Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: 'Executive Orders' by Tom Clancy

(C) 1996 G.P. Putnam's Sons
In the horrific climax of Debt of Honor, former intelligence official and National Security Advisor (and briefly, Vice-President) Jack Ryan finds himself elevated to the Presidency...and in the sights of foreign and domestic adversaries. Even as the Capitol building smolders and the late President Roger Durling is laid to rest, unfriendly eyes are watching the new and untried President Ryan for signs of weakness...and begin plotting his -- and America's -- downfall. 

In Iran, Ayatollah Mahmoud Haji Daryaei (one of the opponents of the Fowler Peace Plan in The Sum of All Fears) broods in his office and begins to set in motion a series of crises that will tie up America's already over-extended military and intelligence services. Daryaei enlists not only his own operatives in Iran and abroad, but also the leaders of two other nations with global ambitions of their own. By creating a series of seemingly unrelated crises all at once, including an Iranian "merger" with Iraq and renewed tensions between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Daryaei hopes to distract American attention and pave the way for a savage attack on both President Ryan and millions of American citizens. 

But Ryan has made many enemies at home, too, including the former Vice-President, Edward Kealty, who had been forced to resign in the wake of a personal scandal. With the skills and connections he has made during his many years in Washington, Kealty begins a campaign to 
remove the still-untried Ryan from the Presidency. 

Clancy's huge novel is both compelling and complex, taking the reader from the ruins of the Capitol to the jungles of Africa and into the crowded streets of Tehran as President Ryan begins the awesome task of rebuilding a government decimated by a terrible act of revenge...and facing a loose confederacy of enemies bent on destroying his country, his family, and his life. 

(Spoiler alert: Readers who haven't yet read Executive Orders and don't want to see any more plot details should stop reading now. The analysis of the novel seen from a post-9/11 perspective requires discussion of various important concepts Clancy explores within this book's storyline.) 

Executive Orders was, and I think still is, Clancy's most ambitious novel since 1986's Red Storm Rising. In retrospect, it was the high point in the Jack Ryan series, almost literally lifting the character from a West Wing office (National Security Adviser) to the Oval Office in a series of events which leads to a cataclysmic act that wipes out, for all intents and purposes, the top ranks of the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of the Federal government in the aftermath of Debt of Honor.


Indeed, Executive Orders is basically an extension of the earlier novel, picking up the narrative -- from the characters' point of view -- a few minutes after Jack Ryan is sworn in as President of the United States and, on live television, utters what amounts to be his first executive order, "Let's get to work." 

Clancy, for all his faults as a writer of prose, has never been one to shrink from telling an eye-opening story that explores the strengths of our democratic form of government while pointing out the chinks in our defenses, particularly when it comes to the dangers of cutting the Pentagon's budget after the end of the Cold War and especially how vulnerable our nation was, and in some ways still is, to terrorist attacks.


Patriot Games and, even more spectacularly, The Sum of All Fears dealt with the threat from external terrorists; Ryan and his family had been targeted by a vicious band of members of the extremist Ulster Liberation Army in the former, while part of Denver is, in the Ryanverse, now a radioactive hole in the ground. Both books clearly point out that the "bad guys" were driven by the darkest of all motives, revenge. (In fact, most of the Clancy canon seems to delve into revenge as a motivating factor not only for the "villains," but for the "heroes" as well. The difference is in how each side channels it or deals with it.) 

Here, various enemies, foreign and domestic, are going to make life miserable not only for the new POTUS (the acronym for Ryan's new title) as the story unfolds. 

The prime mover of the hydra-headed assault on the United States is Ayatollah Mahmoud Haji Daryaei, Iran's head honcho and the "hidden hand" in the Denver nuke attack. He was, ironically enough, spared a mushroom cloud-shrouded death himself when then Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Ryan stopped President Fowler from launching a nuclear-tipped missile at Daryaei's home town of Qom, but ever since their one face-to-face encounter in Saudi Arabia this "holy man" has nursed a grudge against both Ryan and the United States.


