rose just about as high as you can in political life (White House Chief Strategist to the President) before a spectacular fall. A great podcast from NPR’s Embedded program (“How Steve Bannon’s Time In Hollywood Changed Him”) from October 2017 illustrates how well Bannon was schooled in US movies before his move to politics.

The truth about the “current moment” is that it is awfully hard to know what is until it has passed, making the notion of “current” difficult to discern.

But it’s worth trying, and our movies are a great place to start.


Paul Wellstone remembered

August 20, 2017

My tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone has been published on the official Wellstone website. This tribute is an updated version of what I wrote in 2002 in the Australian Jewish News, and re-printed on this blog in 2009.

On 20 July 2017 here in Sydney, I made a presentation at a Economics Society of Australia conference (“Economics for Better Lives”) on Australian inequality and vocational education and training. I dedicated my presentation to Paul Wellstone.

“We should never separate the lives we live from the words we speak. To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in.” – Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. ix

Two photos of Paul below: his official Senate photo, and teaching as a young man (roughly the time I met him):


Film review of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

May 27, 2017

This review of “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” appeared in a different form in the Australian Jewish News on 25 May 2017.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar; starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Michael Sheen

When American-born Israeli film-maker Joseph Cedar releases a new movie, the film world pays attention. Prior to his latest film, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (hereafter, “Norman”, opening this week in Australia), two of his four films received best foreign film Oscar nominations (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”). His other two – “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” – won best picture at the “Ophir” awards, the Israel “Oscars”.

“Norman” stars Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer, a sixty-ish New York business consultant (“Oppenheimer Strategies”) who is always on the make. People avoid him on the street because he is always asking them for something. Even his nephew – corporate lawyer Philip Cohen (British actor Michael Sheen, from “The Queen”) – tries to stay away. He pushes into social situations unannounced: when he “crashes” a fancy townhouse dinner party hosted by Jewish philanthropist Taub (Josh Charles), the effect is excruciating – humiliation writ large.

The Washington Post film critic accurately describes Norman as a macher, schnorrer and mensch all rolled together. He’s as complex a Jewish character as we have ever seen on screen, all the more fascinating because the audience knows almost nothing about him. He says he has a daughter, but nobody knows her. Does Norman have an office? Not clear. He appears to be on the Board of his synagogue, where he listens to choir practice for relaxation. He assists the Board with fundraising, and is friends with the rabbi, gleefully played by character actor Steve Buscemi. Richard Gere’s driven and hyperactive performance is breathtaking, avoiding the self-pity of many Woody Allen characters, to which there is some affinity; think “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Front”. This Norman is both natty (he wears a cool camel hair coat) and desperately seeking approval.

Norman’s life changes when he discovers Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi), a junior Israeli trade minister, at a New York conference. Norman follows Eshel to a fancy shoe stop, and inveigles to buy the Israeli an expensive pair of shoes. They become friends, of a sort, and develop a transactional relationship assists both of them: through connections, Norman assists Micha’s son to get into Harvard. We don’t quite know what Norman gets from Micha, but it’s enough to repay his shoe investment many times over.

Some years later, Micha becomes Prime Minister, and warmly and publicly greets Norman at an AIPAC conference in Washington DC. Norman kvells with pride, later detailing his relationship with Micha to New York lawyer Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge) on the train back to New York – the beginning of his “tragic fall”. This is writer/director Cedar in his best blackly comic mode. Some people do hilarious – and very stupid – things, and their actions return to bite them.

My favourite parts of the film were the ones in Hebrew with Prime Minister Eshel. So many American Presidents appear in dramatic films, so it’s fascinating to see a contemporary (albeit fictional) Israeli Prime Minister on screen.

A constant sense of unease underlies “Norman”, which may make some viewers uncomfortable. In Norman Oppenheimer, writer/director Cedar does not go for easy laughs, presenting us with a complicated and flawed character, in relationship to many other flawed characters – all of them Jewish. Recommended for those who are willing to pay attention to words that matter.

