Sunday, April 22, 2018

Movie Review: '2010: The Year We Make Contact'

Pros: 2010's cast, including Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren. Good script. Great visuals.

Cons: Real life rendered its Cold War political undertones obsolete.

In the years after the 1968 release of Stanley Kubrick's landmark science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he and collaborator Arthur C. Clarke were asked many questions about how it was conceived, how the realistic special effects had been done, why did Kubrick decide to use classical music pieces in the soundtrack, and if HAL was a punny jab at IBM's corporate name.

Another question that followed both the director and the writer for years was Will you ever do a follow-up to 2001?

Kubrick, of course, wasn't interested in doing a sequel and generally stayed away from science fiction; the only other set-in-the-future projects he ever envisioned after 2001 were A Clockwork Orange and penning the basic story idea for A.I., and even that he turned over to his friend Steven Spielberg a few years before his death in 1999.

Clarke, on the other hand, at first demurred from doing a literary sequel, but in 1982 his novel 2010: Odyssey Two was published and sold well enough that two other sequels, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Of course, MGM - the studio which had released 2001 14 years earlier - was interested in a screen adaptation and even approached Kubrick to see if he wanted to direct 2010.  He declined, but he was gracious to writer-director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One), telling him he didn't mind if Hyams helmed the follow-up to one of his best-known works.

The Film:

As is often the case when a novel is adapted into a screenplay, Hyams slims 2010's story to its bare essentials by jettisoning huge sections of Clarke's book, including a subplot involving a disastrous landing on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, by a Chinese spacecraft.

Knowing full well that 2010 had to be both a sequel to Kubrick's film and yet stand on its own as a 1980s-era audience draw, Hyams starts the film with the same Thus Spake Zarathustra (Theme from 2001) title music and a recap of the story of USS Discovery's encounter with the huge monolith in orbit over Jupiter. This is done quickly and as economically as possible so we can move on to the "present" of 2010.

Hyams then takes us to the Very Large Array of radio-telescopes out in the New Mexico desert.  There, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) has a semi-clandestine meeting with Soviet scientist Dimitri Moisevitch (Dana Elcar).

Moisevitch informs Floyd, the former chairman of the National Council of Astronautics and the man in charge of the ill-fated Discovery mission to Jupiter, that the now-derelict spacecraft is danger of being pulled out of its orbit (now between the gas giant and its volcanic moon Io).

The Americans, Moisevitch tells Floyd, are preparing Discovery II and its crew for a salvage mission which will shed light into why HAL-9000 had its famous failure and other mysteries, but the Soviets have a ship, the Alexei Leonov, ready to go.

But because Discovery is American territory at a time when the Cold War is threatening to become hot, Moisevitch proposes a Solomonic solution - a joint Soviet-American flight to Jupiter...if the two governments can agree.

Floyd, who is now a university chancellor and happily re-married with a much younger scientist (Madolyn Smith), is somewhat skeptical at first, but he somehow gets approval from a very conservative White House to go ahead with this joint mission.

Over the next few months, Floyd tries to assure his wife and young son that this is going to be his last spaceflight and spends much of his time either getting in shape for the mission or putting together the American half of the Leonov's crew.  He recruits the brilliant engineer Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) who helped design Discovery, and computer systems creator Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), the man who programmed the 9000-series of supercomputers - in essence, HAL's human "father."

Along with Leonov's Soviet contingent (played by Helen Mirren, Elya Bashkin, Oleg Rudnik, Victor Steinbach, Saveli Kramarov, Vladimir Skomarovsky and Natasha Shneider), the three Americans go forth to Jupiter, "sleeping" in hibernation and blissfully unaware that a crisis in Central America is turning into a war between their two nations.

What happens once the Leonov reaches Jupiter I'll cheerfully leave to the reader to discover, but two of the actors from Kubrick's film (Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain) return to reprise their roles, and Arthur C. Clarke makes not one but two cameos. (He's easy to spot in the first one, but the second one is subtle and you have to look very closely for it.)

Critiquing 2010:

Considering that Hyams made the film at a time when science fiction movies tried to imitate Star Wars, Alien and Star Trek by focusing on space battles, unfriendly space lifeforms, or "space opera" conventions, 2010 is a rarity of the genre.

Instead of going for megabucks by giving teenage guys and college-age geeks the usual laser guns and faster-than-light starships in dogfights, Hyams does a good job at compromising between Kubrick's high-concept vision of the future based on what tech could be like in the 21st Century and a 1980s film's quicker pacing.

Clearly, jettisonning the Chinese spacecraft's doomed Europa landing helps Hyams cut down on pacing and lets the viewer focus on the somewhat complex issues that remain - including the thorny problem of what might happen if the Leonov crew makes it to Discovery and reawakens HAL-9000.

The cast, which includes many Soviet expatriates (Bashkin being perhaps the best known, since his career includes memorable appearances in Air Force One, Thirteen Days and two of the Spider-Man features), is great. Mirren is excellent as Mission Commander Tanya Kirbuk, and Scheider does a good job at stepping into a role created by another actor 16 years before.

Also still stunning - particularly in a digitally cleared up version - are the special effects.  Though not created by Industrial Light and Magic, the most famous effects company in Hollywood, the stunning visuals were done by three different companies which did have several Star Wars artists in their payroll.   The most stunning sequences, which are set near Jupiter, still stand up to even the closest scrutiny almost 30 years after the film's release.

Unfortunately, while the sci-fi elements still work and the acting, pacing and effects are top-notch, 2010 has become badly dated because history failed to unfold as novelist Clarke and writer-director Hyams envisioned.

Between 1984 and the real 21st Century, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War officially ended, rendering moot the political undertones of the film.  (The novel pretty much assumed the Cold War had ended, but as in 2001, the two superpowers still had separate and competing space programs)  Yes, it's true that the Russian Republic under Vladimir Putin and his "successor" is once again flexing its muscle and challenging American/Western foreign policy in order to recover some sort of superpower status, but it's highly unlikely that we are in for a Cold War II that resembles the situation in 2010.

To his credit, Hyams strikes a careful balance between wanting to play respectful homages to the first film and making his own memorable movie.  He strives - not always successfully - to capture the look of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but doesn't try to do a carbon copy.  This includes his choice to only use the Theme from 2001 in the soundtrack; instead of using different classical music compositions as Kubrick had done in '68, Hyams hired David Shire (Zodiac) to write an original score for 2010.