Eager to destroy the United States in the worst way imaginable short of a nuclear attack, Daryaei approves a complex scheme that involves: 

1. A "hostile takeover" of Iraq, starting with the assassination of the unnamed Saddam Hussein-like leader during one of "the Mustache's" vainglorious rallies. 

2. An alliance of sorts with Zhan Han San, a mysterious and ambitious minister in the Chinese government and the unnamed Prime Minister of India. Their job: to create crises in their neighborhoods to divert American intelligence and military assets while Iran consolidates its union with Iraq. 

3. The main attack: A Patriot Games-like attack on Jack Ryan's family and, hopefully, on POTUS himself, while at the same time launching the most horrifying attack against the United States population -- using the dreaded Ebola virus in a devastating and frightening biological warfare attack. 

Inadvertently assisting Daryaei are two very different domestic threats meant to cripple the government and/or topple the new President of the United States. 

In Washington, Edward J. Kealty, the former Vice President of the United States, mobilizes his network of staffers and like-minded associates to get rid of any evidence of his resignation and to take over as President of the United States. Taking advantage of the confusion -- and employing tricks from the Nixon play book -- Kealty claims that he never resigned from the Vice Presidency and that he's the legal President of the United States. 

In the meantime, a pair of self-styled militiamen, eager to do away with what they believe to be an oppressive Federal Government, begins a cross-country trek on a mission that, if successful, will rival the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in its scope and prominence. 

Once again, Clancy uses his sense of creating a cohesive narrative by linking Executive Orders not only with Debt of Honor but to all the previous Jack Ryan novels; there are references to events that were chronicled in The Hunt for Red October ("the business with the submarine"), Clear and Present Danger (Ryan meets with the Colombian ambassador), The Cardinal of the Kremlin (an old adversary pops up out of seclusion to make trouble for Ryan), and of course The Sum of All Fears; Daryaei's grudge stems from the failure to get the U.S. and Soviet Union to destroy each other, and Ryan's Secret Service codename SWORDSMAN is another reference to that earlier novel. 

Despite Clancy's well-known limitations as a writer (his style has improved, but some of his proteges in the "techno thriller" genre are better prose writers...Harold Coyle, for one, is really worth checking out), his ability to come up with a big and convincing scenario is -- at least up to this novel -- still unmatched. His "bad guys" are always cunning and formidable, and Ryan -- in the novels -- doesn't pull off a last-minute James Bond-style caper that stops the Ebola attacks or prevents a shooting war in the Persian Gulf. On the contrary, the enemy forces hit America hard -- this is one Clancy novel that readers traumatized by 9/11 should read with caution -- even though, in the end, President John Patrick Ryan and the nation persevere, bloodied but unbowed. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

'Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns' Episode Review: 'Inning 2: Something Like a War (1900-1910)'


Inning 2: Something Like a War (1900-1910)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns

Directed by: Ken Burns

It is a decade of revolution. In China. In Central America. At Kitty Hawk. In Henry Ford's factory. And on America's baseball fields.

In 1894, a sportswriter named Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson takes over a struggling minor league - the Western League - and turns it into a financial success. In 1900 he changes its name to the American League and begins talking about challenging the big city monopoly held by the National League. The revolution takes only three years. In 1903, the first World Series is played between the American League Boston Pilgrims and the National League Pittsburgh Pirates. - from the DVD episode guide blurb

On September 19, 1994, the 300 or so member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) presented Something Like a War (1900-1910), the second "inning" of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. Co-written by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, the nine-part series examines the history of "America's game" and the role it plays in American culture and social history. 

(C) PBS Distribution and Florentine Films 

An epic overflowing with heroes and hopefuls, scoundrels and screwballs. 

  • Babe Ruth
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Satchel Paige
  • Pete Rose
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Casey Stengel
  • Hank Aaron
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Barry Bonds
  • Pedro Martinez
It is a saga spanning the quest for racial justice, the clash of labor and management, the immigrant experience, the transformation of popular culture, and the enduring appeal of the national pastime.

