Sunday, December 10, 2017

Churchill review: Brian Cox dazzles in a scalpel-sharp, timely lesson in political leadership

By Robbie Collins
14 June 2017
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What breed of political animal was Winston Churchill? If this new biopic of the wartime Prime Minister is anything to go by, "a big one" is a reasonable start. As played by Brian Cox, he’s like a distant cousin of a brown bear or a Hereford bull, snuffling and stalking through his subterranean Whitehall war rooms, champing at underlings and barking at his reflection, while cigar smoke uncurls from his nostrils in great, steaming snorts. 
In a low moment, he even describes himself as “a clapped-out, moth-eaten old lion whose teeth have been pulled so as not to frighten the ladies” –  and Churchill’s commitment to making sense of its title character, and the historical figure into which he evolved, makes it less a period drama than a work of scalpel-sharp political taxonomy.
Rather than trying to encompass an entire lifetime, or even zeroing in on a defining test of character in the style of Joe Wright’s forthcoming Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, which takes place over the turbulent first few weeks of his premiership, Jonathan Teplitzky’sfilm plays out over the 96 hours before the D-Day landings – beginning on the “1,736th day of World War 2”, as an opening caption soberly frames it. 
By this time, the Blitz was three long years ago, and the Churchill who galvanised a nation in those terrorised times has become a marginalised figure in the war operation, while Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and General Eisenhower (John Slattery) plot Operation Overlord, the coming Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
For Churchill, the plan smacks of costly old mistakes: specifically, the ruinous Gallipoli Campaign he personally championed almost three decades before. The result then was eight months of fighting that ended in Allied retreat and with more than 100,000 men dead, and the culpability still weighs as heavily on him as if he were carrying one of their bodies on his back.
The one terrain he still can’t be outmanoeuvred on, however, is rhetoric – and we see his talents deployed to subtle but dazzling effect early on, in a "speech" he rehearses like a stadium-rousing set-piece but eventually delivers to a small but vitally important audience of one. This is George VI (James Purefoy), at a meeting of the Allied high command at Southwick House, during which Churchill hopes to persuade the King to back his alternative strategy: less a multi-pronged attack than an entire cutlery drawer of manoeuvres, so as to outflank and outfox the Axis powers, and thereby minimise the risk.
The meat of Teplitzky’s film comes in these verbal confrontations, and its best scenes are all head-to-heads, whether Churchill is butting heads with Monty over a map of the Normandy coast, or grumbling at his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) – whose own role in the creation and maintenance of her husband’s political persona is given unexpected, welcome room to breathe.
And while you don’t envy Purefoy for a moment in having to follow Colin Firth’s George VI in The King’s Speech, even at a seven-year distance, he’s quietly tremendous in a scene in which he dissects the strange inconsistencies of a leader’s wartime obligations: “My job is not to fight, not to die…I must exist. That is my duty.” 
Without wanting to overplay Churchill’s timeliness, let’s just say the film’s notion that true authority stems from complexity and compromise is a lesson Westminster’s Class of ’17 would do well to heed. Still, if any of them have unexpected spare time on their hands in the immediate future, there’s always a cinema trip.
They might also learn something from Cox, whose brilliant performance here isn’t a superficial Churchill impersonation – though the famous brandy-thickened baritone and lugubrious bearing are both impeccably reproduced – but a restlessly smart interrogation of the statesman’s image, and how the man behind it may or may not have measured up.
The screenplay, by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, is laced with trainspottery detail – minor items of Churchilliana, such as his preference for a hole punch, nicknamed Klop, over clips and staples are dropped in as character-revealing asides – but it’s also refreshingly unafraid to pick over its subject’s carcass. 
Churchill isn’t a stop-you-in-your-tracks reinvention of the biopic like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie: it’s still ultimately beholden to the genre’s good manners, with the obligatory pretty cinematography and music. But when Cox finally announces “This is the Prime Minister speaking” as he delivers his D-Day address to a waiting nation, you understand the significance of those six words exactly – both what they mean, and what they need to mean in order to mean anything at all. Now that’s escapism.

