Friday, March 30, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird: A review (dedicated to the late Trayvon Martin)

When I was in 10th grade, my third period English class was assigned to read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a roman a clef based on the author’s childhood years in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression.

Shortly before the – dreaded – test which was to be given after we had finished reading the book, the English department screened director Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation, which stars Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Frank Overton and William Windom, for all the sophomores assigned to read Lee’s novel that semester in my high school’s auditorium.

As adapted by playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird is, like its literary source, a semiautobiographical story of a young Alabama girl’s early years in the fictitious town of Maycomb, centering on the events that take place over a three-year time-span.

Standing in for Harper Lee is her alter ego, the tomboyish Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Badham), who lives in a nice house with her older brother Jem (Alford) and their widowed father, Atticus Finch (Peck), who is a well-respected (if not financially well-off) attorney.

The film begins in 1932 (more on this later).  It is summer, and the Finch kids are enjoying the lazy, hot and hazy days of the season in Depression-era Maycomb.  In these pre-television, pre-Internet days, Scout and Jem spend their time outdoors, playing games and speculating about the mysterious Boo Radley, who is rumored to be very disturbed, ugly and potentially dangerous.

The kids have been given plenty of latitude by their dad; they both call him Atticus instead of Dad or Pop, and they are encouraged to explore their little corner of the world almost without bounds.  They adore their father, a (literally) towering paragon of decency, kindness and moral rectitude who, despite being financially poor himself, takes on anyone as a client and willingly accepts such things as vegetables and other commodities from poor farmers like Mr. Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Crahan Denton)

They are joined in this summertime idyll by Dill (John Megna), the nephew of their neighbor, Mrs. Crawford (Alice Ghostley).  Dill’s parents are apparently divorced, and his mother apparently dumps him on his Aunt Stephanie during summer vacation.  Though small in stature, Dill (who is based on Harper Lee’s childhood chum Truman Capote) is spunky and eloquent, and he is quickly befriended by both Jem and Scout.

At first, the movie appears to be merely the recollections of an idyllic period of Scout’s life between the ages of six and nine, but when Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) shows up on the Finches’ front porch to ask Atticus to take on a trial case, the shadows of American racism loom over the small town of Maycomb and open Scout and Jem’s eyes to the uglier sides of their small and close-knit community.

Judge Taylor importunes Atticus to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a Negro who has been accused of raping Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), a white girl who lives with her father Bob (James Anderson).

Atticus agrees to take on the case, knowing fully well that most of his fellow whites expect him to put up a weak defense of his black client and let Mr. Gilmer (William Windom) win a conviction.

Bob Ewell: I'm real sorry they picked you to defend that n——r that raped my Mayella. I don't know why I didn't kill him myself instead of goin' to the sheriff. That would have saved you and the sheriff and the taxpayers lots of trouble...  

But Atticus has no intention of merely putting on a good show to appease the racist feelings of Ewell and others who hate blacks.  He believes that Tom Robinson is innocent and that he has a moral obligation as a lawyer and a man to see that justice is not miscarried.

My Take:  Like many adaptations of literary works, To Kill a Mockingbird takes some liberties with the story’s plot and characters, both for practical reasons (such as overall budget and running time) as well as for the sake of clarity and dramatic impact. 

Nevertheless, this Academy Award-winning film (it earned three Oscars for Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay and got nods – but did not win – for Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music and Best Picture) manages to be so thematically and emotionally close to Lee’s novel that it’s hard to tell that differences exist.

As in the novel, the towering presence of Atticus dominates To Kill a Mockingbird not because Gregory Peck is physically tall or because he’s such a renowned lawyer, but because of the quiet and unassuming manner in which he teaches his young children The Right Way to Do Things without being harsh or didactic.

There’s a scene early on in the film’s first act when Scout unwittingly embarrasses Mr. Cunningham, a farmer who once hired Atticus to handle a legal case.  Mr. Cunningham has no money to pay Atticus with, so he usually drops off a bag of freshly-picked produce from his farm in lieu of cash or check.

Scout is unaware of this arrangement, so on one occasion when Mr. Cunningham comes over with a bag of hickory nuts for the Finches, she asks Atticus to come out and thank him.  Mr. Cunningham is visibly uncomfortable and clearly wishes to leave, but he is too polite to walk away or tell the girl to mind her own business.

For his part, Atticus is also uncomfortable, but he comes out and thanks Mr. Cunningham not just for the hickory nuts, but also for the previous week’s collards.  He waits until the farmer has left to answer a question Scout has asked him about why Mr. Cunningham was so embarrassed.
Atticus Finch: If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

No harsh words. No stern looks. No “go to your room and don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong” parental command.  Atticus simply imparts a life lesson in the same unassuming manner in which he comports himself.

Director Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42) gets top-notch performances from the entire cast.  Mary Badham is simply terrific as the bright and spirited Scout, and Phillip Alford – who retired from acting in 1972 after only a decade on TV shows and movies – is very believable as Scout’s brother Jem.  Both were cast because they were from the South and would need no dialogue coaching.  And though Alford and Badham are not related, they have physical similarities that make them look like siblings.

Gregory Peck’s performance, naturally, is the best-remembered one in the movie, which is fitting because Atticus Finch is the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.  He is the epitome of the progressive Southern gentleman; he’s kind and courteous to everyone in Maycomb regardless of skin color, he doesn’t brag about his legal prowess or his other skills, he refuses to back down when confronted by Bob Ewell and a lynch mob, yet even when one thinks he is going to finally lose his temper and use physical force, Atticus exercises his self-control and simply walks away.

Brock Peters, who would later play Darth Vader in the radio adaptation of the Star Wars Trilogy and two different characters in the Star Trek franchise, is riveting as the tall, strong, but quiet black man who is on trial for the alleged rape of Bob Ewell’s daughter.  His performance is restrained but powerful, which gives his character a certain amount of nobility that echoes that of Atticus.

The rest of the adult cast, including Frank Overton, Alice Ghostley, Estelle Evans, Ruth White (who plays the crotchety Mrs. Dubose) and Robert Duvall – whose film debut this was – perfectly complements the quartet formed by Peck, Badham, Alford and John Megna, whose Dill is also a fine example of juvenile acting at its best.   

The movie is nicely photographed in black-and-white and, for the most part, is evocative of life in the U.S., particularly the Deep South, in the 1930s.  The cinematography by Russell Harlan is excellent; the viewer\is whisked back in time to Maycomb by the craftsmanship of Harlan’s camera work without noticing the film was not shot in Alabama but in the Universal Pictures back lot in California.

Horton Foote’s script is also adept at telling the story from the point of view of the kids, especially that of Scout.  He follows Harper Lee’s technique of using first-person narration, interspersing brief passages of voiceovers by a now-adult Jean Louise Finch (an uncredited Kim Stanley) with scenes which focus primarily on the kids.