Something Like a War (1900-1910)
covers the tumultuous events of the first decade of the 20th Century, especially the growth of major league baseball, the creation of the new American League by "Ban" Johnson, a newspaperman-turned-baseball executive who sought a more respectable alternative to the rough-and-tumble National League. Johnson wanted a cleaner, less rowdy style of play; to achieve this goal, he lured many NL players to his new league, including early superstar Christy Matthewson.


Something Like a War also covers the early career of one of baseball's greatest players, Georgia-born Tyrus Raymond Cobb, better known as Ty Cobb. Nicknamed "The Georgia Peach" by fans and baseball writers of the time, Cobb was an outfielder who played the game for 22 seasons, most of them as a player/manager for the Detroit Tigers.

According to series writers Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, Cobb had serious anger-management issues and, like many Southerners of the era, had extremely racist views about African-Americans. He also played the game with an aggressive outlook; he approached baseball as "something like a war." (This quote, taken from Lawrence Ritter's oral history The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, gives the episode its title.)

The series' second "inning" is divided into the following chapters
  1. Top of the Second
  2. Baseball
  3. Something Like a War
  4. The American League
  5. 'Nuf Ced
  6. A Hardy Feeling
  7. The Look of Eagles
  8. Small Truths
  9. The Christian Gentleman
  10. Free and Equal
  11. One Of The Noisiest
  12. A Skirt-like Effect
  13. Hitless Wonders
  14. Casey at the Bat
  15. Bottom of the Second
Something Like a War (1900-1910) also covers the establishment of the World Series in 1903, colorful characters such as the "Royal Rooters," the rowdy Boston Red Sox fans led by bar owner Michael T. McGreevey, best known as 'Nuf Ced McGreevey, and baseball-related pop cultural gems along the lines of the poem "Casey at the Bat."

Like all of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, Something Like a War is presented in a visual and editorial style that viewers of The Civil War, The West, Jazz, The War, Prohibition, and The Vietnam War know so well. The team that includes cinematographer Buddy Squires, episode editor Yaffa Lerea, and series director Ken Burns uses a combination of visual techniques involving the use of still photographs and paintings, newsreel clips from the period, and contemporary (1990s) interviews with historians, sportswriters, and fans to make the history of baseball's early decades come alive. 


Something Like a War (1900-1910
features commentary from
such luminaries as:



  • Roger Angell
  • Thomas Boswell
  • Bob Costas
  • Robert Creamer
  • Billy Crystal
  • Mario Cuomo
  • Shelby Foote
  • Buck O'Neill
  • Daniel Okrent
  • George Plimpton
  • Studs Terkel
  • Ted Williams (archival footage)
And as in other Florentine Films documentaries, Burns and producer Lynn Novick use a cast of great actors to give voices to many of the historical characters whose lives are chronicled in Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. The list of voice actors includes:

  • Adam Arkin
  • Philip Bosco
  • Keith Carradine
  • David Caruso
  • Wendy Conquest
  • John Cusack
  • Ossie Davis
  • Julie Harris
  • Anthony Hopkins
  • Derek Jacobi
  • Garrison Keillor
  • Gregory Peck
  • Jason Robards
  • Paul Roebling

My Take


As I said in my recent review of Our Game, I have never been a diehard baseball fanatic. I might have tried to play a pick up game or two when I was a kid growing up in Miami, Florida, but I was not good at it. I have been to a few Major League Baseball games, most recently during the then-Florida Marlins' first championship race back in 1993. But I have never met a professional baseball player; the only guys I know that played the sport were members of my high school's baseball team. 

As for watching a MLB game on TV, my record is even worse. The last game I remember watching with any interest was the (Atlanta) Braves-(Los Angeles) Dodgers game on April 8, 1974 to see Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth's home run record when he hit homer No. 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. Then, as now, I was aware of baseball's cultural significance in the U.S. and other countries, so I watched that event live on NBC TV. 

Because I love the way that Ken Burns tells the stories of America, I recently purchased the 2010 box set of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (Includes "The Tenth Inning")  on DVD. 

Why Baseball?

Two reasons, really.

First, I was born and raised in the United States. I have lived here for 48 of my 54 years. As such, I identify more with American culture than I do with that of my parents, who were both from Colombia.