(above: Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in “Norman”)


Summer reading for the Australian Prime Minister

December 30, 2014

Back in mid-December, The Grattan Institute – a Melbourne-based Australian “think tank” – launched it’s annual “Summer Reading List for the Prime Minister”, which for those of you unfamiliar with Australia is Tony Abbott.

It’s a cute concept, and is based on the rationale that:

Summer is a great time to relax with friends and family, to take a holiday, to reflect on the year past – and to read. During the year it can be hard to find time for reading. Our ministers and MPs have less free time than the rest of us…. The list contains books and articles that we believe the Prime Minister – or indeed any Australian – will find stimulating over the break. They’re all good reads that say something interesting about Australia, the world and the future.

This year’s list includes five books and one article:

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, Harvard political scientist and historian, and “failed” Canadian politician – a fascinating read for those of us who have ever entertained the thought of entering politics, with the pitfalls painfully detailed.
Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, by James Brown, a defense analyst and former army officer who is critical of the ANZAC legend.
A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a More Complete Commonwealth, by Noel Pearson, national Indigenous leader.
The Golden Age, by Joan London, a love story set in a Perth polio clinic – a new novel.
The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives, by Annabel Crabb, one of Australia’s top political reporters and broadcasters, who has marked herself out as both incisive but and yet good-humoured.  The title pretty much says it all.
– “The Inequality Puzzle”, a short journal article by Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, his review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, published in Democracy Journal; see full article here.

I am critical of this last choice, not because I disagree with Summers, but why not recommend the whole book?  If we are going to recommend essays for our Prime Minister to read, there are many better contemporary essays than this one.  I have described this concern with inequality as a “zeitgeist moment”, with lots of attention here in Australia.  Every couple of weeks there are additional analyses.  Not long ago, Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) wrote a review of the book.  In May, The Economist summarised Piketty’s thesis in a pithy (four paragraph) article.  Also in May, The Economist explained (“Le French Touch”) why Piketty’s book is more popular in the USA and places like Australian than in his native France:  some believe that it is not sufficiently left-wing to appeal to French intellectuals.  So the last is truly an odd and misleading choice.  Isn’t the whole idea of reading books during the summer (for those too busy during the year) actually to read the whole (or most of) the book?

Enough criticism.  What would you include on your list?  And what would you nominate for your national leader’s summer list, if you live in the USA, Canada, the UK, New Zealand or elsewhere?  (Okay, it’s only summer in New Zealand at the moment, but the idea is the same.)


The USA on Australian Television: Two must-see shows on SBS

November 22, 2012

If you live in Australia, it’s not too late to start watching the best two hours of weekly quality American television documentary we have going right now.  Appearing each Tuesday evening on SBS One are two outstanding (and astonishingly relevant) four-part series: America in Prime Time (about American television) at 8.30pm and Clinton (part of the “American Experience” series, about Bill and Hillary Clinton) at 9.30pm.

These two series (we have had the first two hour-long episodes of the four already) go well beyond the breathless reporting on American media/culture (the former series) and politics (the latter series) that usually passes for “informed” analysis.  Both were produced originally for the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network (yes, the one that Mitt Romney wanted to “de-fund”).

The Clinton series also has extraordinary timing:  Hillary Clinton just visited Australia, in Perth for a series of meetings with senior Australian politicians for “AUSMIN” talks.  The difference between the Hillary Clinton we saw this past week on the SBS (the early, naive, years of the Clinton Administration in 1993) and the Hillary of now – November 2012 – is amazing. The poised, confident and experienced politician Hillary has moved a long way in the last 19 years.  She is also a political survivor, and able to reinvent herself successfully – first as a very successful Senator from the State of New York and then as a very successful Secretary of State (and hey, didn’t she just help broker the Israel-Gaza cease fire?).  She tried for the Presidency three years ago, losing the nomination to Barack Obama, and she may yet try again in 2016. Somehow I doubt it, but that still does not diminish the oustandingly successful  journey she has been on during the last eight to ten years.

Interested in reading more about the Clintons?  The US PBS network has helpfully put together an online bibliography.