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Editor, The Konformist
Clooney's New Movie: `Fahrenheit 411'
Saturday, November 19, 2005
By Roger Friedman
Basically, in "Syriana," writer/director Stephen Gaghan (the Oscar-
winning adapter of "Traffic"), former CIA agent Bob Baer, and
producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh have made a thriller
for people who read The Financial Times. It's also a companion piece
in many ways to a great movie Clooney starred in several years
ago, "Three Kings." Shot in Morocco and Dubai, "Syriana" may be an
eye opener to westerners who don't give much thought to world events.
Syriana was screened Friday night at Cinema 2, a sort of bunker
movie theater in a basement, while upstairs in Cinema 1
Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" was doing sold out business.
Upstairs: the paying public. Downstairs: as much media elite as
could fit in a room, with Robin and Marsha Williams, Patricia
Clarkson, Mike Myers, Amy Irving, Nora Ephron, Jason Lewis,
Catherine Crier and Lisa Bloom of Court TV, plus lots of
editor/writer types and quite a few Academy voters.
ABC News chief David Westin moderated a panel after the screening
with Clooney, Gaghan, and Baer fielding questions.
It was the first totally finished print, Gaghan told us, completed
last Tuesday at 2:30pm. The last thing he did was pick the font for
the closing credits. (It's from a restaurant in Venice called Axe
and pronounced ah-shay.) He started working on the film in 2001, and
did a massive amount of travel and research with the help of former
CIA agent Baer, upon whose book, "See No Evil: The True Story of a
Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," the movie is largely
In case you're interested in this: the CIA has not seen the movie
nor approved the script because Baer didn't write it. They did vet
his book, in which you will find many redacted pages with big, black
markings covering sensitive material.
Syriana is a thriller but it can be a bit confusing. The basic story
is that an oil company has set up shop in the Gulf, just as a merger
is going through. The local royal Arab family is in the middle of a
succession as the Emir (king) is about to step aside for one of his
two sons: an idiot, and a sensitive, forward thinker. (Guess who
gets the job.) Clooney plays a CIA agent who's a little over the
hill and washed up. But he's onto the fact that the government and
the oil companies are trying to stay in control through the
manipulation of who becomes king.
There are murders and international intrigue, as well as two
subplots. One involves Matt Damon as an American derivatives trader
living in Geneva with his beautiful wife (Amanda Peet) and their two
very cute little boys. The other is about two young Arab men looking
for work and being courted by fringe terrorist groups. Damon is so
good that he is likely to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for
his work. Of Clooney's whole "Ocean's 11" posse, Damon is easily the
"He's it, the real thing," Clooney said when we talked about Damon.
Damon is a standout, but there are plenty of "smaller" roles played
by terrific actors including Tom McCarthy, Chris Cooper, Christopher
Plummer, Mazhar Munir, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson (who has a
funny speech explaining the historical importance of corruption) and
the memorable Alexander Siddig (as the smart prince). Indeed, the
actors are so uniformly good from the start that they all seem very
real, as does the situation. This is `Fahrenheit 411', meaning full
of urgent information that rings true in every scene. Liberals and
conservatives all have to put gas in their cars. One look at the
prices, and you know that "Syriana" is not far off base.
Clooney was there with an unidentified blonde who sat in the back
during the Q&A with a black hat pulled down to hide her face. He
gained 30 pounds to play a fictionalized Bob Baer. On screen he
looks and feels bloated, sporting a gray beard and effecting almost
a waddle. His character is no joke, though. He's Jack Lemmon
from "The China Syndrome," a whistle blower who wakes up too late to
realize his whole life has been a sham. It's Clooney's best and most
coherent work on the big screen, and should get him a Best Actor
nomination and lots of rave reviews.
Syriana is not always easy to follow. Sometimes I felt like I needed
a study guide. But Gaghan has made such an engrossing film that you
can actually suspend disbelief and just go with it. Once you're in,
you're in, too. I don't know if it will make money or be a Best
Picture candidate, but Syriana is the most intelligent movie of 2005
so far, and incredibly satisfying.