Though it did not become a classic as its more famous predecessor, 2010 is still an enjoyable - if rather dated - vision of what is now "our time" as imagined in 1984.  It doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of Kubrick's 2001, but it boldly attempts to go beyond the Star Wars/Star Trek conventions of space-related movies and, at the same time, gives audiences something to wonder about after the credits roll and the film fades to black.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: 'The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars' End / Han Solo's Revenge / Han Solo and the Lost Legacy'

(C) 1997 Del Rey Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Pros: The novels capture the essence of Han and Chewbacca in their pre-Rebellion days

Cons: No Darth Vader, no Empire, no Princess Leia or Luke

One of the first things I noticed the first time I listened to National Public Radio's Star Wars: The Radio Drama was how Brian Daley had fleshed out the role of Han Solo; starting with the episode titled The Millennium Falcon Deal, the Corellian with a starship for hire not only was faithful to the character played on-screen by Harrison Ford, but he was more intense and conflicted, especially in his dealings with the galactic underworld. Indeed, Han seemed to be Daley's favorite character to write for, since the writer often gave him some of the best lines in the 13-part adaptation of Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV: A New Hope).

That Han and his Wookiee co-pilot/first mate got such a cornucopia of good material in the three Daley-scripted Radio Dramas shouldn't be surprising, for the late science fiction author had gotten the NPR-Lucasfilm job because he had written a trilogy of pre-A New Hope novels that chronicled several of Han's pre-Rebellion adventures in a part of the galaxy known as the Corporate Sector Authority.

The first entry in the trilogy, Han Solo at Stars' End: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker was the first book set before Han and Chewie's fateful encounter with Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Chalmun's Cantina in Mos Eisley, and because Daley had to write an officially-sanctioned story that wouldn't be contradicted by any of the planned sequels to Star Wars, hardly deals with any of the established planets or institutions established in the first film. The Empire is mentioned in passing and there is a reference to an "erg timer on Tatooine," but other than that Daley's focus is on Han, Chewie, and the Millennium Falcon and their run-ins with the Imperial-sanctioned Corporate Sector Authority, which is, I suppose, a huge capitalistic entity (think of the Trade Federation from the filmed prequel trilogy) that runs part of the galaxy as a money-making source of raw materials. It's the Empire-lite, with ruthless administrators, wealthy industrialists, and even its own dreaded Security Police, whose troops are nicknamed "Espos."

Just as in the first episodes where Han and Chewie appear in Star Wars: The Radio Drama, Daley portrays the dynamic duo as two tumblin' tumbleweeds of the galaxy, friends with a starship for hire and always looking for a big charter that will give them enough credits to travel the galaxy with no ties to any world, political entity, or even persons. They crave the freedom of space travel but are kept from it by their lack of cash, so Han and Chewie take on dangerous assignments that place them on the Corporate Sector's "black list."

One such job -- running guns to rebellious slave laborers on Duroon -- nearly ends disastrously when the Falcon is damaged while Han performs a risky maneuver to evade a Sector Authority vessel. Being the good pilot that he is, Solo lands the ship safely and delivers the guns to their intended recipients, but the Falcon is blind without her main sensor dish, so Han and Chewie take the ship to an "all-but-deserted, played out mining world where the Authority didn't even bother to maintain offices." There they seek a man named Doc and his band of outlaw techs, the best starship repair crew in the galaxy...and among the very few people Han trusts to touch the Millennium Falcon.

But when he and Chewie arrive at the outlaw tech's hidden base, he is frostily received by Jessa, Doc's beautiful and spirited daughter, and a woman who apparently has a history with the Corellian space pirate. After a tense reunion in which Jessa explains that her father has been abducted by the Authority and taken to a hidden prison code-named Stars' End, Han agrees to her terms: in exchange for a new sensor dish for the Falcon, Han and Chewie must go to the planet Orron III, a small agricultural world with one precious asset -- an Authority Data Center. There, the Falcon will make a simple pickup, and hopefully the location of Stars' End and its prisoners will be at last revealed.

Daley gives the reader a revealing glimpse of Han (and Chewbacca's) Solo's life before he reluctantly joined the Rebellion; he's brave and foolhardy here, with his superficial cynicism and selfishness somewhat tempered by his hidden noble side. And although Han Solo at Stars' End doesn't go into the now-accepted backstory of Han's Imperial service (in other authors' later works and references, we learn that Han attended the Academy on Carida and was briefly an officer in the Imperial Navy until he was courtmartialed for saving Chewbacca's life from an Imperial impressment gang), Daley's novel does reveal that Han did fly starfighters in combat once, and there is an exciting sequence in Chapter Four that puts Solo in the cockpit of an ancient Z-95 Headhunter and into an all-out dogfight with Authority starfighters.

Daley's style flows naturally and sparsely; there is not one wasted word in the late writer's prose. The scenes that focus on Han and Chewbacca evoke memories of the rapport between the two characters in Star Wars, and one can almost see and hear a young Harrison Ford (or hear Perry King) while reading this fun and fast-paced novel. It's not, of course, up to the same lofty standards of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy books of the 1990s; the absence of the more familiar Empire -- with its wedge-shaped Star Destroyers, white-armored stormtroopers, and screeching TIE fighters -- is keenly felt, but it is still good as a lazy-Sunday-afternoon read, particularly for fans of George Lucas' Star Wars Trilogy.

Han Solo's Revenge

With the success of Han Solo at Stars' End science fiction novelist Brian Daley (The Star Wars Radio Drama) continued the pre-Star Wars adventures of Han, Chewbacca the Wookiee, and the droid team of Bollux and Blue Max as they continued to try to earn credits as "independent operators" and smugglers while attempting to stay clear of the Imperial-affiliated Corporate Sector Authority in Han Solo's Revenge, the middle volume of a three-book cycle.

Set a few months after the events of Stars' End, the novel starts on a quasicomical note on the planet Kamar. There, as is often the case with the Millennium Falcon and her crew, Han, Chewie, Bollux, and Blue Max are on the planet surface making hasty repairs to the battered starship Luke Skywalker will someday refer to as a "piece of junk." In the meantime, Han has been keeping the inhabitants of the region known as the Badlands happy by running a holofeature that seems to captivate the primitive creatures. Thinking that the audience is getting bored with a travelogue that features lots of water, Han gets a business acquaintance of his to acquire a more exciting feature, but all Sonniod can acquire is a holo called Love is Waiting.