Film Reviews: Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is a tremendous Winston Churchill in high-octane drama

By Peter Bradshaw
13 September 2017

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Just as Britain negotiates its inglorious retreat from Europe, and our political classes prepare to ratify the chaotic abandonment of a union intended to prevent another war, there seems to be a renewed appetite for movies about 1940. Christopher Nolan has just given us his operatic immersion in Dunkirk, and now Joe Wright — who himself staged bravura Dunkirk scenes in his 2007 film Atonement — directs this undeniably exciting and beguiling account of Winston Churchill’s darkest hour in 1940, as Hitler’s forces gather across the Channel, poised to invade. It is written by Anthony McCarten, who scripted the recent Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.

This is not so much a period war movie as a high-octane political thriller: May 1940 as House Of Cards, with the wartime Prime Minister up against a cabal of politicians who want to do him down. It’s interesting for a film to remind us that appeasement as an issue did not vanish the moment that Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister; despite the famous David Low cartoon, not everyone was right behind him, rolling up their sleeves. Here, his immediate enemies do not seem to be Hitler and Mussolini as much as Chamberlain and Halifax, agitating for a deal with the Nazis and scheming to undermine Churchill’s cabinet and parliamentary position.
They are played respectively by Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane, the latter having a malign mandarin impassivity. Dillane makes him a pretty unholy fox. Ben Mendelsohn plays George VI, who is also an appeasement fan at first, though the film gallantly makes him a Churchill convert, conjuring a scene between the two of them in which his job is to stiffen Winston’s sinews. (This film incidentally doesn’t make the mistake in The King’s Speech of implying that Churchill sided with Bertie during the Abdication.)
Darkest Hour has obvious similarities to the recent film Churchill, with Brian Cox; like that drama it imagines a pretty young WAAF figure as his secretary, for him to be at first grumpy and then soppy with - Lily James plays this part here. Miranda Richardson played the exasperated wife Clemmie in the Brian Cox movie and here it’s Kristin Scott Thomas being exasperated and affectionate, helping the impossible old devil dress etc, in more or less the same way - although there’s more here for Scott Thomas to get her teeth into. But this movie packs a much bigger and more effective punch, and that’s down to a more ambitious scale, pacier narrative drive - and the lead performance.
Every time I sit down to another Churchill drama, I promise myself I won’t just roll over for another actor in the latex/Homburg/bowtie/cigar/padding combo and doing the jowl-quivering while speaking in thevoish and the weird cadencesh. And yet there’s no doubt about it, Gary Oldman is terrific as Churchill, conveying the babyishness of his oddly unlined face in repose, the slyness and manipulative good humour, and a weird deadness when he is overtaken with depression. There is a scene (a bit fancifully imagined) with Churchill slumped in a bleakly lit almost unfurnished room, where he looks like something by Lucian Freud. He spends a fair bit of time down in the bunker-ish Cabinet War Rooms yelling at people: these are the “Upfall” scenes, which might get YouTube-subtitled in German in all sorts of irreverent ways. And it is here that Winston reaches his nadir, before the miracle of the little boats has manifested itself. He allows Halifax to send word via the Italians that Britain would be theoretically interested in the Danegeld-price: what might induce Hitler to hold back from Britain and its colonies? Oldman shows Churchill going into a kind of stricken shock.
This is not to say that there isn’t a fair bit of hokum and romantic invention. This film imagines Churchill needing to take a journey on the tube because his official car is held up in traffic. So he meets a quaint cross-section of forelock-tugging British and empire subjects in the underground carriage, from whom he learns something very important — that he is absolutely right!

    There is room for a more sceptical movie about Churchill: something revisiting his performance during the Tonypandy Riots or the Siege Of Sidney Street. Or just something that acknowledges that he hated Adolf Hitler for the same reason he hated Mahatma Gandhi: they were both enemies of the British Empire. But Gary Oldman carries off a tremendous performance here, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It’s as if his establishment panjandrum George Smiley was suddenly infused with the spirit of Sid Vicious. 
    An Injustice to Winston Churchill
    Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour butchers history to make the British prime minister a much less decisive figure than he actually was.

    By Kyle Smith
    November 20, 2017

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    Because an irresolute and small-minded age applies its own neuroses backward to history, because actors love to portray internal torment, and because we fancy ourselves so sophisticated that we know the official story of the past to be a ruse, movies about important historical figures have become less inspiring and “more human,” at times even iconoclastic. In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ presented a very modern Nazarene wracked with anguish about whether he could carry on with his duty, delivering a casual, vernacular Sermon on the Mount from a dusty slope scarcely more elevated than a pitcher’s mound. The Queen (2006) depicted a matter-of-fact Elizabeth II who fixed car engines. The Iron Lady (2011) approached Margaret Thatcher via the Alzheimer’s disease she suffered in her final years. Lincoln (2012) reconceived the most revered orator in American history as a quizzical figure speaking in a high-pitched, soft rasp.

