American Ultra

What if a stoner turned out to be lethal former secret agent?

It’s a fun premise, and it carries a few laughs. What gives the story a little backbone, though, is the story arcs. A couple learning about each other, a mother-figure caring for her threatened puppy, isolated children finding a family. All of those are arcs that help sustain interest.

Oh, and there’s what feels to me like a lot of violence, but perhaps that it’s just so graphically rendered.


Policy, politics and people

At various points today I’ve been reading a few articles; all interesting in their own right, but interesting as well because of the intersections between them.

  • David Gergen, Master of the Game – Michael Kelly, in the New York Times Magazine, talks about David Gergen, a staffer and journalist who he argues was central to the development of modern political media management, in the Nixon administration.
  • The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru – David Samuels, also in the New York Times Magazine tells a story of the role of Ben Rhodes, an apparently key staffer in the Obama White House.
  • The Obama Doctrine – Jeffrey Goldberg gives a fascinating examination of Obama’s foreign policy.

They’re interesting pieces in their own right. But reading them today, it happened that I was also fascinated by the intersections between them.

The Michael Kelly / David Gergen piece is fascinating in its own right. Kelly is scathing in describing Gergen, a man who has helped establish a system of disinformation that separates the substance of what matters from what is covered in the newspapers. He reports Gergen’s regret, but in a scathing tone – it’s too little too late. Reading it, I wondered if Kelly had a particular reason for focussing on Gergen, rather than others. I think individuals make history to some extent, but surely the emergence of careful media handling is a systemic inevitability, not one person’s Faustian mistake? I looked Kelly up, and it turns out that a large amount of discussion about him was written a decade after his death, marking his death as one of the first journalists killed in covering the invasion of Iraq. See the critical at Gawker, and the supportive at the Atlantic. So I don’t know that I put too much weight on the Gergen piece, or the idea that any one person invented, or is somehow responsible for, the machine that is modern media management.

But it’s interesting to see that theme of media control echoed in Samuels’ piece in the New York Times Magazine. In writing about Rhodes, he describes a more modern and systematic approach to what Gergen is purported to have practiced – pushing out a message through a dozen different channels:

Price [Rhodes’s assistant] turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.

The thrust of Samuels’ piece is a deeply disconcerting one; that by its nature, public debate is now driven by careful strategies calibrated by those with power, which don’t reflect the substance of the issues the media is covering. At some level it seems all too possible, but it’s an uncomfortable idea to consider, particularly depending on how much weight you give it.

Which leads me finally to Goldberg’s piece, on Obama’s foreign policy. It’s an interesting piece. It’s one I’d been looking forward to reading, and it’s a great read, on an important topic. As I read through it, it feels insightful – useful to read about the thoughts of someone very intelligent, who’s in a position of enormous power, on a difficult set of questions. It feels fundamental to hear him talk about a view of human nature; a question that is profound, but has to undergird at some level, any complex analysis of foreign policy.

What’s difficult is that reading it after Samuels’ piece, it’s hard not to question the Goldberg piece. Is it just part of another complex media strategy, designed to deliver a particular outcome that may be entirely separate to communicating information? How honest is it?

Obama, in reflecting on one of his media events that was criticised for focussing on the cerebral approach to an issue, rather than emotive communication, says that:

I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.

Which is fine. It’s just that in the Samuels piece, Samuels says that the Obama administration aggressively pushed a simplistic interpretation of the Iran deal, not in the interests of communicating about it, and conveying information, but in the interests of winning the debate:

Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency.

Later, Rhodes displays a disconcerting pessimism about the possibility of rational debate:

When I asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”

I don’t know that I have a conclusion, really. This is a note-pad, a place to scratch out thoughts, and what I really think is that these issues are interesting, complex, and important. But I suppose it makes me think that one possible reason to read political insider or horse-race journalism, when it’s done well, is to understand and read better other media, and other sources. We read the media to understand what has happened, and in turn to have a better sense of what may happen in the future. If insider journalism helps us understand that, maybe it’s worth it after all.

Failures: Personal, literary and of the imagination

I’ve had the time to do a bit of reading recently, but not enough to jot down some thoughts.