Unfortunately, the Badlanders react very badly to the new feature -- apparently, they were fascinated by the travelogue's footage of water, and to the somewhat water-deprived watchers the holofeature's nightly showing had become a religious experience, complete with sacrificial offerings that our Corellian space pirate and scoundrel thinks are what the natives are paying as "admission." So when Solo cluelessly switches to a cheesy romantic comedy/musical, he is surprised by the angry reaction, and he, Chewie, and Sonniod witness, and they all must "haul jets" and lift off from Kamar.

Soon, Han and Chewie find their cash reserves are running low, so they take on what they think will be a nice, easy cargo run for 10,000 credits. But when they land on the inhospitably cold planet Lur, they're stunned that their charter isn't ordinary freight or even spice; instead, a gang of ruthless slavers intends to carry off indigenous sentients offworld to provide cheap slave labor to one of the galaxy's many business entities.

A file of small figures trooped aboard, heads hung in fatigue and despair. These were obviously inhabitants of Lur. The tallest of them was scarcely waist-high to Han. They were erect bipeds, covered with fine white fur, their feet protected by thick pads of calluslike tissue. Their eyes were large, and ran toward green and blue; they stared around the Falcon's interior in dull amazement.

Each neck was encircled by a collar of metal, the collars joined together by a thin black cable. It was a slaver's line.

Chewbacca bellowed an enraged roar and ignored the answering scream from the nashtah. Han glared at Zlarb, who was directing the loading of slaves. One of his men held a director unit, its circuitry linked to the collars. The director, a banned device, had an unfinished, homemade look to it. Any defiance from the captives would earn them excruciating pain.

Han fixed Zlarb with his eye. "Not on my ship," he stated, emphasizing each word.

But Zlarb only laughed. "You're not in much of a position to object, are you, Solo?"

"Not in my ship," Han repeated stubbornly. "Not slaves. Never."

Zlarb aligned Han's own blaster at him, sighting down the barrel. "You just think again, pilot. If you give me any trouble, you'll end up locked in a necklace. Now, you and the Wookiee go forward and get ready to lift." 

Fortunately, the child-like computer Blue Max and the modified labor droid Bollux save the day and the Falcon is soon back in Han and Chewie's control. But with Zlarb dead and the slavers defeated, Han is out 10,000 credits...and he wants them, even if he has to find out who hired the slaver gang in the first place.

So begins another dangerous jaunt across the Corporate Sector's space lanes, and this time Han and Chewie must join forces not only with the skip-runner Spray, but also with the beautiful Fiolla, who at first seems to be a member of the underworld but is in reality a high-ranking Corporate Sector Authority entity that has already black-listed the Millennium Falcon for breaking most of its regulations.

As in the other Han Solo novels and the three Star Wars Radio Dramas, Daley's affinity for the Corellian smuggler and his Wookiee companion is evident. When I read this book back in the early 1980s, I could hear the unmistakable voice of Harrison Ford in every one of Han's lines; he is not quite the selfless Hero of the Rebellion we saw Princess Leia fall in love with, but Daley makes sure that we see that Solo's brashness and love of credits masks a deep sense of honor and true courage.

Daley, who died of cancer in 1996 just as his radio adaptation of Return of the Jedi was nearing completion, was an acclaimed science fiction writer whose other works include the novelization of the movie Tron and A Tapestry of Magics. His style is free of clutter and his prose flows smoothly, laced with comedic misadventures and Star Wars style cliffhanger sequences. Again, although the Corporate Sector Authority and the galactic underworld Han must contend with here aren't as impressive as the larger Galactic Empire and the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt, Han Solo's Revenge is still interesting because it delves into the pre-Episode IV adventures of one of the Classic Trilogy's most popular characters.

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy is the third and final book in a series of "prequel" novels set shortly before Han and Chewbacca's destiny-changing encounter with Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley cantina. At this point in their career, things aren't going so well for the pair of self-styled "independent operators;" the credits they earned in the previous two adventures have all been spent, and countless schemes -- clotheslegging in the Cron Drift, a failed military script exchange in the Lesser Plooriod Cluster, picking up R'alla mineral water for the smuggling run to Rampa -- have misfired, forcing Han to accept any job he can get to keep the Millennium Falcon spaceworthy and food in his and Chewie's stomachs. If it means working as a swoop mechanic on some dustball, so be it.

Nevertheless, when a cargo-carrying charter comes their way, Han and Chewie accept it with no questions asked. As usual, however, what seems to be a simple mission to take some "college supplies" to the planet Brigia results to be more complicated and the smugglers run afoul of the Brigian authorities. A run-in with Brigia's New Regime results in a showdown with Keek, a pompous bureaucrat who wants to impound Han's cargo; Han uses his persuasive powers -- a blaster pointed at Keek's nose -- and makes sure that his clients get the "college supplies" and begin to destabilize the New Regime.

Still needing credits, Han and Chewie make their way to the academic world of Rudrig, where a chance encounter with Badure, Han's old Imperial Academy mentor and "friend of long standing," leads to a dangerous quest worthy of another George Lucas character, Indiana Jones. For what Badure and several others, including the mysterious Hasti, want Han and Chewbacca to do is to help them look for the legendary lost treasure ship, the Queen of Ranroon, supposedly crammed full of tribute owed to Xim the Despot.

And as always seems to happen to Han Solo and his Wookiee companion, things get complicated....for within hours of landing on the planet where Xim's hoard is rumored to be hidden, the Falcon is stolen, his small crew and band of passengers is stranded, and assasins -- including his old foe Gallandro -- and hundreds of war droids stand between Han Solo and the lost legacy of Xim the Despot.

As in all his Star Wars projects, Daley infuses his crisp and very readable prose with a genuine sense of fun and adventure that captures the essence of Han Solo's character as Lucas first introduced him in A New Hope. Han's dialogue is so true to the spirit of the role as played by Harrison Ford (and, in the Radio Dramas, Perry King) that one can hear the distinctive voice and sardonic tones fans are familiar with. The interplay between Han and Chewie is wonderfully depicted; there is a true bond of friendship between the two, and their scenes together "foreshadow" their involvement in the Rebellion, with Han's outward shell of cynicism balanced by Chewbacca's attempts to act as Solo's conscience.

While Han Solo and the Lost Legacy may never be considered high art, it's still among the better novels set in the Star Wars galaxy and provides readers with a much-needed dose of escapism and sheer entertainment. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Movie Review: 'The Post'

The Post (2017)

Written by: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Poulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Robert McNamara: If you publish, you'll get the very worst of him, the Colsons and the Ehrlichmans and he'll crush you.

Kay Graham: I know, he's just awful, but I...