    Now it’s Churchill’s turn to be shrunken down to a more manageable size. In Darkest Hour, which is set across May and June of 1940, the English director Joe Wright and his star Gary Oldman conspire to create a somewhat comical, quavering, and very human prime minister. In dramatic terms it’s an engaging picture, and Oldman is terrifically appealing, but if you’re looking for indecision and angst, the person of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is a curious place to declare you’ve found it.

    Darkest Hour begins with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Churchill’s accession to the premiership on May 10, 1940, building up to the concluding “We shall fight on the beaches” speech he delivered in the House of Commons on June 4, after the miraculous Dunkirk rescue. (The flight of British forces from the Continent takes place almost entirely offscreen here but has been covered in another movie this year. It also inspired a memorable interlude, captured in one of the most elaborate continuous shots ever put to film, in Wright’s own 2007 movie Atonement).

    Introduced to us as a kind of rumpled, absent-minded professor with an alarming predilection for drink and a habit of terrifying his secretary (Lily James), Oldman’s Churchill is alternately funny, disarming, wheedling, and unsettled by events in Europe and Washington, from which in a dismal phone call Franklin Roosevelt is heard informing him that the United States cannot by law come to Britain’s rescue. Churchill insists he must at least have the ships he bought: “We paid for them . . . with the money that we borrowed from you.” Yet Roosevelt’s hands are tied. “Just can’t swing it,” he says. Britain must stand alone.

    Such moments capture the sense of a Britain gasping for air as Hitler’s fingers tightened their grip around its neck. But then, in its last half-hour, Darkest Hour veers far off the path of truth. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten has claimed, citing Cabinet minutes, that Churchill’s intentions changed virtually from “hour to hour,” and “this is not something that’s ever been celebrated — that he had doubts, that he was uncertain.” All of this is a gross exaggeration. Churchill told his War Cabinet on May 28 “that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” I understand the needs of Method actors, but Churchill was not George McFly.

    Hectored by a combination of Chamberlain and his fellow appeaser, Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the prime minister is shown as nearly ready to give in and sue for peace through Mussolini. Buckling under pressure, he rediscovers his resolve only because of last-minute pep talks from his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). The clincher is that traffic halts the premier’s car and he is forced to take the Underground to Parliament.

    Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten would have us believe that the ghostwriters of the immortal speech to follow were random Londoners Churchill met on that train, where they gave him both courage and some of the actual words he later used. But these events did not occur; the only time Churchill ever rode the Underground was during the general strike of 1926, according to his biographers William Manchester and Paul Reid. To suggest otherwise trivializes Churchill’s defining speech by reducing it to the level of stenography, while completely misstating the direction of wartime inspiration. Churchill was nothing like the people’s puppet. He felt he was born to lead them. As he would later write, “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . . I was sure I should not fail.” 

    It is a cliché of the motion-picture industry that, in order to sufficiently excite audience interest, the climactic moments must incorporate a reversal of direction. Since we all know how this chapter of World War II ends — to give Wright and McCarten credit, it’s a stirring, magnificent scene in which Churchill rouses the nation with the 34-minute address one MP called “the speech of 1,000 years” — Darkest Hour simply imposes its dramatic needs upon the days preceding it. For the sake of a good yarn, it mistakes a lion for a jellyfish.


    Friday, December 08, 2017

    Trump Puts Fact Ahead of Fiction in Israel

    The only reason recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish State’s capital is controversial is that the world has been pretending it’s not for decades.

    By Jonah Goldberg
    December 8, 2017

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    (Getty Images)

    The most exhausting thing about the Middle East — except for the bloodshed, poverty, tyranny, etc. — is that it refuses to conform to how it’s described in the West.

    It’s like journalists, diplomats, and politicians want to announce a football game, but the players keep insisting on playing rugby. The field looks similar. The scoring isn’t all that different. It’s just a different game. But don’t tell the gang in the booth. They get furious when you point out that the facts don’t line up with the commentary.