I am an American. I love my country. I love its culture and its history. And because baseball is an integral part of both, I have been watching Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns.

Second, Ken Burns is one of the few documentary filmmakers who can take any historical topic and make it come alive for the average television viewer. He is a natural storyteller, and he surrounds himself with talented men and women - Geoffrey Ward, Buddy Squires, Paul Barnes, Stephen Ives (who also directed The West), Lynn Novick, Jacqueline Schwab, Susanna Steisel, and Molly Mason - who share Burns' commitment to telling America's stories in a moving and fascinating way. 

Something Like a War (1900-1910) is structured - as are the other eight original episodes of the series - like a game of baseball. It begins with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, it ends with a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and is divided into two halves, the "top of the inning" and the "bottom of the inning." The late, great John Chancellor, a former NBC News anchor, does the "play-by-play," while interviewees provide "color commentary" during the episode. 

At 103 minutes, Something Like a War is slightly longer than Baseball's opening episode Our Game. Nevertheless, its narrative is so compelling that the viewer doesn't notice the running time. 

The one issue that more knowledgeable fans of baseball have called to my attention is the series' depiction of Ty Cobb as a violent and racist man. They call out Ken Burns and his frequent collaborator for perpetuating what some say is mythology created by Cobb's early biographer Al Stump. Stump is known to have fanned the negative fires around the legendary outfielder, and some of his accounts have been dismissed by later researchers as being totally bogus.

But much of this episode was, as I said earlier, derived from The Glory of Their Times, including quotes by Cobb himself, so it's possible that some of the accounts about the Hall of Famer's anger issues mentioned in Something Like a War might have basis in fact. 

What is true is that Cobb did not like blacks when he was younger and favored their exclusion from Major League Baseball. This was a common sentiment held by many whites throughout the United States (not just the South), and it was manifested by the baseball establishment's infamous "Gentlemen's Agreement."  This was an unwritten but strictly observed promise by all the team owners that they would not hire any Negro players under any circumstance.

To his credit, Cobb's views on race mellowed after he retired from baseball. But that story, dear reader, comes later in the series.

If you like baseball, or if you want to learn more about the American character through the prism of its culture, Something Like a War is definitely worth watching. 







Friday, November 10, 2017

'Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns' Episode Review: 'Inning 1: Our Game (1840s-1900)'


Inning 1: Our Game (1840s-1900)


Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns


Directed by: Ken Burns


In New York City, in the 1840s, people need a diversion from the "railroad pace" at which they work and live. They find it in a game of questionable origins. On June 19, 1846, at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, a team of well-dressed gentlemen, the Knickerbockers, play the first game of baseball. By 1856, the game is already being called "the national pastime," or simply, "Our Game." But the nation is about to be torn apart. And in the midst of the Civil War, there is one thing that Americans North and South have in common: baseball. - from the DVD episode guide blurb.


On September 18, 1994, nearly four years after the debut of Ken Burns' The Civil War, the 300 member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired Our Game (1840s-1900), the first "inning" of Burns' nine-part documentary Baseball. Co-written by Burns and his frequent collaborator, historian Geoffrey C. Ward, the series is a loving overview of the game that many Americans consider to be the national pastime. 



(C) 2010 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films

Narrator: It is played everywhere. In parks and playgrounds and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers' fields. By small children and old men. Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness. Speed and grace. Failure and loss. Imperishable hope. And coming home.
Our Game (1840s-1900) is, in essence, a 92-minute-long exploration of the origins of baseball in the mid-19th Century. It begins with a prologue-like vignette set in 1909 about how Charles Ebbets, then club president of a Brooklyn team called the Superbas, secretly bought land in the section of  Brooklyn called Flatbush. Included in Ebbets' purchases was a garbage dump known as "Pigtown." Eventually, Ebbets bought enough lots to own a complete city block, and on March 4, 1912, construction began on what would become Ebbets Field, located at 55 Sullivan Street.