Robert McNamara: [Interrupting and getting extremely angry] He's a... Nixon's a son of a bitch! He hates you, he hates Ben, he's wanted to ruin the paper for years and you will not get a second chance, Kay. The Richard Nixon I know will muster the full power of the presidency and if there's a way to destroy your paper, by God, he'll find it.

Director Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a timely political how-they-done-it about how The Washington Post (following the lead of its much larger and more prominent rival, The New York Times) helped uncover one of the U.S. government’s deepest and darkest secrets and published the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971.

I use the word “timely” here because Spielberg chose to make this film in early 2017 (amid post-production for his current science fiction fable, Ready Player One), at a time when the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, was complaining about “unfair” media coverage about him, his Administration, and his policies and calling newspapers like The Washington Post “enemies of the people.”
Spielberg was a young man in his 20s in 1971 and had already begun to make his mark on the filmmaking world as a director of television episodes and the TV movie Duel. He remembers the tumultuous years of the Vietnam era and the "Imperial Presidency" of Richard Milhouse Nixon, whose own bitter conflicts with the free press echo in the current era of Trump and the "Make America Great Again" crowd.
It's not surprising, then, that Spielberg jumped at the chance to make The Post his 31st feature film even though he was already hip-deep in the process of completing Ready Player One as soon as he read first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah's original script. (Josh Singer was called in to fine-tune the screenplay, but Hannah earned top billing in the credits.)
The Post begins somewhere in South Vietnam in 1966. There, a young State Department analyst (and former Marine) named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is on a fact-finding tour for Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Ellsberg's assignment: to determine if the current U.S. military commitment to defend South Vietnam and press North Vietnam's Communist leadership to go to the negotiation table and end the war. 
Ellsberg, outfitted with combat gear and armed with a rifle, joins a company of Marines during a night patrol in the jungle near a U.S. outpost. The patrol is ambushed and suffers heavy casualties, and Ellsberg experiences the horrors of battle up close and personal. Clearly, he realizes, the rosy reports from the generals in Saigon and the Pentagon itself are wrong. America is not winning the war, and the situation "in country" is not improving.
This prologue - similar in style to the opening of Spielberg's 2012 Lincoln - ends with a pivotal scene. On McNamara's U.S. bound military jet, Ellsberg is asked by the Defense Secretary if things are getting better on the ground in Vietnam.

Ellsberg tells McNamara and other advisers that from his point of view, the military situation is getting worse and that the U.S. is not winning the war in Vietnam.

McNamara agrees, but when the Secretary’s entourage arrives at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., Ellsberg is stunned when the former president of the Ford Motor Company and one of John F. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” Cabinet selectees claims at a press conference that the U.S. is making remarkable progress and that he thinks victory in Vietnam is at hand.

McNamara’s outright dissembling to the press and the American people troubles and disillusions Ellsberg and sets in motion the events that follow.

The Post flashes forward to 1971, when Ellsberg, now working at a government-funded think-tank called the RAND Corporation, decides to copy and disseminate the 47-volume secret history of America’s involvement in Vietnam by leaking it to The New York Times, then the biggest and most important newspaper in the country.

At the same time, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) is facing her first crisis as the first woman to serve as the publisher of a metropolitan newspaper. The Washington Post was once owned by her father, Eugene Meyer, who bought the dying publication at an auction in 1933. 13 years later, Meyer handed the newspaper to Kay’s husband Philip Graham, who helped steer its growth as part of the larger Washington Post Company (which owned Newsweek magazine and several television stations in several markets) until his suicide in 1963.

Early in The Post, Spielberg, Hannah, and Singer focus on Kay’s quest to save the paper from financial failure and maintain her family’s control by taking the company public and making a stock offering in the American Stock Exchange. This sequence shows how things were back in 1971, when the newspaper industry was almost exclusively an Old Boys Group run by – and for the benefit of – wealthy white men.

During Kay’s tense negotiations with board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) and others, an unexpected journalistic crisis looms in the horizon. The Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) has learned that Neil Sheehan, The New York Times’ best investigative reporter known for his critical coverage of the Vietnam War, has not had a major byline in months. Bradlee’s journalistic instincts kick in, and he tells Kay that this can only mean one thing: Sheehan is on to something big, and The Washington Post needs to find out what that story is.

The story, of course, is that someone has leaked thousands of pages from McNamara’s secret history of the Vietnam War to the Times, and now the Post’s biggest rival is about to publish it in a series of articles. Naturally, Bradlee knows that if his newspaper can also get in the action, the reputations of his staff, the newspaper, and himself as editor will be burnished.

But Kay Graham is worried. Not only is she in a fight for control of her company, but she’s also a friend of Robert McNamara, who is one of her most trusted advisors. Will she be able to put her personal feelings for a friend aside and publish a story that, in McNamara’s words, is not flattering to him?

Then there’s the problem with the Nixon Administration, which is obsessed with secrecy and overly conscious of its public image. Although President Nixon was sworn in after the secret history was completed, he was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President and had helped shape America’s Cold War policies between 1953 and 1961. Like his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Nixon knows the war in Vietnam is a losing proposition. And like them, he has kept this knowledge from the American public and prolonged the conflict rather than become the first American President to lose a major war.

Aided by investigative reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and others on the Washington Post staff, Bradlee strives to persuade Kay to publish the documents known as the “Pentagon Papers.” But opposition and intimidation from Nixon and his staff, as well as calls for caution from Parsons (a fictitious character drawn from real-life members of the Washington Post Company’s board of directors) and Bob McNamara make Kay Graham hesitate.

Now the question is, which route will Kay Graham take? Does she take Bradlee’s side and publish the leaked documents? Or does she take the path of least resistance and bow to the wishes of President Nixon and others?

My Take

Historical dramas, especially political thrillers like The Post, often face the same narrative challenges that a prequel along the lines of Star Wars- Episode I: The Phantom Menace has: We know how it ends. (Or, rather, we're supposed to know how it ends.)  Many – not all, but enough – people watching the movie are at least peripherally aware that The Washington Post followed The New York Times’ lead and defied the Nixon Administration when it published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers after a 6-3 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the two publications.

As a result, Spielberg’s film is not so much a spine-chilling suspense movie which leaves the viewer on edge. Even younger audience members who were born decades after the end of the Vietnam and Watergate eras know, or should know, how this story unfolds and its fateful outcome.

Of course, Spielberg and his vast array of onscreen and behind-the-scenes talent achieve a certain level of dramatic tension through pacing, great performances, and a riveting score by the director’s long-time creative partner, composer John Williams.