Like many films, To Kill a Mockingbird has its fair share of little goofs caused by the peculiar business of filmmaking.  There are several glaring anachronisms; if you look at the pennies in the title sequence closely, you’ll see that the pennies in the treasure box are from 1962, and the older Scout tells us – in the introductory voiceover – that Maycomb residents had been told that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself in 1932; it sounds nice but it is historically inaccurate, since the Franklin D. Roosevelt speech Foote is alluding to was made on March 4, 1933.

There are also a few continuity errors, accidental appearances of film crew on screen and even inconsistent license plate numbers on Atticus’ car.  These are hard to spot unless you have a sharp eye and notice them right away, but they are there nonetheless.

No matter. To Kill a Mockingbird has far more strengths than it has weaknesses, and its powerful message of tolerance, understanding and plain human decency is just as relevant today as it was in 1962.

Like this review?  You can read it (and many others) in my new book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, available for the Kindle at Amazon.

(c) 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Save Me the Aisle Seat: A Brief Excerpt

Movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.   Some of my earliest childhood memories center on little snippets of black-and-white movies I glimpsed while my parents watched television in the Florida room of our second Miami home; they are vague because I was less than two years old and my dad was still alive, but sometimes I still see, in my mind’s eye, little fragments of old John Wayne Westerns and war movies which my father had enjoyed.

It’s no exaggeration when I say that my childhood relationship with the movies was one of the key influences during my formative years.   Because I had very few father figures beyond my maternal grandfather and several uncles before I entered junior high, I tended to mimic certain traits of actors and movie characters I admired.  I wanted to be as brave as John Wayne’s many cowboys and military heroes, as idealistic as Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, as dashing-and-daring as Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and as funny as Steve Martin.   

Indeed, my love of movies was, and still is, the most important factor in my conscious decision to become a writer when I was 14 years old.  I probably had flirted with the notion of writing for a living before then, but after watching Star Wars in 1977 and realizing that films begin as scripts on the printed page – or, nowadays, on computer screens – I figured that if I could not be an astronaut, a U.S. Marine or an Air Force/Navy pilot, I would become a screenwriter.  Or a novelist.  Or maybe both.

Before achieving, at least in some form, the goal of writing a screenplay for an active filmmaker, I’ve had a lot of little career sidetracks and even major stumbles along the way.  I studied journalism in high school and junior college and wrote many movie reviews as a staff writer and entertainment editor for two student newspapers.  I then shifted my attention into the more complicated world of communications consulting, English composition tutoring, and ghostwriting for a client who wanted to break into the competitive world of children’s literature. 

I eventually began writing movie reviews again in 2003, the year in which I discovered – purely by chance – that many online stores allow customers to write reviews about products they have purchased.  I wrote my first online review at Amazon on April 13, 2003, a brief write-up about the 2001 two-DVD set of Star Wars- Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

For eight months, I submitted reviews at Amazon almost on a daily basis even though the site doesn’t offer any substantial compensation for writers beyond a Top Reviewer badge once they have written X number of reviews and received Y number of votes indicating positive helpfulness to readers, blissfully unaware that there are Internet sites that pay reviewers for their work. 

At the time, I was still working as a ghostwriter, so I wasn’t really thinking about writing reviews for monetary gain.  I wrote reviews at Amazon because (a) I enjoyed the creative challenge of evaluating items I had purchased and (b) I figured that getting noticed as a Top Reviewer there would get me some exposure and eventual name recognition.

It wasn’t until December of 2003 that I decided to take a friend’s helpful hint that maybe I was wasting my time writing reviews at Amazon for free and that I should check out a four-year-old site called Epinions, which was not an online store but rather a consumer review-oriented online community. 

My friend said that she wasn’t a member of Epinions and that she wasn’t sure about the specifics of how reviews were vetted or how writers got paid, but she kept on pushing.  “Alex,” she said, “you write well and your Amazon reviews are good, but isn’t it time you could make some money with the time and energy you devote to them?”

In the beginning I resisted, partly because I tended to be skeptical about making money online and didn’t want to be conned or have my identity stolen, but mostly because I was unsure about my writing skills and ability to attract readers.  But the more I thought about what my friend said, the more the idea made sense.

Thus, on December 12, 2003, I joined Epinions and submitted a review of the then-new four disc box set of the Indiana Jones movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a behind-the-scenes Bonus Disc). 

At first, I basically rewrote existing reviews from Amazon to adapt them to the more detailed style favored at Epinions, but I eventually got into the habit of writing all-new (and longer) reviews for the new site. This change was gradual at first; if you look at my first 300 or so Epinions reviews, you’ll notice that many are simply expanded versions of the ones I did at Amazon between 2003 and 2005.

Although I write in many categories at Epinions, I seem to focus more on Movies because I love films and appreciate the movie-making process.  I don’t deliberately hold back in style or effort when I write reviews in such categories as Electronics or Kids & Family, but – unless I am writing about books or Star Wars collectiblesI tend to be more enthusiastic and therefore more creative when I critique movies.

I’d like to claim that my reviewing style is something that just happened to come naturally to me from the day that I turned in my first review for Mr. Bridge’s fourth period journalism class at South Miami High, but that’s not quite true.

Before I even knew I would be a staff writer for my high school newspaper, I was already a big fan of Sneak Previews, a PBS TV show which featured reviews by Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune.   Not only was Sneak Previews an entertaining way to learn about new movies which were in theaters or were going to be released soon, but it also was fun to watch, especially when Ebert and Siskel disagreed about a movie.   The verbal sparring matches between the two critics were often spirited – but never nasty – and always thought-provoking.

Bill Cosford, the late film critic for my hometown newspaper, The Miami Herald, was also one of my wellsprings for inspiration.  I started following his reviews after reading a piece he wrote in 1978 after 20th Century Fox re-released Star Wars for the first time; Cosford was as enthusiastic about that film and its two sequels as I was back then and that earned him kudos from me right off the bat. 

Eventually, though, as I matured and broadened my movie-watching horizons, I read Bill Cosford’s reviews for their clean and crisp prose, clear analyses of plot, acting, writing, and directing, and his acerbic wit.  I didn’t always agree with his opinions – he gave Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan a negative review that I still disagree with – but I always liked the way he presented them.  He was a great writer and knew his stuff; he was a professor in the University of Miami’s  School of Communication’s motion pictures program and worked at the Herald from 1973 until his unexpected death at the age of 47 in 1994.