Ebbets Field would be torn down in 1960, three years after the borough's team, now called the Brooklyn Dodgers, moved west to Los Angeles, California. But for 43 seasons, the stadium would be the home to the team affectionately known by Brooklyn people as "Dem Bums." And it would be at Ebbets Field that many of the sport's legendary players - Babe Herman, Dazzy Vance, Casey Stengel (who would later go on to manage Brooklyn's crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees), and Jackie Robinson - played "Our Game."


Narrated by the late John Chancellor, Our Game covers the first half-century of baseball. From its origins in two British bat-and-ball games (rounders and cricket) to the birth of what is now known as Major League Baseball, the episode is full of fascinating facts about a sport that began in the big cities, yet evokes visions of America's rural and pastoral heritage. Baseball, as Ward and Burns explain, was an antidote to the rushed pace of life in cities such as New York, Brooklyn (which was independent of its larger neighbor till the 1890s), Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. 


It also explodes the old myth that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, a major general in the Union Army, invented the game. Baseball's "origins myth" was created by a man named Abner Graves and was eagerly seized upon by National League president Abraham Mills and Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding. Both men sought to prove that baseball originated in the United States independently from Britain's rounders or cricket; Graves' claim, made in letters to the Akron Beacon Journal in April 1905, stated that Doubleday modified a game called "town ball" in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. 


Our Game (1840s-1900) is presented in a style that should be familiar to viewers of The Civil War, The West, Jazz, The War, Prohibition, and The Vietnam War. Cinematographer Buddy Squires, editor Paul Barnes, and series director Ken Burns use a mixture of visual techniques involving the use of still photographs and paintings, newsreel clips from the period, and contemporary (1990s) interviews with historians, sportswriters, and fans to make the early history of the game come alive. 


Featured in Our Game are such commentators as:



  • Roger Angell
  • Thomas Boswell
  • Bob Costas
  • Robert Creamer
  • Billy Crystal
  • Mario Cuomo
  • Shelby Foote
  • Buck O'Neill
  • Daniel Okrent
  • George Plimpton
  • Studs Terkel
  • Ted Williams (archival footage)
And as in The Civil War, Burns and producer Lynn Novick use a cast of great actors to give voices to many of the historical characters whose lives are chronicled in Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. The list of luminaries includes:

  • Adam Arkin
  • Philip Bosco
  • Keith Carradine
  • David Caruso
  • Wendy Conquest
  • John Cusack
  • Ossie Davis
  • Julie Harris
  • Anthony Hopkins
  • Derek Jacobi
  • Garrison Keillor
  • Gregory Peck
  • Jason Robards
  • Paul Roebling
My Take:

I'm not a devoted baseball fan. However, I have been to at least three Major League games in my home town of Miami, Florida. I saw the Yankees (the Bronx Bombers, as they are affectionately called) play an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at the now gone Bobby Maduro Stadium in the late 1970s. In 1993, I saw the then-Florida Marlins play against the Cincinnati Reds during the regular season; they would go on to win their first World Series in the post-season, five years after Miami was awarded its first MLB franchise.

But, in all honesty, I don't follow the Marlins with the same passion of a true fan. I might scan the headlines in the sports pages or check the team's standings occasionally, sure, but a devotee of America's pastime I am not.

For all that, I am an American. I love my country. I love its culture and its history. And because baseball is an integral part of both, I have been watching Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. And even though it sounds odd to people who know me well, I have enjoyed every minute of it.

For starters, Ken Burns is one of those rare documentary filmmakers who can take any historical topic and make it come alive for the average television viewer. He is a natural storyteller, and he surrounds himself with talented men and women - Geoffrey Ward, Buddy Squires, Paul Barnes, Stephen Ives (who also directed The West), Lynn Novick, Jacqueline Schwab, Susanna Steisel, and Molly Mason - who share Burns' commitment to telling America's stories in a moving and fascinating way. 

Second, Our Game (1840s-1900) is structured - as are the other eight original episodes - like a game of baseball. It begins with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, it ends with a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and is divided into two halves, the "top of the inning" and the "bottom of the inning." Narrator John Chancellor, a former NBC News anchor, does the "play-by-play," while interviewees provide "color commentary" during the episode. 