    Consider President Trump’s momentous (though for now mostly symbolic) announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Before you can debate whether this was a good move, you must acknowledge one glaring fact that the chatterers want to ignore or downplay: It’s true. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, convenes there. Israelis call it their capital for the same reason they claim two plus two equals four. It’s just true.

    What makes the decision controversial is that everyone had agreed to pretend it wasn’t the capital in order to protect “the peace process.”

    That’s another term that doesn’t quite correspond with reality. There is no peace process. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president finishing the twelfth year of his four-year term, has refused to meet with the Israelis to discuss anything since early in the Obama administration.

    Part of the blame for that, of course, belongs with Obama, who built an entire foreign policy around what he wanted to be true rather than what was actually going on. Obama sought to distance the U.S. from Israel on the assumption that Israel was the unreasonably stubborn party in the “peace process.” That’s why, on the way out the door, the Obama administration broke with precedent and opted not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring East Jerusalem “occupied territory.”

    This implied that, as a matter of international law, the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem itself really belong to the Palestinians — which is an insane fantasy.

    But denying reality is how this game has long been played. In his speech after Trump’s announcement, Abbas talked at great length about Jerusalem’s history as a Muslim and Christian city. He made no mention of the fact that it’s also a famously Jewish city, having been established as the capital of ancient Israel 1,000 years before Jesus was born.

    Trump called his decision “a recognition of reality.” People invested in irreality insist the move will worsen “the Middle East conflict.”

    Here, too, we have mislabeling. Whole books are dedicated to the Middle East conflict, as if the Israel–Palestinian issue were the only conflict in the region. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians or the millions displaced by the civil war there. Tell it to those dying in Yemen, site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    It’s been this way for decades. The Palestinians and their Arab patrons insisted to gullible Westerners that the Israel–Palestinian conflict was the source of all the region’s problems. Was the Iran–Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives, a fight over Palestinian statehood? What about the Lebanese Civil War? Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds?

    The only people who bought the idea that the Middle East conflict began and ended with Israel were those guys in the control booth describing the wrong game — i.e., Western experts and activists deeply invested in the “peace process.”

    In a sense, that’s understandable. If you’ve dedicated your entire professional life to a moveable feast that covers your airfare and lodging in Paris or Geneva while you discuss grave matters, it’s probably hard not to cling to fictions.

    But those fictions are losing their hold, ironically thanks in large part to the Obama administration. By working on fantasy rather than facts, Obama threw the balance of power in the region heavily in Iran’s favor, lifting sanctions and giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars. He thought the Iranians would join the community of nations or some such twaddle. Instead, they pocketed the money and are now on a surer path to a nuclear bomb.

    As a result of this new reality, the old fictions are a luxury that Iran’s regional adversaries can no longer afford. That’s why Saudi Arabia, a longtime Palestinian patron, has been moving steadily closer to Israel: because Israel is a more valuable friend in the new Middle East conflict than the Palestinians are — or Obama was.

    — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

    Thursday, December 07, 2017

    Trump's truth-telling on Jerusalem marks an all-new Middle East

    By John Podhoretz
    December 6, 2017
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    American and Israeli flags displayed in the old city of Jerusalem. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

    ‘This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” President Trump said in announcing America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Never have truer words been spoken, and they were delivered in the best speech Trump has ever given.
    What Trump did was stunning. He could just have signed the waiver of the law passed in 1995 compelling the executive branch to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He did it six months ago, just like his three immediate predecessors did every six months since 1996. Or he could have not signed the waiver and simply said he was going to start the process of building the new embassy.
    Instead, he called the international community’s seven-decade bluff and ended a delusion about the future that has prevented Palestinians from seeing the world and their own geopolitical situation clearly. It is a bold shift.