This book is a collection of some of the movie reviews I have written for Epinions over the past eight years.  It is not, by any means, a comprehensive list of every review I have written for the Movies category at Epinions; it is focused solely on films which were originally released in theaters and not made-for-television productions.  It’s not that I am a “film snob” that believes TV movies are inferior to those made for the silver screen, but choosing which reviews to include would have been far more difficult had I not narrowed the scope of this book down some.

I am not, by any means of the imagination, an expert on films, film production or the movie industry’s financial aspects, nor have I taken any courses such as Film Appreciation 101 in college.  I’m just simply a guy who likes to go to a theater with friends or pop a DVD (or Blu-ray) into a player and watch a movie for the sheer fun of it.  I’m also a guy who enjoys writing for the sheer pleasure of it, and writing reviews – whether it’s to praise a movie or pan it – is a happy product of the mingling of these two passions of mine.

Finally, I’d like to thank my long-time friend and writing colleague Leigh Egan for her kind assistance in the preparation of this book.  She not only has helped in the production and editing process, but her advice and encouragement have been the proverbial wind in this writer’s sails.

(c) 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Revolutionary Road: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio 'play nice house' and are titanically miserable

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet: Jack and Rose Redux? After the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s 1997 Academy Award-winning film Titanic, millions of its fans speculated if its two stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, would ever work together again, especially in a movie where they would be a couple again.

What many Leo-Kate fans wanted to see on the silver screen was essentially a Titanic-like love story without the Titanic, which, like its real-life counterpart, had sunk after a collision with an iceberg several hundred miles off the Newfoundland coast.

A direct sequel was out of the question; DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson was dead, and since Titanic lies in the historical fiction/romance genre and not science fiction, he could only have co-starred in such an unlikely project either in flashback sequences or as a figure in Kate Winslet’s character’s dreams.

Finally, after a decade’s worth of reading Hollywood’s proverbial tea leaves for any signs of a Leo-Kate onscreen reunion, Paramount Vantage and Dreamworks SKG gave the Titanic fans a movie titled Revolutionary Road in late 2008.

Revolutionary Road: Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road was written by Justin Haythe and directed by Sam Mendes and reunites DiCaprio and Winslet with another Titanic cast member – Kathy Bates.

If moviegoers – particularly those who are passionate fans of the first Leo-Kate pairing from 1997 – thought they were going to get a sweepingly romantic and sexy movie that echoed the Jack-and-Rose love story that had captivated them a decade earlier, they were wrong.

Though it begins in 1948, Revolutionary Road takes place mostly in suburban Connecticut in the mid-1950s, a time and place far removed from the Edwardian days of 1912 and the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

When we first meet Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) in the late ‘40s opening, he’s a longshoreman and World War II veteran who hopes to become a night cashier, and she’s an aspiring actress. They cross paths at a party – their eyes quite literally meeting across the proverbial crowded room and they end up dancing together.

fans who have not read Yates’ novel – which had been in what the movie industry calls “development” for over 40 years – probably imagined they’d get a hot bedroom scene immediately after, but Haythe and Mendes fast-forward the plot seven years to 1955. Frank and April are now married, but the sequence – set in a local theater where the actors’ performance group Mrs. Wheeler belongs to is putting on a play – informs us that all is not well in suburbia.

Seven years after meeting at that party, Frank and April have settled into marriage and parenthood. Frank has a commuter job in New York City as a salesman for a company in which his dad once worked, while April keeps house and cares for their two children, Michael (Ty Simpkins) and Jennifer (Ryan Simpkins).

Though this sounds almost like an ideal situation, Frank and April are nothing like Jack and Rose; they are those characters’ antitheses because the actors who play them have grown older and matured professionally and emotionally, and the situation they are in is more serious and sadder.

For instance, very early on in Revolutionary Road the viewer can discern that all is not well in the seemingly idyllic Wheeler marriage. April never achieved her youthful ambition of becoming an actress – her community theater performance is not well received by the audience and she knows it.

The Wheelers have a small circle of close friends to whom they seem to be the perfect couple. Shep Campbell (David Harbour) and his wife Milly (Kathryn Hahn) live next door to the house Frank and April have just bought on Revolutionary Road.

They are also friendly with Helen Givings (Bates), the real estate agent, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) and their son John (Michael Shannon), who is thought to be psychologically unstable but in reality is just bluntly honest.

Where everyone – except for the keenly observant John – sees in the Wheelers the embodiment of the American Dream: 1950s Style, Mendes shows us a fa├žade of a marriage which in reality is coming apart. Frank has resigned himself to the life of being a Company Man who wears his staid business suit – complete with hat and coat- to the office on a daily commute. He doesn’t like his job but sticks to it though it is turning him – emotionally anyway – into a machine, and he channels his boredom into having an unenthusiastic affair with one of the secretaries ( Zoe Kazan).

April wants more out of life for both herself and Frank, so she makes a grand plan to get a job as a translator at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, a city her husband fell in love with during the war. April will bring home the bacon, she suggests; Frank takes time to discover what he wants from life besides the drone-like existence of a gray-suited executive in a boring job.

My Take:
As in his earlier film American Beauty, director Sam Mendes is not interested in making a typical feel-good romantic film. On the contrary, Mendes is keen on taking the viewer on a grand tour of a marriage that is on the verge of breaking apart due to Frank and April’s growing desperation with their cookie cutter lives.

Because books like Yates’ 1961 novel rarely appeal to me, I have never read Revolutionary Road, and after seeing its movie adaptation, I don’t think I will because it seems like it will be a very dark and depressing read.

Revolutionary Road
is, as I said, the antithesis to Titanic in every possible way. It’s a very intimate and “small” movie suited more for art house movie watchers than it is for the multiplex audiences which loved Leo and Kate back in ’97.

Where Titanic has its moments of levity and joy, Revolutionary Road only offers a few brief moments when Frank and April seem content and even loving toward one another. Indeed, Revolutionary Road’s third act is far sadder than Titanic’s, which is quite a feat considering that James Cameron’s blockbuster depicted one of history’s deadliest maritime incidents.

Technically speaking, the movie is well made: Justin Haythe (The Clearing) captures the essence of 1950s suburbia and the angst of postwar America nicely.

Director Sam Mendes gets fine performances from the entire cast: DiCaprio and Winslet have to do much of the heavy lifting dramatically because their characters are the core of the story, but the supporting cast is worth watching, too, especially Michael Shannon. Shannon’s John is presented by his embarrassed parents as being mentally ill, but his only problem in life is that he sees the falsehoods and artificiality of 1950s America all too clearly.

John Givings: You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don't like.

Though Revolutionary Road is not dull or badly made, it is not for every viewer who prayed to see Leo and Kate together in a post-Titanic project. Fans of serious literary dramas will appreciate it best, especially those who have read and enjoyed the source novel, of course, and viewers who like to see good actors take on a real challenge will love the movie.