If you're a baseball fan (or even if you're not), Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns will inform, entertain, and even inspire you. As the blurb on the DVD collection's slipcover puts it, the series is:

An epic overflowing with heroes and hopefuls, scoundrels and screwballs. 

  • Babe Ruth
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Satchel Paige
  • Pete Rose
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Casey Stengel
  • Hank Aaron
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Barry Bonds
  • Pedro Martinez
It is a saga spanning the quest for racial justice, the clash of labor and management, the immigrant experience, the transformation of popular culture, and the enduring appeal of the national pastime.

Truly, if there's any such thing as "must-see TV," then Our Game (1840s-1900) surely must count as such.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

'Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (Includes The Tenth Inning)' DVD Box Set Review



Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (Includes The Tenth Inning)


An epic overflowing with heroes and hopefuls, scoundrels and screwballs. 



  • Babe Ruth
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Satchel Paige
  • Pete Rose
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Casey Stengel
  • Hank Aaron
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Barry Bonds
  • Pedro Martinez
It is a saga spanning the quest for racial justice, the clash of labor and management, the immigrant experience, the transformation of popular culture, and the enduring appeal of the national pastime. -- from Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. 

(C) 2010 PBS Distribution and Florentine Films
On September 18, 1994, the 300 or so member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired Our Game, the first episode (or "inning") of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. Co-written by Burns with historian (and frequent collaborator) Geoffrey C. Ward, the 112-minute long episode explores the beginning of America's national pastime and explodes various myths, including the story that General Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero, invented the game that eventually became America's pastime.

The series' original broadcast run ended 10 days later with Inning 9: Home (1970-1992), an examination of such topics as free agency, the designated hitter, multi-million-dollar salaries, and a gambling scandal that shook the sport to its very core. But as they do throughout the previous eight "innings," Burns and Ward also remark on the timelessness of baseball - the very quality that is at the heart of the sport's lasting appeal.


Well — it's our game; that's the chief fact in connection with it; America's game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution's laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
— Walt Whitman

The series aired - sadly - when much of the 1994 Major League Baseball season (and the World Series) were canceled on account of a players' strike. It earned good ratings (not as high as Burns' The Civil War, but still better than average for a PBS series) and an Emmy Award for best documentary. And even though it has been criticized for focusing too much on New York and Boston teams and perpetuating negative accounts of Ty Cobb's life, Baseball performed well enough to not only merit re-airings on PBS and elsewhere, but a rare follow-up by Ken Burns in 2010's Baseball: The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.

Fast forward to October 5, 2010: 16 years after Baseball's original broadcast run, PBS Distribution released Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (Includes the Tenth Inning), a 10-disc DVD box set that includes Burns' original 1994 documentary and Baseball: The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, a two-part follow-up that consists of Top of the Tenth (1992-1999) and Bottom of the Tenth (1999-2009).    


Narrator: It is played everywhere. In parks and playgrounds and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers' fields. By small children and old men. Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness. Speed and grace. Failure and loss. Imperishable hope. And coming home.

I'm not a die-hard baseball fan, mind you, but I have been to a few Major League Baseball games and enjoyed them. But by the same token, I am a fan of the films by Ken Burns and his team of collaborators, including The Civil War, The West, The Central Park Five, and the recently aired The Vietnam War. Consequently, I recently purchased this 11-disc set. 

The original 1994 Emmy Award-winning documentary series consists of nine episodes which are charmingly called "innings." They are:

  • Our Game (1840s-1900)
  • Something Like a War (1900-1910)
  • The Faith of Fifty Million People (1910-1920)
  • A National Heirloom (1920-1930)
  • Shadow Ball (1930-1940)
  • The National Pastime (1940-1950)
  • The Capital of Baseball (1950-1960)
  • A Whole New Ballgame (1960-1970)
  • Home (1970-1992)
The original nine innings are narrated by former NBC News anchor John Chancellor.

The 2010 box set includes the aforementioned The Tenth Inning: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, which covers the years 1992-2009. It was co-written by Burns, Novick, and David McMahon.  Because Baseball's  original narrator died in 1996, actor Keith David, who had worked with Florentine Films on the seven part documentary The War, was hired to take his place as the inning's narrative voice.