    The idea that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital has been a global pretense for decades, including here in the United States. It’s a pretense because Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital from the moment the new country secured a future by winning a bloody war for independence waged against it by Arab nations after they rejected the UN partition of the old British mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
    Under the plan, Jerusalem was to be an international city governed by the United Nations. But the Arab effort to push the Jews into the sea — an effort no other nation on earth intervened in to prevent — left a divided Jerusalem in the hands of the Jews in the West and Jordan in the East.
    There would be no “international” Jerusalem because the Arabs made sure there could not be one.
    So, in 1949, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion moved the government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “The people which faithfully honored for 2,500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem — this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem,” Ben-Gurion told the United Nations at the time.
    After Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War in 1967, Jerusalem was unified and became, in the words spoken by every Israeli prime minister, the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish state.
    And yet the international fiction that Jerusalem is not only not Israel’s capital but isn’t even to be considered formally part of Israel has persisted for 50 years now.
    Nominally, the idea is that Palestinians need to be allowed to believe they’ll secure sovereignty over at least a part of Jerusalem for them to pursue a final peace deal with the Israelis. And so most of the world has chosen to act as though Israel has no legal dominion over any part of Jerusalem.
    That is, in a word, insane. Jerusalem is now home to 860,000 people — 10 percent of Israel’s population, nearly double that of its second city, Tel Aviv. Every one of them, Jew and Arab, is a citizen of the state. (The city is 60 percent Jewish and 35 percent Muslim.) It is the locus of Israel’s government, where the parliament sits, where the prime minister lives and where most government agencies are located.
    The pretense has been allowed to continue for two reasons. The most rational reason is this: There has always been fear that any change in Jerusalem’s status might ignite a violent Palestinian response, retard peace efforts and inflame the “Arab street” throughout the Middle East. So why create a crisis when the status quo is at least stable?
    Then there are those who simply believe Israel is a bad actor deserving of international scorn and isolation and should not be allowed to get away with it — it, in this case, being Jerusalem.
    Trump rightly scorns the latter view and has an answer for the former: “This is a long overdue step to advance the peace process. And to work towards a lasting agreement.”
    The Palestinians need to accept reality. They continue to act as though they will get what they want through rejection and resistance and rage. “It is time,” Trump said, “for the many who desire peace to expel the extremists from their midsts. It is time for all civilized nations and people to respond to disagreement with reasoned debate, not violence.”
    The Palestinian refusal to accept Israel for what it is and what it has become has been the greatest bar to peace. And there are reasons to believe the so-called Arab street has bigger problems to concern itself with right now than Israel’s capital.
    And not just the street — the capitals as well. Trump’s act comes at a time when there is a tectonic shift in the Middle East. If I had told you 20 years ago that Israel would one day find itself in a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, you would’ve had me committed. But two weeks ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign on to a peace deal Israel actually likes. MBS isn’t happy about Trump’s move, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sands are shifting rapidly after decades of stagnation.
    In the end, as Trump said, “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital.” Indeed it is. Indeed it does. Bravo.

    The Courage of Larry David

    December 6, 2017

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    Salman Rushdie and Larry David (HBO)
    In the new season of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David – and I'm speaking here of the character, not the real-life guy – doesn't waste any time getting into one of his trademark unpleasant run-ins with a total stranger. In the opening scene of the first episode, the stranger is a butch dyke for whom he doesn't hold a door open because, he tells her, she looked to him like the kind of woman who wouldn't want him to do that. Later, he explains to her and her fiancée, a lipstick lesbian, that, their plans to the contrary, the latter should be the “bride” at the wedding, and the former the “groom.”

    And that's only the beginning. In later episodes, Curb mines for humor the fact that Larry's friend Marty Funkhauser has a daughter who's “transitioning” into a son. One running joke involves a girlfriend of Larry who attributes her son's brattiness to Asperger's. (These days, complains Larry, “any bad behavior can be written off as being on the spectrum!”)

    In short, Season 9 does a neat job of catching up with some of the social phenomena that have come to the fore since Season 8 wrapped up six years ago. Although the tyranny of political correctness has grown more oppressive since then, Larry David (the character) hasn't shaken off his habit of cluelessly breaching social taboos at every turn and Larry David (the real guy) hasn't let himself be cowed by the PC police.

    Proof positive of this is the season's truly sensational story arc. As noted, it's been six years since Season 8 of Curb. What has Larry (the character) been doing since then? It turns out he's been writing Fatwa!, a musical comedy about the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie. When his manager, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), sends the script around to potential backers, everybody wants in. This, of course, is supremely implausible: one overarching cultural reality of the post-9/11 era is that, with extremely few exceptions, book publishers, movie studios, museum curators, and opera and theater producers aren't eager to be involved in any project that touches even remotely on the negative side of Islam.