For those Titanic fans who merely wanted DiCaprio and Winslet to recreate their iconic Jack and Rose personas, however, Revolutionary Road is not the movie they were hoping to get.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hunger Games opens strong - really strong - but reviews are mixed

Hunger Games, the eagerly-anticipated film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' 2008 best-selling novel, has set global box-office records, taking in $155 million in its first weekend as a theatrical release, according to figures published on the web site

Directed and co-scripted (with Collins and Billy Ray) by Gary Ross, who co-wrote 1988's Big and had previously helmed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games is the first installment in a trilogy of dystopian science fiction stories set in a North America where, after several disastrous events, the existing democratic nation states of the United States, Canada and Mexico have ceased to exist and have been replaced by the totalitarian country known as Panem.

As in the best-selling Young Adults novel published by Scholastic - the U.S. publisher of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series - The Hunger Games presents us with a vision of an America gone seriously wrong.  

Panem is ruled by the tyrannical "President" Snow (Donald Sutherland) from the very privileged enclave known as the Capitol.  Located in the Rocky Mountains in a region once shared by the U.S. and Canada, the Capitol is populated by the ruling class of Panem - the wealthy One Per Centers who care only for money, fine clothes, and being entertained.

The Capitol, we are told, reigns unchallenged in Panem; the last time anyone tried to rebel against its tyrannical rule 70 years before, the dictatorship totally crushed one of the then-existent 13 districts and blotted it out of the map.  The surviving 12 Districts, cowed by the Capitol forces' overwhelming victory, toe the line dictated by the President.

One of the ways in which the districts have to survive is by rendering "tribute."  Not in the traditional forms of the past such as gold or precious gems, but by providing two adolescent citizens - one boy, one girl - to participate in a to-the-death contest known as The Hunger Games.

In dirt-poor but coal-rich District 12, young  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)  becomes one of the two Tributes when she decides to take the place of her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) after the current lottery has been carried out.  Though only 16, Katniss is no slouch with a bow and arrow; she is a fantastic archer who helps keep her family alive by illegally hunting game animals in the forests of District 12.

Katniss is paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who is hunky but not as martially skilled as his female counterpart.  They're both attractive teens who - if they survive the deadly games - might have a possible romance in the future.

Not, of course, that their future existence is assured, especially if the Hunger Games' designer Seneca (Wes Bentley) and the ruling class of the Capitol have anything to say about it.  Katniss and Peeta must face off with 22 teens from the other 11 Districts in a televised reality show which mixes elements of Survivor with others borrowed from Fredric Brown's 1944 short story "Arena" and The Long Walk, a Stephen King novel written under his "Richard Bachmann" pseudonym.  

Given the success of Collins' three novels (the other two being Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and the phenomenal box office runs of other Young Adult franchises such as Twilight and the Harry Potter stories, Hunger Games' initial returns indicate that the movie will be a huge hit for its studio Lionsgate, which invested $100 million dollars to make it and is well on track to making it all back plus earning huge profits.

The critical response so far has been a mix of admiration for Jennifer Lawrence's performance as Katniss and co-writer/director Ross' attempts to keep The Hunger Games as faithful to Collins' concepts as possible under the limitations of the film medium. In his review, Roger Ebert, for instance, points out that the film is "an effective entertainment, and Jennifer Lawrence is strong and convincing in the central role. But the film leapfrogs obvious questions in its path, and avoids the opportunities sci-fi provides for social criticism; compare its world with the dystopias in Gattaca or The Truman Show.

On a similar vein, Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald raps The Hunger Games for its "play-it-safe" vibe in his critique. Although Rodriguez thought the first half of the film is good, he points out that "[t]he film’s biggest flaw is the complete absence of vision or imagination – anything that would justify the movie’s existence as something other than a way to cash in on the novel. The Harry Potter pictures brought visual wonder to J.K. Rowling’s intricate fantasy world. The Twilight series has been a smash because of the chemistry between its lead actors. The Hunger Games, though, offers nothing."

As is often the case, the book's fans will flock to see The Hunger Games regardless of what professional movie reviewers may say.  

 My first book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, is now available as a Kindle edition at Amazon's Kindle Store.

(c) 2012 by Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Studying in Spain is a great learning experience

When I was 25 years old and still working toward an AA degree in Journalism/Mass Communications at what's now Miami-Dade College, I was accepted into the College Consortium for International Studies' Semester in Spain program. For 12 weeks in the Fall Term of the 1988-89 academic year, I lived and studied in Seville, Spain's third largest city, along with 41 other students from around the U.S.

Not knowing what, exactly, I was getting myself into, I also volunteered to send dispatches from Seville to Catalyst, my home campus' student newspaper as its first foreign correspondent. Having had several years' worth of experience as a reporter and section editor, I thought that it would be a somewhat tricky but still manageable assignment, but in the days before the Internet and e-mail were available to the average person, it ended up being harder and more frustrating than I'd bargained for.

Nevertheless, I did manage to, as we reporter types like to say, get the story, and between Dec. 1, 1988 to December 13, 1989, Catalyst ran an intermittent series of columns I wrote both during and after my study-abroad stint.

Because my thoughts and impressions of the time are far clearer than any I could try to write down nearly 23 years after coming home, I present the prospective study-abroad student (or his parents) with an article written nearly 12 months after my homecoming from Spain.

All prices and expenses mentioned below are, of course, from 1988; if you are interested in participating in a study-abroad program, head to your college or university's Foreign Language Department and inquire within.

From the December 13, 1989 issue of Catalyst, Miami-Dade Community College (South Campus)

Study-abroad program gave me learning text never could
Alex Diaz-Granados

Managing Editor

One of the most interesting aspects of taking a foreign language course is the opportunity to participate in one of the various study-abroad programs offered by the Foreign Language Department's Overseas Study Program.

I know because last year I participated in the Miami-Dade Community College/College Consortium for International Studies' Semester in Spain program.

For three months in the fall of 1988, 42 students (including me) from colleges and universities all over the United States lived and studied in Seville, one of Spain's largest and most beautiful cities.

And, for many of us, it was a learning experience unlike any other.

Not only did we learn more about the Spanish language, but we also came back with insights about Spain's culture, history and people that aren't available in any textbook.

We went to classes (ranging from the required language courses to classes dealing with Spain's history, political system and artistic heritage) Mondays through Thursdays -- either at the CCIS Center or the main campus of the University of Seville -- while most Fridays we went on cultural visits to places of interest in and around Seville.

There were also day trips to such places as Jerez de la Frontera, La Rabida and Cordoba.

We also went on an overnight trip to the city of Granada, the city whose architecture inspired George Merrick when he founded Coral Gables back in the '20s.

Of course, there were other benefits as well.

