This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two films at the Film Forum, a prime location for bold independent fare. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding.
For those who ever been mystified by what the terms collateralized debt obligation or credit default swaps mean (including me most of the time), “The American Casino” will bring you up to speed. Calling upon industry experts like Professor Michael Greenberger, who was the Director of Trading and Markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Clinton, we find out that they are nothing more than crap games, hence the movie’s title. In one scene Greenberger sits at a computer terminal clinically dissecting a securitized mortgage courtesy as if it were a poorly executed counterfeit thousand dollar bill.
We also meet a former big shot at Bear Stearns, who is seen only in shadow. As a designer of the Byzantine financial products that brought his own company and the rest of Wall Street into the toilet, he must be taken at his word when he described the investments as “fourth dimensional”, adding that “the banks did not really care” whether subprime loans could be paid off. Given his rueful tone, you get the feeling that you are listening to somebody who ran a child prostitution ring.
After meeting the crooks who ran the gambling casino, we meet their victims. The Cockburns introduce us to three homeowners in Baltimore, where a virtual conspiracy by major banks like Wells Fargo lured the unsuspecting African-American to take out loans that they had no chance of repaying. We meet Denzel Mitchell, a social studies teacher with a special interest in human rights, packing up his books and his children’s toys after his house has been foreclosed. In his case, as is the case of all the other interviewees, we are dealing with a swindle. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers and bankers lied to people with good credit ratings in order to harvest fat fees. One woman, a therapist, shows up at her mortgage broker’s office with a check for most of the latest month’s payment but is refused.
One can only wonder if the election of an African-American president has helped to keep the lid on the housing crisis. Unlike the early 1930s, there have been far fewer angry protests at the doorsteps of people being evicted. Although the movie focuses exclusively on Bush’s role, attention must be paid to the failure of the new administration in keeping people in their homes. Even Jesse Jackson, who has never met a Democratic President he didn’t like, is starting to grumble. After seeing a new surge of foreclosures and a continued tilt toward the big banks rather than working class homeowners, he decided to lead a prayer vigil at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. Unfortunately, it did not occur to him to mount a militant mass demonstration. That would be so 1960s.
Speaking of the 1960s, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” is the one to see if you are interested in the period. I have been trying to persuade myself to see Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” but not doing a very good job of it since my nostalgia preferences tend toward sticking a thumb in the eye of the national security state rather than LSD.
This movie belongs on the same shelf as “An Unreasonable Man” and “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” that celebrate the life and activism of Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn respectively. It is no accident that Zinn is one of the primary interviewees in the Ellsberg documentary since they have such strong affinities and actually were co-conspirators in the raucous Mayday Demonstrations of 1971. Seeing the enthusiasm and youthful demeanor of Ellsberg, now 78, and the 87 year old Zinn, you can only be left with the conclusion that radical politics is the best way to live long and prosper.
I suppose that most people know what made Ellsberg appear as the “most dangerous man in America”, in Henry Kissinger’s words, but it is worth mentioning that he “stole” a top-secret report on the Vietnam War that had been drafted by the Rand Corporation on request from the Pentagon in order to inform them what was really going on in the rebellious nation. As is so often the case, such truths were not to be squandered on the American people who might have gotten even more worked up than they were after learning that the Pentagon Papers implicitly described an imperialist adventure with no redeeming social or political or economic value. Indeed, Ellsberg, the Rand employee charged with the responsibility of overseeing the project, after realizing that this would be the effect, decided to make them available to the public.
Ellsberg did not wake up one morning in 1969 and decide to pull this off. He had been slowly evolving toward that position and was finally convinced of its necessity after seeing the failure of government officials to bring peace despite the campaign rhetoric. In other words, he was like many Democrats who hoped that Obama would finally pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and hoped further that he would stay out of Afghanistan, despite campaign statements to the contrary (this was less a case of hope than faith.)
Before Ellsberg had become a cautious dove believing that Nixon might deliver the goods, he was a gung-ho former Marine who led combat missions in Vietnam while not having official military status. In other words, he was not that different from the Blackwater contractors.
But mounting human suffering on both sides (obviously worse for the Vietnamese) finally persuaded him that drastic action was necessary. His girl friend Patricia Marx, a committed peace activist and soon to be his wife, helped him make that decision in a way that approximates Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”. In other words, no peace activism, no sex.
After Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the N.Y. Times, the FBI sought his arrest. After eluding them for a while, he was arrested and charged with “theft” of government property. Other charges were added, including conspiracy. If convicted, he faced a sentence of up to 115 years. When Nixon offered the judge presiding over the trial the directorship of the FBI as a bribe, the judge declared a mistrial. Nixon was not done with his skullduggery, however. He convened a group of operatives to be led by a character named Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent and third-rate novelist, to bust into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find damaging information on the peace activist. This is the same gang that would break into the Democratic Party’s offices at the Watergate Hotel, thus leading to Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam War 9 months later. So it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that Ellsberg’s courageous and principal stance played a major role in ending the Vietnam War.
As I pondered over that question as the movie was winding down, a light bulb went on over my head. The truth is that Ellsberg never would have taken such radical steps if there had not been massive antiwar demonstrations for the preceding three years. Those demonstrations, derided by SDS ultraleftists as being safe and predictable, were just the kind of thing that could persuade a fence-setting Ellsberg to go over to our side. Or to persuade GI’s that they would be supported if they decided to organize antiwar meetings on base.
Furthermore, the failure of a new Daniel Ellsberg to step forward with a new version of the Pentagon Papers geared to Iraq and Afghanistan can only be understood as the failure of our movement to keep the pressure on Washington with massive and sustained protests. Perhaps the willingness of Barack Obama to commit our country to a new Vietnam in Afghanistan is just what we need to shake our movement out of our doldrums. In any case, go see this excellent documentary to get an idea of how powerful dissent can be in times of war in the America of 1969.