The series relies on the visual techniques used by Ken Burns in all of his major documentaries, including slow pans over still art (photos and paintings) of the 19th Century and the use of black-and-white and color footage from newsreels and contemporary TV/film coverage of games and other public events that take place in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Interestingly, Burns (in his executive producer gig) not only uses music from the specific eras covered in the 10 innings, but he also recycles cues that were used in other Florentine Films productions. In Our Game, for example, I heard songs and melodies that I had heard when I watched The Civil War and The West (which was produced concurrently with Baseball and was thus directed by Stephen Ives). It's kind of a cheat, some people might think, but it makes sense, both aesthetically and financially. 

As I said earlier, I am not particularly enamored with the sport of baseball. I've gone to a few games, including a New York Yankees spring training game at the now closed Bobby Maduro Stadium and a Florida Marlins game against Cincinnati during its first championship season in 1993. I am familiar with it, but not enough to know when a player steals a base or a pitcher makes a save. 

By the same token, I wasn't a Civil War buff before The Civil War aired in the fall of 1990, nor was I fascinated by the issue of Prohibition before I saw Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's eponymous three-part series back in 2011. But I love my country, the United States of America, and these two events, plus the other topics that Florentine Films' crew has chronicled, are tiles in the mosaic that tells the history of us, as it were.

This box set from PBS Distribution is worth getting, as is the series itself, even though some baseball fanatics have told me that Burns and Ward got some facts about Ty Cobb wrong. (To wit, the documentary tends to highlight Cobb's alleged racism and anger issues, traits which some of the players' early biographers attributed to him but are probably either exaggerated or totally bogus. I don't know who is right, but I mention the discrepancy in the interests of fairness.)

The 11 DVD discs come in the slim plastic cases that became popular for storing multi-disc sets around 2008. Each disc contains an "inning" of the original nine-part Baseball series; The Tenth Inning, however, is split into two discs, one with the "Top of the Tenth," the other with "Bottom of the Tenth."  There are six plastic cases in all; all of which except for one - the case for "Home" - store two DVDs apiece.

So it's fair to say that even though I have only seen the first two "innings" of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, I think that America's best-known documentary filmmaker has hit another home run out of the ball park. Stay tuned for more - and don't forget to get some peanuts and Cracker Jack! 


DVD Technical Specifications
Running Time: 1380 minutes
Video
  • Codec: MPEG-2
  • Encoding format: 4:3
  • Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
  • Original aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Audio
  • English: Dolby Digital 2.0

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  • English, Spanish

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  • DVD
  • Eleven-disc set (11 DVDs)

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

'The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick' Episode Review: 'The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)'


Episode Ten: The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)


Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Directed by: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

While the Watergate scandal rivets Americans' attention and forces President Nixon to resign, the Vietnamese continue to savage one another in a brutal civil war. When hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese troops pour into the South, Saigon descends rapidly into chaos and collapses. For the next forty years, Americans and Vietnamese from all sides search for healing and reconciliation. 

On September 28, 2017, "The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)" premiered on the 300 or so affiliates of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it was the tenth and final episode of The Vietnam War, an 18-hour-long examination of "one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history." Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick  features interviews of participants from all sides, including civilians and veterans from North and South Vietnam. (Hence the series’ tagline: “There is no single truth in war.”)


(C) 2017 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Florentine Films
"We would look at the map every day and see how far the ARVN had retreated. It was amazing. We were making more progress in one day than we made in years." - North Vietnam Army Col. Ho Huu Lan on the collapse of South Vietnam during the spring offensive of 1975

In March of 1973, nearly eight years after the first U.S. Marines landed on the beaches near Da Nang, South Vietnam, the Communists in Hanoi, North Vietnam's capital, begin releasing the 591 American prisoners of war they promised to release as a condition of the recently-signed Paris Peace Accord signed by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam's chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho.