    I devoted a whole chapter to this topic in my 2009 book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom. In it, I listed several cases of cultural self-censorship driven by fear of Muslim retaliation: the Deutsche Opera cancelled a production of Mozart'sIdeomeneo because one prop represented the severed head of Muhammed; a Rotterdam performance center dropped an opera about Muhammed's child wife, Aisha; the Barbican Centre in London bowdlerized Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great to avoid offending Muslims. In the year since my book was published, the examples of cowardice in the face of Islamic intimidation have kept on coming.

    The exceptions to this rule stand out for their rarity. For several years, the Showtime series Homeland was admirably blunt about the Islamic threat – until its latest season, when the producers finally capitulated to the media critics who kept calling it Islamophobic. Mandy Patinkin, who stars in the series as CIA honcho Saul Berenson, approved heartily of the series' change of tune, blaming Hollywood for making “Muslim 'terrorists'...the bad guys” and promising that viewers of Homeland's new season would “see who the bad guys really are.” Patinkin, reported Fox News, said that it's the fault of “white male politicians and 'the military establishment'” that Islam has such a bad reputation in the U.S.

    Anyway, back to Curb. After clinching a Broadway deal for Fatwa, Larry talks about it on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. The next day, the Ayatollah issues a fatwa against himfor having “disparaged the beliefs of Muslims.” Larry is quick to cower: “I'll convert! I'll become a Muslim!” He proposes going back on the Kimmel show to apologize – but he's told that Kimmel “wants nothing to do with you.” All the backers have fled, too. (Now, that's realistic.) Terrified, Larry hides away in a hotel and starts drafting an apology in longhand: “Dear Ayatollah....”

    He also seeks out a female Muslim friend, who, it turns out, knows the Iranian consul. He's surprised. “Are you a....plotter?” he asks. “Are you one of the plotters? Do you plot?” She replies: “I've plotted before.” They go to bed. (She's turned on by the sin of sleeping with an infidel.) “Blaspheme to me, Larry!” she insists as they go at it. “Blaspheme like you blaspheme the nation of Islam!” In compliance, he screams out the names of members of the Trump administration. Later, Larry skypes with the Iranian consul, who discusses his favorite Seinfeld episodes. (Larry, of course, was the co-creator and executive producer of that series.) “I must tell you, Mr. David,” the consul says, “the Ayatollah himself is a bit of a close talker.”

    It's a laugh riot. I think so, anyway. You may not. But one thing that's unarguable is that it's pretty damn brave. The Larry of the show is a spineless coward – trembling in terror like a Bob Hope or Woody Allen character. But the Larry David who conceived this story arc and put it on HBO is one gutsy son of a bitch.

    The season goes on. There are other plot lines. But it all keeps coming back to the fatwa. Because Larry has a target on his back, his friends peel off, canceling poker and golf games. Finally Larry decides there's only one person who can help him: Salman Rushdie himself. And yes, in the next scene, there he is, Rushdie, in the flesh – who turns out to have some of the most hilarious lines in the whole season. Rushdie assures Larry that while a fatwa is no joke, it does have its advantages. For one thing, some women will be attracted to Larry precisely because of the danger. (“Fatwa sex,” he confides, is “the best sex there is!”) For another thing, a fatwa is a great excuse: “You don't have to go to anything you don't want to go to. So like, your cousin is giving a reading of his lousy poetry book. You say, sorry, can't make it, fatwa! Somebody calls you and says, 'Can you pick me up at the airport?' Sorry, can't make it, fatwa.”

    Again, I laughed out loud. It was the Ayatollah Khomeini, remember, who pronounced that “there is no humor in Islam.” It's precisely for this reason that jokes are the very best weapon in the war against it. No, I don't know the specifics of the real-life Larry David's politics when it comes to the Religion of Peace. (I don't know what he thinks, for example, about Trump's “Muslim ban.”) I know he's supposed to be a big lefty; his ex-wife Laurie David is an environmental activist, one of those rich celebrities who take private planes halfway around the world to scold people for using the wrong light bulbs. But while Larry has sometimes seemed to support her cause (his Curb ex-wife, Cheryl David, played by Cheryl Hines, shares Laurie's real-life politics, and the National Resources Defense Council, of which Laurie is a trustee, featured prominently in one Curb episode), he's also seemed to mock it (in one Curb episode he tries to skirt Cheryl's ban on “environmentally unfriendly” toilet paper).