Though the film only has one action sequence at the beginning and most of the tension comes from a lot of dialogue, The Post is a fast-paced movie. For a historical piece with a “Big Message” (the First Amendment rights of the press to inform the public trumps the President’s desire for maximum secrecy) attached, it has a modest running time of 116 minutes.

Herein lies the film’s biggest weakness. Its brevity and focus on one publication makes for a good story for the masses, but it is not good history.

Obviously, a movie titled The Post is going to be biased in favor of Kay Graham, Ben Bradlee, and The Washington Post, and Spielberg is aware of this. I seriously don’t think that a man who has been at the center of American movie-making for 50 years is deliberately setting out to distort American history and making it look like Graham and Bradlee were the main journalistic heroes in the Pentagon Papers debacle.

Yet, there are many New York Times veterans who were involved in the famous clash between the press and the antagonistic Nixon Administration who were not happy with the screenplay’s focus on Graham. Bradlee, and the Post staff at the expense of their own publication.

To history buffs and purists, this argument makes sense.  The Times was the first publication to get the copies of the secret McNamara study from Daniel Ellsberg, and it was Neil Sheehan who wrote the articles that enraged Richard Nixon.

Yet, Spielberg, Hannah, and Singer chose to avoid going the obvious route and telling a male-dominated story in which Neil Sheehan – who is never seen or heard onscreen – is the protagonist and leads a mostly-male cast in a film titled The Pentagon Papers.

Sure, such a story would have been relevant and riveting, and maybe it could have featured Tom Hanks as a dogged New York Times reporter or editor.

Then again, we would have been denied the first-ever onscreen collaboration between Meryl Streep (who earned an Academy Award for Best Actress nomination here), Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg. Streep and Hanks play off each other well as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, and Spielberg gets great performances not only from his two leads but from a large ensemble cast.

At a time when the U.S. journalistic profession is under attack by a petulant, abrasive President who labels any coverage that doesn’t flatter him as “fake news” and millions of Americans doubt the credibility of “mainstream media,” The Post is still a powerful reminder that a free society is an informed one.

Or, as the Washington Post’s Trump era motto puts it, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

From the Epinions Files: Samsung LN32D450 32" LCD HD Television Review (Written October 11, 2011)

Pros: Good 720p video; great sound, has Anynet+ technology built in

Cons: Requires some assembly.

Samsung LN32D450 32-Inch 720p 60Hz LCD HDTV

A few weeks ago, I decided to replace my first Samsung LCD TV because it was having issues with its video playback.  The sound worked just fine, but apparently (see dtvengineer's comment to me in the Comments section) some of the components that control the backlight went bad and the picture took, well, like forever to show up on the 26-inch screen.

At the time, I had no idea if this malfunction was repairable (as it turns out, it was), but because the service warranty had expired and I had no idea if I could afford to have the set fixed, I opted instead to buy a new TV set.
When I set out to purchase my replacement set at my usual online emporium - - I was not looking for a bigger set than my now-malfunctioning 26-inch TV.  Sure, larger sets have their virtues - easier to see, for one thing, and better sound if the speakers are good enough - but they're also more expensive than their smaller siblings.

However, for some reason Amazon didn't seem to have any 26-inch Samsungs in stock on the day that I purchased my LN32D450 32-Inch 720p 60Hz LCD HDTV; there were a few 26-inchers by Coby and LG, but I really like Samsung audio-video products so I decided to stick with the 32-inch model even though it ended costing a little over $370.00.  (Not really a bad deal; it turned out that the TV I was replacing had cost me over $400 in 2008.)

I had read - as is my habit - several consumer reviews on Amazon and saw that the LN32D450 32-Inch 720p 60Hz LCD HDTV set would not be easy to place on its stand, so I turned to my go-to guy for TV set-ups - my friend Baldo - who brought a friend of his over and put the TV set/stand combination together in about 30 minutes or so.

First Impressions:
While the 720p (p stands for "progressive scan") basic resolution of the set is wasted on analog channels - "regular" stations' signals look a bit murky on this set, the sharpness and clarity of DVDs, Blu-ray discs (especially Blu-ray discs!) and HD broadcasts look really nice on my Samsung LN32D450 HDTV, especially from a distance of about 20 feet or more.

For instance, the LN32D450 features 65,000:1 dynamic contrast, which solves some of the problems that crop up when watching movies which contain scenes that are either too dark or too light. On analog TVs, movies such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi - which tend to have night-time sequences or dimly-lit settings such as basements and dark corridors - are really hard to see.

Not so with the 65,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio feature on the Samsung LN32D450; here, the backlight intensity is adjusted automatically, resulting in a huge improvement in contrast. In short, things that were very hard to see before on either the older LCD set or its analog ancestor are now clearly visible.

Additionally, the LN32D450 has what Samsung's website calls a Clear Motion Rate of 60, which is defined by the company as "a combination of advanced backlighting technology, significant improvements in panel response rates and ultra fast image processing."

I am, of course, no expert on electronics, but I have noticed that this set has far better audio features than the 26-inch TV it is replacing.

This, I am sure, is partly because the TV is slightly larger, but it also can be credited to Samsung's constant updating of its product lines.

This set is part of Samsung's 430/450 series, after all, so its audio system probably has been improved as a result of consumer feedback regarding the sometimes less-than-overwhelming sound of sets which are used sans home theater systems with extra speakers.

Where the older and smaller Samsung 26-inch model had three speakers which gave me adequate but not exceptional performance, the LN32D450 has just two speakers but offers "bigger" and "crisper"audio.

Again, I'm no A/V equipment guru by any means, so I'll just refer to Samsung's official website's description of its SRS TheaterSound feature, which is defined as an "audio enhancement technology for TVs. SRS TruSurround XT provides 3D sound without extra speakers."

In practical terms, what this means is that the sound from the LN32D450 is good enough for those of us who can't afford - or have no room for - a home theater sound system that provides viewers that powerful movie palace-like audio performance.

Other Features:

The remote control resembles that of my BD-D5500 Blu-ray player; this is not surprising since they are both Samsung products.  The two remotes have similar shapes and color schemes: The only way to tell them apart from a distance is that the BD-D5500's remote has two red power switches (one for the player, one for the TV) . Other than that - seen up close - the Blu-ray remote is somewhat smaller than the LN32D450's remote and has a bank of three white buttons in the center.