We learned how to live in a vastly different cultural environment on our own. (Even though one could make an argument that transferring to an out-of-state institution is a similar experience, it's like comparing cats and dogs.)

We not only had to learn a foreign language and take a 15-credit course load, we had to adapt to the average Spaniard's lifestyle (especially mealtimes), difficult as that may have been to us Americans.

My fellow CCISer Wendy Page, sophomore, said, "My experiences in Seville have helped me become a stronger person with broader horizons in both heart and mind."

My own horizons were expanded by my three-month stay in Spain. I learned a great deal about how other people live, and how those people perceive the United States, mainly through living and arguing with two Spanish roommates, Demetrio and Juan Carlos.

The cost of my trip to Seville, including hotels, tour buses, tuition (for 15 credits), and airfare was approximately $3,500. Rent and extra food was another $1,500.

This may sound like a lot of money, but you can get guaranteed student loans from Financial Aid. Also, Pell Grants will cover cost of tuition at Miami-Dade prices ($76.80 for a three-credit class).

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Bit of Shameless Self-Promotion: Save Me the Aisle Seat

After nearly nine years of being an online reviewer at both Amazon and Epinions (and, for a time, anyway, at the now-terrible Viewpoints), I have decided to compile some of my reviews and publish them in book form.  (We can't survive on IS income alone, right?)  I can't take the time or money to hire an agent or go through the process of sending out manuscripts to the big publishers in hope of getting published, so I decided to "self-publish" through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace (both Amazon companies).

The book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, is now available as an ebook for the Kindle, and within a week it should be available in print at Amazon and maybe a few other places.

I'd like to thank my friend Leigh Egan for her valuable assistance in completing this challenging project.

I hate to have to shill my book like a medicine salesman selling snake oil, but if anyone here has a Kindle (of any model), please, please consider buying it!  It's priced at $4.00 and it's live on the Kindle Store now.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Some Advice for New College Journalism Students

When I started taking journalism courses at a local college in the mid-1980s, I was under the impression that I was well-prepared to be a college-level writer for the campus’ student newspaper.  I had studied the basics of news writing, reporting, editing, and page makeup for two years in high school, and I had been a section editor during my sophomore and senior years.  I even earned A’s consistently in my journalism courses.

So imagine my surprise, two years after I had graduated from high school, when I stepped into my JOU 1100 classroom for the first time and felt as though I had actually studied just enough to get by in class but had much more to learn.

It’s possible that I felt that way because I had added Prof. Townsend’s class two days into the Fall term (my Pell Grant had just been approved and I needed to become a full-time student, so I added Basic Reporting and Introduction to Radio and Television to my schedule) and was nervous.  Perhaps I was keenly aware that doing well in a high school level course doesn’t guarantee success in a college level journalism class.  

Then again, knowing that the professor at the lectern was also the Director of Student Publications was a bit intimidating, to say the least.

Looking back on my first semester as a college journalist, I realize that this initial feeling of fear actually was beneficial to me because it forced me to be proactive and strive to do well, not just in the academic aspects of Basic Reporting and Editing but also on the newspaper production end of things.

One of the factors that worried me at first was the fact that at the junior college level, staff members of a campus paper had to deal with weekly deadlines rather than the more leisurely monthly ones I was familiar with from high school.  While not as demanding as the daily deadlines which many student newspapers at four-year university impose on editors and writers, the thought of writing one or more news stories a week – while taking 12 credits’ worth of classes – was daunting  to some of us. 

At first I had a pessimistic attitude of Man, I am not going to do well in this class; however, I promised myself that I’d stay the course during the semester no matter what.  I had chosen journalism as a career track and if I had to adapt to a more demanding set of circumstances, so be it.

By the end of my first day in Prof. Townsend’s class I accepted my first assignment; the Entertainment Editor needed an interview with the head of the campus music department and at least two other sources for a story about the college’s first record albums.  The three albums featured our campus’ choral, Gospel and jazz ensembles and were about to be released to the public, which was a big deal for the students, music teachers and campus administrators.

I was nervous, but I set up an appointment with the music department chair, did the interview, collected quotes from the jazz ensemble director and two of the students who had participated in the recording sessions.  I then wrote my first draft, checking my textbook and the Associated Press Stylebook to see if I was following proper newswriting procedures and style, then turned in my assignment.

Of course, some of my content was edited for style and space considerations, but I was rewarded not only with a good grade but also with my article’s prominent placement as the lead story in the Entertainment section of the following week’s issue.  This led to my quick promotion to assistant opinions editor and a subsequent “bump up” to copy editor – all within the space of my first six weeks as a member of the newspaper staff.

I am sharing this bit of personal history not to boast about how good I was “back in the day,” but rather to impart some lessons which are still relevant even in the ever-changing world of mass media.

1. Learn to think like a reporter.  Even if you are taking a newspaper reporting class as a prerequisite to an advertising or broadcast media course, you should consider yourself as a full-fledged staff writer for your campus publication.  Be proactive and look for stories on your own, or if you prefer being given assignments, accept stories in beats you think you are best suited for.

2. Don’t “fall in love with your copy.”  You may have been a good reporter or section editor in high school, and you might think you have what it takes to be a college-level journalist, but unless your alma mater had a superb journalism program with the resources needed to produce award-winning newspapers, you will have your first assignments severely edited by the copy editor, the section editor and your journalism professor.  

Also, do not feel offended or think that your articles are being singled out unfairly; everyone who writes for a student publication gets edits and rewrites the first few times out.  Stories need to be edited not just to correct spelling and grammar mistakes, but also to fit into a section editor’s allotted space on the page layout and conform with the publication’s established style.  To paraphrase a famous line from The Godfather, “It’s not personal; it’s journalism.”

3. Meet deadlines.  There are many things that bug student publications editors, including technical problems and lack of resources – particularly in public colleges which depend on state funding – but the Number One headache is the reporter who fails to meet his or her deadlines.  When I was a staff writer and section editor, I noticed that many first-time students would treat deadlines as mere suggestions of when to turn in their stories.  More often than not, missed deadlines played havoc with our 1980s-era production process and occasionally caused us to cancel entire issues.  So if you are going to be a student journalist, keep in mind that you are a member of a team, and if you don’t meet deadlines it’s not just your grade that suffers; the entire staff does, too. 

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados, All Rights Reserved


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hugo Chavez: A Clear and Present Danger in Our Backyard?

As the White House, the Pentagon and the various intelligence-gathering agencies of the United States focus their attention on such threats as Al Qaeda and other Islamic jihadist groups, the rise of China as an emerging Asian superpower, the growing instability in the Middle East as a result of last year’s Arab Spring popular revolts and Russia’s apparent turn toward autocratic rule by Vladimir Putin, it is important to remain vigilant to national security threats from within the Western Hemisphere.