Two weeks in Lilliput, by Steve Vizard

Everyone has those nightmares. Those fears, of fucking up colossally on a national stage. For Vizard, that was a reality, when he almost missed a key vote in the 1998 Constitutional Convention, and made the news. I wonder if that wasn’t in part what prompted him to write Two weeks in Lilliput: Bear-baiting and backbiting at the Constitutional Convention.

It’s a good read though. For one thing, it’s a fascinating period in history. Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull, now major leaders, feature only as characters then outside Parliament. Other names feature prominently that have now faded into history.

Vizard also does a good job in chronicling a messy, divisive period. It takes hard work writing to make the reading easy, but Vizard does well. He blends an easy style with commentary that gives a sense of the personalities and flow of the convention, and an impressionistic attempt at conveying what it must have been like to be a delegate.

I bought this for $2 in the second hand bin at a local bookshop, but if you like good history in an Australian context, and from a personal perspective, this book is worth it at a first hand price.

The messenger, by Markus Zusak

I read The Book Thief a while ago, and enjoyed it. So I was looking forward to The Messenger. it was a complete let down.

Somewhere, somehow, something was lost. Perhaps it’s that The Messenger was written earlier. Perhaps it was a different editor.

The premise of The Messenger is a deadbeat character, who lounges around not doing anything, but has his life transformed as he lives out the commands given to him mysteriously on playing cards. He does things like threatening an abusive husband, forcing him to leave his wife alone. He also cares for an old person, and … other random acts of neighbourhood kindness, really. The protogonist becomes – I think Zusak wants us to believe – a super hero of sorts, one emotionally connected and caring for the people around him.

It’s saccharine and superficial, and frankly some of the things he gets up to are creepy and weird. There’s very little agency in the protagonist, and by the end Zusak’s attempt at a neat, clever trick ending feel superficial and frustrating. If you like good writing on any level – narrative, prose, or psychological insight – this isn’t the book for you.

Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s only as I come to write this review that I realised this book is co-authored. It’s certainly got Neal Stephenson in a more prominent position, which is part of the reason I bought it. Frederick George, it turns out, is a pseudonym for Neal Stephenson’s uncle.

The book doesn’t quite live up to what I’d expect from Stephenson, that mixture of complex scientific ideas blended with intricate plots and a complete failure to understand how normal humans talk or relate.

The premise of Cobweb is the Randian struggle of the individual against a complex web, a society or bureaucracy that stymies them. So it is that in Cobweb, the real enemy isn’t the terrorists plotting destruction. It’s the bureaucrats who are stopping the heroes (all good, mid-western folk) from preventing them. In some sense, I think, the novel lets itself down when it resorts to reifying the bureaucracy in a single person, a nemesis who binds the protagonists up in ‘cobweb’, the forms and procedures they’re constrained by. It would have been much stronger, I think, if they’d let it really be a struggle of protagonists vs. system.

If you like Stephenson you may enjoy this, but I wouldn’t rank it highly amongst his other pieces.

Sleepwalk with me

I watched Sleepwalk with Me a little while ago. It was fun, in a strange kind of way.


It walks an interesting line between comedy and tragedy. At moments Mike Birbiglia dips into comedy; awkward as he struggles to find punchlines, a terrible stand up comedian in a small bar. Funnier, as he refines his pitch. Tragic, as it takes a whole movie for him to deal with his emotions, and what that means for the people in his life.

I suppose at some level every story rests on us caring about the people involved. Birbiglia’s movie is honest and brave in that it stars someone telling their own story, one that certainly doesn’t show him in a great light as he makes several major mistakes in a row. It’s very human.

I think we all want to believe our lives are stories. Good stories, for that matter. Ones where one is a hero, overcoming major opposition. But I don’t think that the major challenges, or the narrative arcs, in every life, are necessarily obvious.

Perhaps that’s where things feel missing, in Sleepwalk with Me. It sometimes feels as though the major narrative arc of the movie is simply him coming to a realisation, rather than making a difficult choice, or having to accomplish something particularly difficult. Perhaps that’s why I had a slightly disappointed feeling at the end.