The remote, which uses two AAA batteries, has the expected POWER, SOURCE, numeric keypad, volume adjustment and channel selection buttons, of course, but it also has a plethora of other control or function buttons.  Among these control options are digital fine tuning to find multiple digital channels which are sent out by the same TV station, sleep mode, mute, channel list, tools, info, menu selection keys, closed caption activator, picture and sound mode selectors and, at the bottom, control buttons which will work with peripheral devices - such as a Blu-ray player - which will work on Anynet+ or My Content modes.

For readers who may not be familiar with Samsung's Anynet+ feature, I will cite Samsung's official definition as it appears on their website's product page:


Technology that allows one remote to control all digital devices in a home theater/entertainment system.  

In plain English, if you have a device that is compatible with the LN32D450 set, you can control most - but not all - of its basic functions.

For instance, if you have a Samsung Blu-ray player made within the same product generation/production run, you can hit the PLAY, PAUSE, SEARCH and STOP buttons and not have to deal with two remotes at the same time.

Likewise, you can use the Blu-ray remote as a universal one in most instances.  (Obviously, there are unique controls in each remote that can't be duplicated in the other: There is no OPEN/CLOSE DISC TRAY function on the TV-only remote, nor is there an e-Manual or additional digital channel selector on the Blu-ray player remote.)

Still Other Features 

The LN32D450 also boasts a wide array of features which allow users to share content from the Internet or a computer with the use of what Samsung calls ConnectShare Movie.  If you have a USB drive you can connect it to the TV's USB port and peruse photo files, listen to music or watch videos downloaded from the World Wide Web.

Samsung also states that this TV is Energy Star compliant; according to the company, All Samsung TVs not only meet ENERGY STAR requirements; they exceed them. This means:
* More energy savings
*  Lower utility bills
* Leaving a smaller carbon footprint on the environment

I have no way of confirming this claim, especially since most modern audio/visual gadgets of the 21st Century tend to stay on low-power standby mode when we switch them OFF so that remotes will activate their full power modes faster.  I like to make sure that my TV is truly off when I do not expect to be using it, so I simply turn off the power strip that it's currently connected to.

Ease of Use:

One of the best features that the Samsung LN32D450 is that once it has been set up properly (either on a wall mount or a pedestal-type base), it is very easy to use.

The LN32D450, like the other Samsung TVs I've owned, has some function switches built in on its front panel.  The model I have has a control panel that contains the following features:

Power on/off switch
Remote control sensor
Source (which allows users to select the source of an audio-visual signal, primarily TV/Cable, Component AV and HDMI cable)
Menu (which displays an on-screen menu - on screen display - of the set's various features)
Volume up or down buttons
Channel up or down buttons

That having been said, I use a remote 99.9% of the time; the switches on the lower right hand corner of the TV's "frame" are so subtly laid in that they're very hard to see, and the remote has all the important buttons (TOOLS, INFO, CONTENT, SOURCE and various function-specific ones) anyway.

The interconnectivity between the set and the Anynet+ compatible Blu-ray player is one example of how easy the LN32D450 is to use.
You can, for instance, turn the TV set on simply by turning on a Samsung Blu-ray player of the same "generation" (say, if both TV and Blu-ray player were built in 2011).  I discovered this purely by chance when I uncharacteristically turned on my BD-D5500 first.  With my old 26-inch set the only thing that would haVe happened was that the player would be running first but the TV would have to be turned on separately.

Not so with this Anynet+ equipped set.  Now when I turn on the Blu-ray player first, the TV's "power on" chime goes off and the blue and white Samsung logo appears.

And when I turn off the Blu-ray player first, an on-screen prompt will appear to inform me that the TV is disconnecting itself from the Anynet+ device and switching to TV/Cable mode.

On the whole, this TV has extremely good video and audio performance: it's not a 1080p or 1080i top of the line/best resolution model, but for a 720p HDTV it provides users with a nice, clean (if not exactly pristine) image.

Audio-wise, even though it has one speaker less than the set it's replacing, it actually doesn't need to be connected to a home theater sound system unless a consumer has a yen to do so. I'm hard of hearing myself, but when I set my set's volume at level 19, the sound is perfectly audible.

As for reception issues, the TV is connected to a Comcast cable box via coaxial cable, so it picks up the local and national broadcast/cable networks' programming that way.

Video quality varies here, not because of the way the TV functions but rather because Comcast has kept the lower channel numbers (2 through the 100s, I suppose) on low-res video while placing its HD channel lineup in its more expensively priced packages. I have noticed that on the rare occasion that I can find a local station's HD counterpart, the picture and sound are almost as sharp as those of a Blu-ray disc's.

Product Features 

16:9 LCD panel with 1280 x 720p resolution
32" class screen size
Built-in digital tuner
65,000:1 Dynamic contrast ratio
SRS TheaterSound 60Hz
720p resolution
ConnectShare Movie
Exceeds ENERGY STAR standards
HDMI Inputs: 2
Touch of Color design  

Technical Details 

Model: LN32D450
Display Technology: LCD
Display Size: 32 inches
Image Aspect Ratio: 16:9
HDTV Compatible: Yes
Speakers Included: 2 speakers
Height: 20.1 inches
Width: 31.3 inches
Depth: 3.2 inches
Weight: 19 pounds
Image Contrast Ratio: 40000:1
Resolution: 720p
Refresh Rate: 120  

Blu-ray Review: 'The Post'

On Tuesday, April 17, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released Steven Spielberg's 2017 political/historical thriller The Post on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K UHD Blu-ray. Starring Academy Award-winning actors Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and the newspaper's dogged editor Ben Bradlee, The Post dramatizes the duo's 1971 decision to publish "the Pentagon Papers" in defiance of the secretive - and vindictive - Nixon Administration.