One note though: I would change that poster and ad showing a blind-
folded, bearded man. It's a huge turn-off. It looks like a torture
documentary or a prisoner of war saga. Warner Bros. would do well to
sell Syriana as a thriller soap opera with intrigue, a la "Three
Days of the Condor," and make sure to put Damon and Peet's pictures
in there with Clooney's.
Clooney, you might like to know, also told me after the screening
that the recent blow up he had in London was considerably different
than the way it was portrayed in the British press and consequently,
in our tabloids. "It was just a guy who was a jerk," he said of the
photographer who cornered him in an alley. "I thought about hitting
him, but I didn't."
Mercy for Tookie Williams
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, AlterNet
Posted on November 21, 2005
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has made it clear that
he'll push hard for an execution date for Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
There's nothing legally to stop him. On October 11, the U.S. Supreme
Court refused to reopen Williams' case. That pretty much slammed the
legal door shut on one of America's most famous Death Row inmates.
His execution is set for December 13.
Williams, convicted of four murders, has languished on Death Row for
nearly a quarter of century. He contends that he got a bad shake. A
mostly white jury convicted him. He had a subpar legal defense; the
case against him was based largely on testimony from jailhouse
informants. This is why Williams has adamantly refused to apologize
or express remorse for the slayings. He says he didn't do it.
Williams also has a new legal team, and it's upped the ante. His
lawyers claim that police investigators either botched or
deliberately tampered with ballistics and crime-scene evidence.
That's a stretch, and that almost certainly won't go very far.
So it comes down to this: Is Williams worth more to society alive
than dead? That's the issue, and the sole issue, that Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger must grapple with in deciding whether to grant
On the surface, the odds that the governor will let Williams live
aren't good. California is one of 14 states where governors have
sole authority to commute a condemned killer's sentence. But that
would buck precedent.
In the nearly four decades since Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a
brain-damaged Death Row inmate, no California governor has waived a
death sentence. And Reagan took action only because the latest
scientific test to determine brain damage was not available at the
time of the condemned killer's trial. Schwarzenegger has flatly
refused to grant clemency to two other condemned murderers. Both
times, he publicly declared that model behavior behind bars doesn't
absolve prisoners of culpability for their crimes.
But Tookie is not just another model prisoner. The co-founder of the
Crips street gang's story reads like a gory tale of gang violence,
mayhem and destruction. Yet it also reads like a saintly tale of
spiritual renewal, public service and human achievement. His prize-
winning children's books, Nobel Peace Prize nominations and anti-
violence messages have been the stuff of public acclaim. His
radical, life-affirming turnabout has made him a near-universal
symbol of hope that even the most hardened, bitter, and incorrigible
street thug can find salvation.
A very much alive Williams can continue to send the message of hope
and redemption to thousands of other violence-prone young men who
wreak havoc on poor black communities.
True, governors are loath to grant clemency. They feel that the
courts have spoken, and that their interference would be a
subversion of the people's will and a perversion of justice. But
that's a rigid, legalistic view that doesn't take into consideration
human circumstances and legal abuses. Governors have intervened to
commute sentences when it does serve the public good. Former
Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of virtually
all condemned killers before departing office in 2003.
Ryan was not a rare and isolated case of a governor tempering
justice with mercy. Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening
declared a moratorium on executions before he left office. There was
no loud howl for his political head when he took the courageous
step. The reason was simple. Glendening crunched the numbers and
found that nine of the 13 men on Death Row were black, and in nearly
every case their victims were white. That was strong hint that the
death penalty was riddled with racial bias, and needed a hard look.
Death-penalty advocates claim that unlike Maryland or Illinois,
California's death penalty is not top-heavy with racial bias and
legal misconduct, and that the public solidly opposes any tampering
with the process. That's not true. In a state where blacks are only
12 percent of the population, they make up more than one third of
those on Death Row. In nearly all cases their victims were white. A
Field poll in June 2000 found that nearly three out of four persons
said that they would support a moratorium on executions. Nearly a
dozen California cities have called for a death penalty moratorium.