Even as President Barack Obama’s national security team seeks to reduce the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting the extremist Islamic group known as the Taliban – a struggle complicated by Pakistan’s less-than-enthusiastic attitudes toward U.S. objectives in the region – and American defense budgets undergo cutbacks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-leaning Latin American leaders are forging alliances with Iran and other anti-American entities to challenge what they call U.S. imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere.

Chavez, who has been President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela since 1998 and is running this year for a fourth consecutive term, is not universally loved in Latin America, but he has staunch allies in Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Cuba’s Raul Castro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.  In addition, Chavez is a strong supporter of strongmen in other regions of the globe, including Syria’s Bashir Assad, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmajinedad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Chavez, who first gained notoriety for leading a failed coup d’etat against the democratically elected President Carlos Andres Perez in February of 1992, has never hidden his antipathy for the United States.  He refers to the U.S. government as “the Empire” and often expresses his support to leaders who oppose American foreign policy even when they attack their own citizens.  In 2011, Chavez not only spoke of his friendship with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi,  but he also defended Syrian leader Assad’s actions to suppress the Arab Spring revolt in Damascus and other cities.

 "Now some supposed political protest movements have begun (in Syria), a few deaths ... and now they are accusing the President of killing his people and later the Yankees will come to bomb the people to save them," Chavez said.

In early 2012, the U.S. government declared Venezuela’s consul general in Miami, Livia Acosta, persona non grata after allegations surfaced that she had discussed cyberattacks against the United States with Iranian agents while she was on a diplomatic assignment in Mexico City

Chavez retaliated by closing the consulate, which is one of the busiest in the U.S., although many in Venezuela saw the President’s move as being politically motivated since a majority of Venezuelans who are expatriates tend to oppose chavismo. By closing the Miami consulate, thousands of Chavez’s political opponents would find voting in this fall’s elections difficult, if not impossible

Chavez’s animosity is not limited to the U.S., however.  He has warned other Western powers, especially Great Britain, that Venezuela supports the current Iranian regime in its stance against economic sanctions which are intended to halt the development of nuclear weapons by Tehran, and that Argentina can count on Venezuelan military support if the long-standing differences between London and Buenos Aires over the Falkland Islands (known by Argentina as the Islas Malvinas) lead to a second armed conflict in the South Atlantic.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias
At a meeting of the Chavez-led Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (or ALBA, in its Spanish acronym), Venezuela’s leader said, "I'm speaking only for Venezuela, but if it occurs to the British Empire to attack Argentina, Argentina won't be alone this time.” 

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Victory at Sea: Richard Rodgers's Musical Score Still Grand After 60 Years

Although Richard Rodgers will always be remembered for his brilliant musical theater collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, particularly with the latter (South Pacific, The Sound of Music), he also had a successful career as a composer of incidental music, and Victory at Sea is perhaps his best-known orchestral score. 

Rodgers composed 13 hours' worth of music for Victory at Sea, NBC-TV's 26-episode documentary which premiered in 1952 and was a staple of the pre-cable late night hours on independent televisions such as WCIX-TV in Miami. Each episode ran for 30 minutes and focused primarily on the U.S. Navy's participation in the then-still recent Second World War, from the fight against German U-boats in the North Atlantic to the fierce struggle for domination of the Pacific between American and Japanese fleets. 

Renowned conductor and arranger Robert Russell Bennett's name has forever been linked with Rodgers' Victory at Sea score, for it was Bennett who conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra during the original soundtrack's recording, and early LP and cassette editions of the score were credited to this now defunct ensemble. Later recordings, including this 1992 BMG re-issue, were later performed by the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, but still under the energetic and expert baton of conductor Bennett. 

This first of two Victory at Sea BMG CDs contains all of the tracks contained in the 1950s-era RCA LP album, starting with the iconic "sweep of wind and wave" motif that started each episode. Even without the visual input, if you listen to "The Song of the High Seas," you can conjure up mental images of windswept white-capped waves as warships large and small sail across the oceans. Track one also features the menacing "U-boat" motif, which is played in the minor keys and conveys a sense of "danger down below" as a German submarine tracks its prey -- more than likely an Allied cargo ship -- and sinks it with a salvo of torpedoes. 

Rodgers portrays various battles and aspects of naval warfare magnificently, capturing the emotional impact of Japan's early victories in "The Pacific Boils Over" (track 2), the resolute comeback of the Americans after Midway and the long struggle for a South Pacific island in the rousing "Guadalcanal March" (track 3), the "Hard Work and Horseplay" that were part of the sailors' and Marines' daily lives (track 5), and the awesome power of American naval aviation in "Theme of the Fast Carriers" (track 6), a stirring motif that conveys not only the big carriers and the air groups that fought so many crucial battles, but the awful price paid in blood as planes and ships were lost in action in such engagements as the Battle of the Coral Sea, "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," and the bloody campaigns for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. 

Perhaps the most popular piece from Victory at Sea is "Beneath the Southern Cross," (track 7), a strangely sensuous and romantic tango-like composition. It was such a lovely and evocative melody that Rodgers later "borrowed" it and transformed it into a hit song ("No Other Love"), which would be covered by Perry Como. 

There are also several tracks ("Fire on the Waters," "Danger Down Deep," "Mediterranean Mosaic," and "Magnetic North") that were not in any previous recording that I'd owned, and even though they feel tacked on (the producers should have placed them before track 9, in my opinion), they are still very powerful compositions. I would recommend this album to any fan of either film/television scores or American music of the 20th Century. 

Top 10 Tracks from Victory at Sea 
(Track Number, Cue Title) 

1. The Song of the High Seas 
2. The Pacific Boils Over 
3. Guadalcanal March 
5. Theme of the Fast Carriers 
6. Beneath the Southern Cross (a.k.a. "No Other Love") 
7. Mare Nostrum 
8. Victory at Sea 
9. Fire on the Waters 
12. Mediterranean Mosaic 
13. The Magnetic North

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House

An Odd Couple

For most of his life, Washington was in love with a woman named Sally Fairfax, wife of George William Fairfax -- Washington's neighbor and best friend. Although his passions for the worldly and beautiful Sally probably never waned, Washington settled for a much more practical match: the widow Martha Custis, whose considerable holdings made him the wealthy gentleman he longed to be. The two were married in January 1759 and made an odd couple indeed -- George, a giant for his time at about 6' 2", towered over his portly bride, whose head didn't make it to his shoulders.
-- Cormac O'Brien, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House 

Do you remember your American History classes in high school or college? Remember having to take notes full of dry facts and statistics about such topics as the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Papers, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Smoot-Hawley Act, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies? If you were like me when I was in school, the very mention of history class probably evokes memores of sitting through sleep-inducing lectures and enduring stressful pop quizzes and essay exams with questions such as Name three major causes of the War of 1812. 