(C) 2018 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

OSCAR ® winners Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks team up for the first time in this thrilling film based on a true story. Determined to uphold the nation’s civil liberties, Katharine Graham (Streep), publisher of The Washington Post, and hard-nosed editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) join forces to expose a decades-long cover-up. But the two must risk their careers –– and their freedom –– to bring truth to light in this powerful film with a celebrated cast. - Package blurb, The Post
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-ray/DVD set was dropped two weeks after the film's April 3 digital download debut. It's an industry-standard two-disc multi-format set; one disc contains the feature film and the behind-the-scenes documentary on standard definition DVD, while the other disc is the 1080p high definition BD.
General Information:
  • Movie Genre: Drama
  • Edition: Widescreen
  • Cast: Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Brand: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Studio & Production Company: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
  • Theatrical Release Date: December 22, 2017
  • Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: April 17, 2018
In addition to Spielberg's Academy Award-nominated film (it earned two nods: Best Picture and Best Actress - Meryl Streep), both the Blu-ray and the DVD include a five-part documentary about the making of The Post. Written and directed by Laurent Bouzerau (Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays), the five parts are:

  • Layout: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post 
  • Editorial: The Cast and Characters of The Post 
  • The Style Section: Recreating an Era 
  • Stop The Presses: Filming The Post 
  • Arts & Entertainment: Music for The Post 
My Take
Although 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment doesn't always come up with outstanding Blu-ray releases (its 2009 BD of My Cousin Vinny is rather stingy in the extra features department), The Post is one of the studio's better offerings.
Technically speaking, the digital transfer is superb. Every frame of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's photography is nicely rendered in 1080p high definition video. This allows the viewer to be immersed in the 1970s atmosphere that was carefully recreated by Rick Carter's production design and Ann Roth's true-to-the-period costumes. I was an eight-year-old kid in 1971, but I remember the "look" of the '70s (the cars, the fashions, the graphic design of contemporary culture, and newspaper layouts and fonts).
The sound mix is also rather well-done, although I'm not sure what the audio specifications are. Suffice it to say that The Post, with its mix supervised by Richard Hymns is nicely done and allows viewers to hear every word written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, as well as John Williams' suspenseful and quietly stirring score, on a 5-speaker home theater sound system.
All in all, The Post is a Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy set worth adding to any film lover's collection, especially if one is a fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streeps, or historical dramas.
Blu-ray Set Specifications:


Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Dolby Surround

English SDH, Spanish, French


Blu-ray Disc
Two-disc set (1 BD-50, 1 DVD)
Digital copy
Movies Anywhere
DVD copy


Slipcover in original pressing


Region A

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: 'The Pacific'

Cover art by Home Box Office, Inc. (C) 2010 NAL Caliber Books 

Pros: Interesting concept; vivid anecdotes; compelling characters
Cons: None
After the phenomenal success of their HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turned to their friend Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the book they had just adapted for TV, and started thinking about future World War II projects they could collaborate on.

The Second World War, after all, was a topic Ambrose knew backwards and forwards from his stint as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's official biographer and his subsequent career as a history professor.

Ike had - before entering politics in 1952 - been one of America's top generals during the war, rising to the title of Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force and five-star general before the end of hostilities in 1945, so it was not a stretch for Ambrose to pen several best-selling books about the U.S. Army - especially its "citizen soldiers" - in World War II.

Although Ambrose wrote extensively about the groundpounders, trackheads, flyboys and paratroopers who fought against the Third Reich in Europe, he died in 2002 before he got around to doing one of the projects he had tentatively discussed with Hanks and Spielberg: a book about the "other war" in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

In March of 2010, almost nine years after the premiere of Band of Brothers, Spielberg, Hanks and many of the producers and writers of that landmark miniseries launched The Pacific, a 10-part saga which follows three Marines as they embark on a series of campaigns that that takes them from the tropical island of Guadalcanal to the hellish landscapes of Okinawa and - for the survivors - their homecoming after Japan's surrender in September of 1945.

Fittingly, when HBO and Playtone needed a companion book for the series, they turned to the late Hugh Ambrose, son and assistant of Stephen and a historian in his own right. (Sadly, Hugh Ambrose died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 48.)

Published by NAL Caliber, Ambrose's non-fiction book is not the source of the miniseries in the same way that his dad's 1990s Band of Brothers was the takeoff point for Playtone's 2001 classic series about Easy Company in Northwest Europe.

Being a "companion book" rather than the wellspring for the HBO 10-parter, The Pacific takes the reader from the dark days after Pearl Harbor and on to the long struggle to push the Japanese back to the Home Islands in a chain of naval battles and amphibious landings that started at the Battle of the Coral Sea and ended with the landings at Okinawa and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan itself.

Though two of the miniseries' three Marines - "Manila John" Basilone and Eugene Sledge - are prominent main characters; the third, Robert Leckie, was deliberately omitted for various reasons, the most important being Ambrose's need to include a narrative about Navy aviators, without which America wouldn't have won the air-sea battles in the Pacific.

The subtraction of Leckie - who was himself a noted writer of many books about the Pacific campaigns - allows Ambrose to add several narratives connected to those of Basilone (a Medal of Honor winner from New Jersey) and Sledge (a young Marine from Mobile, Alabama), who are played in the miniseries by actors Joe Mazzello and Jon Seda.

Some, like Marine Sidney Phillips, have close ties with those two men.  Phillips (who was also seen in Ken Burns' 2007 documentary The War) was Sledge's best friend in Mobile and joined the service right after Pearl Harbor.  Phillips saw action for the first time on Guadalcanal, where "Manila John" (so-called for his sea stories about his pre-war stint on the Philippines in the Army) earned the Medal of Honor.

Others, such as "Mike" Micheel and Austin "Shifty" Shofner, were included to widen the narrative to include men who had either flown in aerial combat (Micheel) or been held as POWs by the Japanese (Shofner) at the same time that Basilone and Sledge were "island hopping" across the Pacific.

Stylistically, The Pacific is a story told from the perspective of the men featured in its narrative.  Instead of telling the tale from the omniscient we-know-this-now-in-the 21st Century perspective of a historian, Ambrose puts the reader in his protagonists' combat boots and mindsets.  We know only what they know; if the U.S. Navy sinks a Japanese carrier called Ryukaku in the Battle of the Coral Sea, by God that's how it's reported at the time. (Ambrose, of course, gives us the correct name, Shoho, in a footnote.)

Ambrose, who worked with his father on such books as Undaunted Courage, Citizen Soldiers and The Wild Blue, explicitly chose this technique to give the reader some notion of what the wartime perspective - often obscured by the "fog of war" and very fragmented to the people caught up in World War II - was like.

The prose, while not exactly as folksy as that of Stephen Ambrose's, is crisp and clear, full of engaging details (such as Basilone's tattoos of a gorgeous Filipina) as well as horrifying vignettes of battle and its aftermath (such as the Marines' shock when the Navy transports leave the landing area off Guadalcanal before the supplies are completely offloaded as a result of a disastrous battle near Savo Island, or how Phillips and his buddies have to learn to breathe through their mouths while searching Japanese corpses for documents and even souvenirs).

Because I don't have HBO, I waited till The Pacific miniseries became available on DVD or Blu-ray in the fall of 2010.  Until then, I read an excellent account of the Marines and Navy aviators who fought a very different and sometimes crueler war than that experienced by their Army and Navy brethren in the European and Mediterranean theaters of operation.