Schwarzenegger, unlike former Gov. Gray Davis, has also shown some
flexibility when it comes to prisoner issues. He has approved
paroles for convicted murderers who had shown by word and deed that
hard work and a clean record count. Playing hardball now with
prisoners who have turned their lives around would be a bad public
With the handful of convicted killers who have shown by their humane
actions that they have redeemed themselves, it makes no sense for a
governor to hold them hostage to past political fears. Williams is
certainly not Willie Horton, the convicted killer who, after being
released on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, escaped
and slashed a Maryland man and raped his fiancee. Schwarzenegger
almost surely knows that. Further, clemency is not the same as
freedom. Williams will likely spend the rest of his days in prison.
That effectively eliminates the remote possibility that he could
ever pose a threat to anyone on the streets.
The Williams case is unique. If Schwarzenegger grants him clemency,
it won't set a frightening precedent that other condemned killers
will cavalierly be let off the hook. It will simply be recognition
that a prisoner who has shown that he can be a model and productive
citizen will not be denied a second chance to do even more good for
Schwarzenegger should give Williams that second chance.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the
author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).
From Reporter to Courtier
The Long, Long Fall of Bob Woodward
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
November 17, 2005
It's been a devastating fall for what are conventionally regarded as
the nation's two premier newspapers, the New York Times and the
Washington Post. The Times's travails and the downfall of its
erstwhile star reporter, Judy Miller, have been newsprint's prime
soap opera since late spring and now, just when we were taking a
breather before the Libby trial, the Washington Post is writhing
with embarrassment over the multiple conflicts of interest of its
most famous staffer, Bob Woodward, best known to the world as
Nixon's nemesis in the Watergate scandal.
On Monday of this week Woodward quietly made his way to the law
office of Howard Shapiro, of the firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering,
Hale and Doar, and gave a two-hour deposition to Plamegate
prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, a man he had denounced on tv the
night before Scooter Libby's indictment as "a junkyard dog of a
Woodward's deposition had been occasioned by a call to Fitzgerald
from a White House official on November 3, a week after Libby had
been indicted. The official told Fitzgerald that the prosecutor had
been mistaken in claiming in his press conference that Libby had
been the first to disclose the fact that Joseph Wilson's wife [ie
Valerie Plame] was in the CIA. The official informed Fitzgerald that
he himself had divulged Plame's job to Woodward in a mid-June
interview, about a week before Libby told Miller the same thing.
Seeing his laborious constructed chronology collapse in ruins,
weakening his perjury and obstruction case against Libby, Fitzgerald
called Woodward that same day, November 3. Woodward, the Washington
Post's assistant managing editor, no doubt found the call an
unwelcome one, he had omitted to tell any of his colleegues at the
Post that he'd been the first journalist to be on the receiving end
of a leak from the White House about Plame. He'd kept his mouth shut
while two of his colleagues, Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler had
been hauled before Fitzgerald. He only told Post editor Len Downie a
few days before Libby was indicted.
Shortly after the call from Fitzgerald. Woodward told Downie that he
would have to testify. On Wednesday the Post carried a somewhat
acrid news story along with Woodward's account of his testimony.
Later in the day Howard Kurtz posted a commentary on the Post's
website. It's clear from the news story and Kurtz's piece that his
colleagues find Woodward's secretive conduct unbecoming (Downie
tamely said it was a "mistake") and somewhat embarassing, given all
the huff and puff about Judy "Miss Run Amok" Miller's high-handed
ways with her editors.
And just as Miller and her editors differed strongly on whether the
reporter had told them what she was up to, so too did Woodward's
account elicit a strenuous challenge from the Post's long-time
national security correspondent, Walter Pincus.