    Certainly neither Larry nor his former TV partner Jerry Seinfeld was ever afraid to give offense. Various Seinfeld episodes found Kramer stomping out a fire on a Puerto Rican flag; Jerry making American Indian jokes in the presence of a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is an American Indian; Elaine wondering whether her new boyfriend is black or white; and George trying to find a black guy to pretend to be his friend so he can prove to his black boss that he's not racist. Jerry made headlines not long ago when he complained that the ultra-PC atmosphere on campuses made them virtually off-limits for comedians. For all I know, Larry is a fan of Bernie Sanders, but his impression of him on Saturday Night Live (“We're doomed!!!”) perfectly captured the senator's fatuous radicalism and the utter impracticality of his policy ideas.

    In the final analysis, however, I don't really care what Larry David's politics are. What matters to me is that he's funny and he's fearless. The Fatwa season of Curb Your Enthusiasm is exactly the sort of thing that's been all but entirely missing from American pop culture since 9/11. Three cheers, then, for Larry David. May his courage be infectious.

    Wednesday, December 06, 2017

    Jerusalem: Trump and Congress Challenge the Palestinians to Grow Up

    December 5, 2017

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    The president's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to be announced Wednesday is already sending the usual suspects into a tizzy.  The famous Arab Street, we are told, will be erupting.  The despicable fascist that runs Turkey has warned of imminent disaster.  And the president of France is doing what the French usually do vis-a-vis the Jews -- well, not quite that bad.

    But the real question is how the Palestinians themselves will react once the dust has settled. Will they continue decades of self-destructive violent protests that have led many of us to believe they never had an interest in a two-state solution in the first place, that it was all posturing for handouts? Or will they grow up and realize the time has come to negotiate to a conclusion and accept the responsibility of their own state and the adult compromises that would naturally entail?

    By finally moving U.S. policy at least two degrees off years of unimaginative stagnation, Trump has forced the Palestinians  to face some measure of reality.  But he is not alone. They are also being challenged forcefully by Congress.  From the Algemeiner:

    The Taylor Force Act passed the US House of Representatives by unanimous consent on Tuesday, confronting the Palestinian Authority with the prospect of a massive cut in US aid for as long as it maintains its policy of paying monthly salaries and other benefits to the families of slain or convicted Palestinian terrorists.

    Named in memory of Taylor Force – the former American army officer stabbed to death during a knifing spree by a Palestinian assailant in Tel Aviv in March 2016 – the legislation prevents the transfer of funds “that directly benefit the Palestinian Authority” for a six-year period beginning in 2018 unless the PA verifiably ends its so-called “martyr payments” policy. The Taylor Force Act also requires the PA to repeal any laws enabling or favoring the payments policy, as well investigate terrorist acts for the purpose of “bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

    Though the embassy move may be more superficially dramatic in a part of the world rarely governed by logic, the congressional action might just be more persuasive to a Palestinian leadership that has been living off global largesse since the Oslo Accords of 1993.  There's nothing like taking the money out of the hands of kleptocrats. (The U.S. is the PA's biggest donor to the tune of approximately $700 million per annum, directly or via the UN. The PA, in its turn, paid out $355 million to terrorist -- or, as they say, "martyr" -- families in 2017.)  At the very least, two branches of the American government seem to be working together for once.

    Of course, their attempt  may produce nothing.  Those Hamas and PA billionaires may have enough stashed away to continue their sadistic games, seducing their own impoverished people with dreams of martyrdom over nothing, but for once the dial has been moved.

    It will be interesting to see what happens.  The global chess game has changed.  Saudi Arabia, as we all know, is terrified of the Iranians and has found itself a covert ally of Israel against the mullahs.  The Palestinians are aware of that and not happy about it.  They are in a box.  Trump and Congress have chosen an auspicious time to make a move.  Various players will undoubtedly yell and scream in public and say something totally different in private.  That is the way of the Middle East (and America, unfortunately, these days).

    The irony is that anyone who actually cares about the Palestinians as people should welcome what America is doing now.  It is perhaps the last best chance for the Palestinians to grow up, break free of their endless pattern of self destruction, and give up looking for excuses for another pointless intifada.  Unfortunately, too many of those players enjoy the status quo, profit from it, or resist change in general, like the self-righteous European leadership.

    Nevertheless, progress.  And Trump has honored another campaign pledge.  He may be going for a record.

    Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media.  His latest book is I Know Best:  How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If  It Hasn't Already.