Book Review: 'Star Wars: Allegiance"

Cover art by John Van Fleet. (C) 2007 Del Rey/Lucas Books/Random House and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Pros: Good writing, fine characterizations, and another masterful tale set in the Star Wars galaxy

Cons: None

Although Hugo Award-winning author Timothy Zahn has written over 90 short stories, novellas, short story collections and novels since 1978, he is best known for reinvigorating the Star Wars literary universe with his best-selling Thrawn Trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command). Set five years after the events depicted in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, this three-book cycle’s mix of interstellar conflict, political intrigue and a plausible extrapolation of the characters and situations created by George Lucas in the Classic Trilogy reignited fan interest in the Star Wars saga. In addition, the popularity of Zahn’s novels helped pave the way for other authors to add their own tales set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Although various writers (including James Luceno, Michael A. Stackpole and Matt Stover) have emerged as Force-full voices in, Zahn is the true master of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Since the completion of the The Thrawn Trilogy in 1993, he has added several novels that cover different periods of the Star Wars saga, including the Prequel and Classic Trilogy eras.

His 2007 Star Wars novel, Allegiance, is a rarity in the vast literary treasure trove of the Expanded Universe because it is set five to eight months after Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and the destruction of the Death Star at the battle of Yavin.

In Allegiance, Luke Skywalker is still the idealistic farm boy-turned-hero from Tatooine and newly-minted member of the Rebel Alliance, while Han Solo is torn between heading off as an “independent operator” (and paying that debt to Jabba the Hutt), or throwing his lot with Luke, Princess Leia Organa and the Rebel cause. And as the novel opens with Han, Luke and Chewbacca on a mission to evacuate a Rebel cell from the planet Teardrop, Zahn’s deft character description and dialog clearly evokes the spirit of the first Star Wars film.

”Luke?” Han Solo called from the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit. “Come on, kid – move it. We’re on a tight schedule here.”

“They’re in!” Luke Skywalker’s voice came back. “Ramp’s sealed.”

Han already knew that from his control board readouts, of course. If the kid stuck around, he’d have to learn not to clutter the ship’s atmosphere with unnecessary chatter. “Okay, Chewie, hit it,” he said.

Beside him Chewbacca gave a rolling trill of acknowledgment, and the Falcon lifted smoothly off the hard-packed ground.

Apparently not smoothly enough. From behind, Han heard a couple of muffled and rather indignant exclamations. “Hey!” someone shouted.

Han rolled his eyes as he fed power to the sublight engines. “This is absolutely the last time we take on passengers,” he told his partner firmly.

Chewbacca’s reply was squarely to the point and a shade on the disrespectful side.

“No, I mean it,” Han insisted. “From now on, if they don’t pay, they don’t fly.”

From behind him came footsteps, and he glanced back as Luke dropped into the seat behind Chewbacca. “They’re all settled,” he announced.

“Good,” Han said sarcastically. “Once we make hyperspace, I’ll take their drink orders.”

Even as the Falcon departs from Teardrop, it briefly crosses paths with the Imperial Star Destroyer Reprisal, commanded by Captain Kendal Ozzel, an ambitious and arrogant – if rather clumsy and stupid – officer who believes he would have done better than the late Grand Moff Tarkin.

Aboard the Reprisal is a unit of stormtroopers, the Empire’s elite foot soldiers best known for their white-and-black armor and their reputation for fearlessness and unshakeable loyalty to the Emperor and his New Order. Assigned to capture the Rebels on Teardrop, this contingent includes Daric LaRone, Joak Quiller, Korlo Brightwater, Saberan Marcross and Taxtro Grave, five idealistic soldiers who are among the first generation of non-clone troopers in the Imperial Army. Brave, dedicated and loyal to the “safe and secure society” that had been promised by Emperor Palpatine at the end of the Clone Wars, these five men are beginning to question their government’s actions, particularly after the destruction of Alderaan.

But when officers attached to the Gestapo-like Imperial Security Bureau (ISB) knowingly order the stormtroopers to massacre an entire village’s population even though there are no Rebels present, Daric and his four friends are forced to do the unthinkable: to desert from the Reprisal after an argument with an ISB major results in the latter’s death. Not quite willing to join the Rebellion – their allegiance to the New Order is too strong still -- Daric, Joak, Korlo, Saberan and Taxtro nevertheless become fugitives from the Empire.

In another part of the galaxy, the 18-year-old Mara Jade, still new at her role of the Emperor’s Hand, is on an assignment, seeking out Imperial officials who are using their rank and status in the government to their own ends. Among the suspects are the conniving Vilim Disra, chief administrator of the Shelsha sector and his superior, Governor Barshnis Choard, and Mara, trained in the Force by Palpatine himself, must navigate a course strewn with treachery and deceit at every turn.

All these story elements converge when Han, Luke and Leia accept a mission to a distant star system to contact several anti-Imperial factions that haven’t formally joined the Rebellion. And, with the deft touch Zahn has with juggling various storylines that blend action, suspense and the evolution of well-established characters, Allegiance takes off like an X-Wing fighter and takes the reader on a literary joyride and into the conflict between the oppressive Galactic Empire and the heroic Rebel Alliance.

My Take

What makes Allegiance interesting – aside from being a rare set-in-the-Classic Trilogy-era story – is its focus on the five former stormtroopers and their internal struggle to reconcile their idealistic loyalty to the Empire with the realization that their cause is not a just one. Some of their past actions they might be able to rationalize away as caused by the fog of war, or that sometimes fighting an insurrection results in “collateral damage.”

However, when faced by the destruction of Alderaan by Tarkin and the Death Star, they must ask themselves just what kind of regime they have sworn their allegiance to. This sort of introspective thinking from characters an audience normally would perceive as “evil” is rare and therefore fascinating, especially since the stormtroopers in the movies are not much more than faceless adversaries for Luke and the other Rebel heroes.

As a long-time fan and discerning Star Wars reader, I really enjoyed reading this novel. Zahn tells his story in prose so clear and descriptive that it's almost cinematic. He also captures the spirit of George Lucas' films almost perfectly; Allegiance once again shows Zahn's knack for using visual and dialog references from the films and creating new and exciting characters and situations. The descriptions of the movies' familiar heroes are both true to the memories of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and the rest of the cast's performances in A New Hope, and readers who have read Zahn’s other Star Wars books will note “foreshadowing” passages that hint at “future” events established in them.