In Woodward's account of his testimony (which he took care to have
vetted and later publicly approved by the Post's former editor Ben
Bradlee) he wrote that he told Fitzgerald that he had shared this
information -- Plame's employment with the CIA -- with Pincus. But
Pincus is adamant that Woodward did no such thing. When the Post's
reporters preparing Wednesday's story quizzed him about Woodward's
version Pincus answered, "Are you kidding? I certainly would have
Pincus told Joe Stroup of Editor & Publisher later on Tuesday that
he had long suspected that Woodward was somehow entangled in the
Plame affair. After Fitzgerald was appointed special prosecutor in
the fall of 2003 Woodward had gone to Pincus and asked his
colleague, in Pincus's words, "to keep him out of the reporting, and
I agreed to do that."
Like many others, the Washington Post's staff had vivid memories of
Woodward's unending belittling of the whole Plame affair as
something of little consequence,"laughable", "quite minimal".
Woodward said it on the Larry King show the night before the
indictments, almost as if he was trying to send Fitzgerald a message.
For months Woodward has been working on a book about Bush's second
term. The White House, ecstatic at Woodward's highly flattering
treatment of Bush in Plan of Attack and Bush at War (Washington's
retort to the Harry Potter series), has been giving Woodward
extraordinary access, confident that he will put a kindly
construction on their disastrous handling of the nation's affairs.
Judy Miller was savaged for accepting what she claimed to be special
credentials from the Pentagon in return for confidentiality. So what
are we to say about Woodward, who is given special access and then
repays the favor by belittling the Plame scandal, while
simultaneously concealing his own personal knowledge of the White
House's schedule on the outing of Valerie Plame?
Woodward did not disclose his potential conflict of interest while
he was pontificating on the airwaves about the Plame affair but he
also apparently succeeded in stifling an investigation into his own
role by his colleague Pincus. He may have also placed Pincus in
legal jeopardy with his testimony to Fitzgerald that he had informed
Pincus in June of 2003 about Plame. Pincus had testified under oath
to Fitzgerald in September of 2004 that his first knowledge of
Plame's employer had come in a conversation with a White House
source at a later date.
So who was Woodward's source and what was his motive in calling
Prosecutor Fitzgerald the week after Libby's indictment to disclose
that he had talked to Woodward before Libby began his own speed-dial
leaking? Woodward says it wasn't White House chief of staff Andrew
Card. Rove's lawyer says it wasn't his client. Woodward also says he
interviewed his source with 18 pages of questions, whose topics
included yellowcake from Niger and the infamous October 2003
National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged WMD.
After this initial interview with a White House official in mid-June
2003, Woodward learned enough that when he saw two other White House
staffers shortly thereafter he had the phrase "Joe Wilson's wife"
among his questions. So the first official did the leaking. He could
well have been vice president Cheney, since Woodward's interview
took place exactly at the time that Cheney's office was buzzing with
alarm after a call from Pincus telling them he was working on a
story about Joe Wilson.
That afternoon Cheney informed Libby that Wilson's wife worked at
the CIA. Libby spent the next week gathering a dossier on Plame. On
June 23 Libby and Woodward talked on the phone. Woodward had his 18
pages of questions (meant for Cheney, according to Todd Purdum at
the New York Times), and began to work his way through them. He says
he can't recall Libby bringing up Plame's name.
It's our guess that Libby, eager to broach Plame's role to the
Post's renowned investigative reporter, finally wearied on the
endless questions, cut Woodward off and hastened off to lunch with
Miller. Woodward claims he kept no notes, and so did Miller until
her famous notebook with "Flame" in it turned up at the New York
Times. All in all it was a bad leak day for Scooter, since Woodward
wasn't working as a reporter but as historian-courtier, and Miller
had been taken off the story by her editors.
If Woodward's first source was Cheney, why would the latter have
called Fitzgerald on November 3? The admission by Cheney that he had
spoken to Woodward could derail Libby's prosecution and also
undercut possible charges of a breach of the Espionage act, by
playing into the line Woodward took on the Larry King Show and
elsewhere, that this was no dreadful affront to national security
but indeed "gossip" and "chatter".
So much for the fortune's wheel. From Nixon's nemesis to Cheney's