Lost somewhere in between filmstrip presentations and droning dissertations about "checks and balances" in the government were the personalities -- the human qualities and quirks -- that each of the 44 U.S. Presidents has possessed. From George Washington to Barack Obama, the men who have lived and worked in the White House are rarely portrayed in textbooks as individuals with human vices and virtues. 

Cormac O'Brien's book Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House is the antidote to the almost-deadly impersonal history textbook portrayal of America's Chief Executives. Mixing facts and trivia from a wide variety of sources, O'Brien describes each President's Administration in a two-to-three page overview, then tosses in a few more pages of short but revealing peeks into the Commander in Chief's personal life. 

Take William Henry Harrison, whose astrological sign was Aquarius, political party was the Whig, and whose Inaugural address on a freezing day in March 1841 not only was the longest ever given by a President (one hour and 45 minutes) but also was the catalyst for the shortest term in office; on April 4, 1841, President Harrison was dead. 

In stark contrast, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's stay in the White House was -- and will remain -- unmatched; our first disabled President stayed in office for 12 years and was elected an unprecedented four times during two of America's worst crises: the Great Depression and World War II. And of course O'Brien talks about FDR's crippling bout of polio, his often controversial recession-fighting New Deal policies and his efforts to balance American isolationism with the harsh realitiy that sooner or later the U.S. would have to fight against Nazi Germany. But O'Brien also dishes some very revealing glimpses into FDR's little-known love life. 

In a section titled Hanky Panky, O'Brien tells us that a young FDR first had an affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife (and fifth cousin) Eleanor's social secretary. When Eleanor found out in 1918, she banished Lucy and threatened to file for divorce. Franklin accepted the terms, but his wife never slept with him again. 

However, that didn't stop FDR from finding another mistress: Missy LeHand, who: 

...became one of his secretaries while he was governor of New York, and she would stay with him right into the White House. Stories abound of people walking into the president's office to discover Missy sitting on Roosevelt's lap. Eleanor seemed far less bothered by LeHand than she'd been by Mercer -- perhaps because she was said to have her own mistress by this time. Reporter Lorena Hicock lived in a room in the White House across from the first lady's, and it seems certain to many that the two shared more than just a deep friendship.

When Missy Lehand died in 1944, FDR mourned her passing...then started up with Lucy Mercer again. Because Eleanor's ban on Mercer was still in effect, the relationship remained a secret (with the help of the Secret Service, of course, who regularly arranged for illicit meetings between their boss and his old flame).

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House is not without its flaws, however. It seems to be well-researched -- I learned, for instance, that the tenth President, John Tyler, had 15 children, the most in American history, and that James Monroe once chased the Secretary of the Treasury out of the White House with a pair of iron thongs -- but it still gets things wrong. O'Brien, possibly focusing on the fact that President Gerald Ford was appointed as Vice President in 1973 (Nixon's first veep, Spiro Agnew having been forced to resign), then became President upon Nixon's resignation in August of 1974, starts the chapter on President No. 38 thusly: 

No American citizen ever voted for Gerald Ford in either a vice presidential or presidential race. He is the only man in American history to have been foisted on the nation by circumstances -- twice. 

While it is true that Ford's truncated "caretaker" Presidency came about because Agnew and Nixon resigned, the fact remains that, unless Jerry Ford was substituted by a look-alike alien from another dimension, he did run for a term of his own in 1976, going on "to lose a close (race) with Democrat Jimmy Carter (who, O'Brien cheerfully informs us in the next chapter, is the only President who has ever claimed to see a UFO)." 

In addition to the 44 Presidential chapters -- each with its portrait by Monika Suteski -- Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House has an introduction and six short chapters on such topics as presidential pets, the White House, the secret lives of the U.S. Freemasons, and aptly at the ending, famous last words. 

O'Brien, of course, seeks to inform the reader while avoiding a sleep-inducing didactic manner. Even when covering either very familiar territory (come on, surely JFK's sexcapades aren't news to anyone by now!) or less-than-outstanding Chief Execs (James Buchanan, Millard Filmore), his entries still find something for the reader to at least chuckle over. His style is the literary equivalent of TV's Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, straightforward at first, then slyly irreverent. Be warned, though; although O'Brien doesn't linger to stare too long at the details of, say, JFK's sexual dalliances while living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he does mention them. He also highlights some most un-Presidential language in the chapter about LBJ (who, by the way, liked to drive superfast along the roads of his Texas ranch....while drinking alcoholic beverages), making this book somewhat unsuitable for very young readers.

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.  

At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor - Epinions Book Review

Just as Cornelius Ryan’s three major works about World War II (The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) focus on the last 11 months of the conflict in Europe, the late Gordon W. Prange and his collaborators Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon zeroed in on the Pearl Harbor saga and its aftermath. No less than five major books by Prange and Co. deal with the series of events that occurred before, during, and after. Of these, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor is the first and most important volume. 

At Dawn We Slept covers nearly the entire 12-month period leading up to the “day of infamy” that marked America’s entry into World War II. It provides amazing insights into both the Japanese and American mindsets, and, most important, explodes the revisionists’ myth that Japan’s attack succeeded because President Franklin D. Roosevelt withheld critical information from Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii. 

Prange researched the Pearl Harbor affair for 37 years until his death in 1980, and his posthumous books paint a tragic picture of two great Pacific nations reluctantly yet inexorably moving in a collision course. Japan doesn’t necessarily hate the United States, yet since the 1920s sees it as its main rival for supremacy in the Pacific. Japan’s war in China causes the rift between it and America to grow, and U.S. economic sanctions intended to end Japanese aggression against its neighbors have exactly the opposite effect on the military-dominated government in Tokyo What once was just an abstract idea in Japan’s military academies -- a transoceanic war with Britain and America -- slowly but surely comes closer to reality after Tokyo joins the Axis in 1940. It becomes inevitable after Japan moves troops into French Indochina as a precursor to Japan’s strike to conquer the resource-rich Southern area (the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Singapore, and the U.S.-controlled Philippine Islands). 

On the Japanese side, the book shows the intense planning and preparation for the attack. Although not flawless (the midget submarines were rather superfluous and almost gave the attack away), it was brilliant. Driven by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s steely determination, a powerful strike force is gathered, pilots are painstakingly trained, and every resource - from innovations in ordnance (adapting torpedoes to run in very shallow waters) to a spy network on Oahu - is devoted to make the strike more effective. 

At Dawn We Slept also paints a sobering picture of American complacency, ignorance, and even incompetence during the months before the attack. Readers will learn, for instance, that Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short never truly understood his mission, which was to defend the Pacific Fleet when it was in port. Short failed to grasp the danger of aerial attack, focusing instead on an imaginary threat from Hawaii’s 125,000 Japanese-Americans. (This mistaken notion actually caused more loss of American airpower rather than preventing it; Short ordered all planes to be lined up in the middle of their air bases so they could be more easily guarded. This just made it easier for Japanese planes to destroy or disable most of the Hawaiian Air Force.) 

The Navy fares no better in its pre-Pearl Harbor activities, either. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel wasn’t a meek and incompetent officer, and he did have an offensive-minded posture. Nevertheless, his failure to fully coordinate intelligence gathering, patrols, or even contingency plans with Short were factors which contributed to the success of the Japanese attack. 

The book devotes much attention to the twists and turns that made December 7th, 1941 such a momentous day. As someone once said, it’s all in the small details. Who knew just what impact would the typing speed of a Japanese diplomat would have on the course of history? What would have happened if Adm. Kimmel had been immediately notified of the sinking of an unknown sub in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor? What if Adm. Nagumo had launched a third wave that day? 

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Victory at Sea: Suicide for Glory (Episode 25)

The Bottom Line The battle of Okinawa is briskly, briefly discussed in this episode of Victory at Sea 

Since 1952, when NBC first aired its 26-part Victory at Sea series of 30-minute documentaries about the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, it has been a staple of both broadcast and cable channels. Millions of viewers in the U.S. and elsewhere have seen at least a few episodes of writer-producer Henry Salomon's ode to the sailors and Marines who fought and often died fighting their German, Italian, and Japanese counterparts for control of the world's oceans.

Because battles on the air, land, and sea aren't scripted for the cinematographers as if for a Hollywood production, any major documentary about World War II is, in essence, a montage of shots and snippets of 35-mm film photographed by combat photographers stationed on different ships, aircraft, and military installations. There is actually precious little continuous footage of entire single naval battles; sometimes cameramen and their equipment were lost when their ships sank, or the censors snipped away too much material to preserve wartime operational security, or stored tins of film were destroyed by enemy air raids.

On Sunday, April 1, 1945, 15 days before the Soviets launched the final attack on Berlin, the last big air-land-sea battle of World War II began when units of the United States Army and Marine Corps landed on Okinawa, the largest island of the Okinawa islands which themselves are a part of the Ryuku archipelago. Supported by a 1,500-ship fleet commanded by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and with thousands of carrier planes providing air cover, the first waves of the U.S. Tenth Army landed least on the beaches.

April 1, of course, is April Fool's Day, and the GIs and Marines participating in Operation Iceberg were about to be the recipients of a Japanese "trick." For instead of greeting the Americans with deadly fire on the beaches, the 120,000 troops defending Okinawa planned to draw the invaders into prepared kill zones inland, making the gaijinpay dearly for every inch of Japanese territory while waves of kamikaze suicide planes made deadly dives against Allied carriers, battleships, and other ships of the invasion fleet.

The resulting campaign, which officially ended on June 21, 1945, was one of the costliest battles of the war for both sides. The Japanese, whose Bushido code practically ruled out surrender in most circumstances, lost more than 100,000 men, while the Americans suffered 48,000 casualties, including 12,000 listed as killed in combat. These ghastly figures, in addition to those from past Pacific Island battles, were used to estimate the cost in both military materiel and human lives of an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, which was tentatively scheduled to begin on Nov. 1, 1945. 

The conclusion: Operation Downfall, which would have been the largest amphibious operation in history, would have resulted in a million Allied casualties, with an estimated death toll of 250,000. (The Japanese casualty estimates were 10 to 20 times higher, based on data from previous campaigns.)

The 83-day Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest campaigns in the history of the U.S. Navy. From April to June of 1945, more than 200 ships were hit by kamikaze aircraft, which had first been used against the Allies in the Philippines in the fall of 1944. The results of this desperate tactic were tragic for both sides; the kamikaze attacks caused one of every five Navy deaths during the entire Pacific War (5,000 sailors and Marines died in this campaign), 32 ships were sunk, and more than 2,000 Japanese aircraft and their pilots were lost, most of them before hitting their targets.

Suicide for Glory, the series' penultimate episode, gives viewers a brisk and brief overview of the Okinawa campaign, with an emphasis on the naval and air action while skimping on the land battle (which resulted in the deaths of war correspondent Ernie Pyle and the Tenth Army's commander, Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., son of a famous Confederate Army general). It consists of carefully edited clips showing the various phases of akamikaze attack, including footage of U.S. destroyers serving as radar pickets, Grumman F6F Hellcats and Convair F4U Corsairs taking off to intercept the incoming bogeys, and horrifying shots of Japanese planes either hitting the ocean under heavy flak or - worse - hitting American warships.

Richard Rodgers' classic score, here arranged and conducted by Robert Russell Bennett, backs Leonard Graves' narration over the montage of combat footage in a precursor to later and more polished documentaries, such asThe World at War. Because Salomon and director M. Clay Adams rely so much on the music to move the narrative along, experiencing Victory at Sea is like watching an early version of a music video, albeit an informative one.

A cautionary note: don't expect the quality of the sound to be crystal-clear or earthshakingly amazing. The episodes were made at a time when television audio was monophonic, so even though they were recorded in what was then state-of-the-art RCA Victor sound (and RCA, by the way, was NBC's parent company), the quality of the audio signal isn't going to be up to par with even the cheapest home theater system.

Victory at Sea - Volume 25: Suicide for Glory Main Credits:
Directed by: M. Clay Adams
Written by: Henry Salomon and Richard Hansen
Narrated by: Leonard Graves
Musical Score: Richard Rodgers
Music Arranged and Conducted by: Robert Russell Bennett
Technical Advisor: Capt. Walter Karig, USN

Victory at Sea - Volume 1: Design for War

Victory at Sea - Volume 2: The Pacific Boils Over

Victory at Sea - Volume 3: Sealing the Breach

Victory at Sea - Vols. 4-6

Victory at Sea - Vols. 7-9

Victory at Sea - Vols. 10-12

Victory at Sea - Volume 13: Melanesian Nightmare

Victory at Sea - Volume 14: Roman Renaissance

Victory at Sea - Vol. 15: D-Day

Victory at Sea - Vol. 16: Killers and the Kill

Victory at Sea –Vol. 17: The Turkey Shoot

Victory at Sea – Vol. 18: Two If By Sea

Victory at Sea – Vol. 19: The Battle For Leyte Gulf

Victory at Sea – Vol. 20: Return of the Allies

Victory at Sea - Vol. 21: Full Fathom Five

Victory at Sea - Vol. 22: The Fate of Europe

Victory at Sea - Vol. 23: Target Suribachi

Victory at Sea - Vol. 24: The Road to Mandalay 

Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.