Among the POWs released in mid-March is Maj. Hal Kushner, a flight surgeon who was shot down in 1967 aboard a helicopter in South Vietnam and was held captive by the Viet Cong in makeshift camps in the South, then transferred to Hanoi after a brutal march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Photo courtesy of Hal Kushner



"They called out names, and I walked out in the sunlight. The first thing I saw was a girl in a miniskirt. She was a reporter for one of the news organizations. I'd never seen a real miniskirt before. And there was a table with the Vietnamese and American authorities on one side, and there was an Air Force brigadier general in Class A uniform. He looked magnificent. I looked at him and he had breadth, he had thickness that we didn't have. He had on a garrison cap and his hair was plump moist and our hair was like straw. And I went out and saluted him, which was a courtesy that had been denied us for so many years. And he saluted me and I shook hands with him and he hugged me - he actually hugged me. And he said, 'Welcome home, Major. We're glad to see you, Doctor.' The tears were streaming down his cheeks. It was just a powerful moment. And then this liaison officer came out and got me and escorted me onto this C-141, this beautiful white airplane with an American flag and 'USAF' on the tail. And they had these real cute flight nurses on there. They were tall and blond and they were just gorgeous. And we got on this thing and we sat on those seats and one nurse said, 'We have anything you want.' You know. 'What do you want?' And I wanted a Coke with crushed ice and some chewing gum." - Major Hal Kushner, U.S. Army, recalling his release from North Vietnam in March 1975


Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, U.S. Air Force, is greeted by his wife Loretta (second from right) and their four exuberant children at Travis Air Force Base in "Burst of Joy," the Pulitzer Prize-winning news photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Slava Veder. Unfortunately, behind the smiles there is a darker reality. Three days before his release, Lt. Col. Stirm received a Dear John letter from his wife, who had filed for a divorce under California's no-fault law. (C) 1973 Slava Veder/Associated Press


Hanoi's release of American POWs gave the Nixon Administration the green light to bring the last American combat troops home, nearly 28 years after America began its involvement in Southeast Asia. President Richard Nixon had long known that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable; indeed, his craven sabotage of the nascent peace talks on the eve of the 1968 Presidential election had merely postponed the sad and disgraceful denouement of a bitter and unpopular war by another seven years.

In addition, Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger both knew that the Paris Peace Accords were not going to bring peace with honor to Vietnam. In real terms, it was a surrender by any other name: America would withdraw her combat and support units in exchange for the nearly 600 men held by North Vietnam. There would be no "residual forces" left in South Vietnam to serve as a trip wire in case Le Duan and the other Politburo members decided to attempt to take over the South via a conventional attack by regular North Vietnamese Army units. And, in a clause that was essentially a death sentence for Saigon leader Nguyen Van Thieu's regime, North Vietnamese troops presently in South Vietnam at the time of the "cease fire" could stay there.

Hanoi knew that time was on its side. Nixon could try to prop up his South Vietnamese allies by sending military aid for a while, but that was all. America was war weary and grievously divided politically. Nixon, distracted as he was by the Watergate scandal, was losing popular support except in the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Congress, focused as it was on the proceedings to determine if Nixon had committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" by participating in the cover-up of a break-in of the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, was also in no mood to keep pumping billions of dollars into a war everyone considered was over, at least from the U.S. perspective.

As "The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)" shows, Nixon's fall from grace was the nail in South Vietnam's coffin. When the disgraced President resigned from office on August 9, 1974, Thieu knew that he could not count on Nixon's successor, Gerald R. Ford, to provide South Vietnam with the umbrella of American air support Nixon had promised him late in 1972 in exchange for Thieu's acquiescence to the Paris peace treaty.

Finis, Vietnam. Photo Credit: Hugh Van Es


In addition to the tragic account of South Vietnam's doomed efforts to defend itself against North Vietnam's last great offensive of late 1974 and early 1975, the episode covers such topics as:

  • The experiences of veterans returning to "the World" (as Americans who served overseas called the U.S.), and the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • The desperation and sense of betrayal felt by America's erstwhile allies, the South Vietnamese, by Congressional cuts to military and economic aid after Nixon's downfall
  • The brutality of the Vietnamese civil war and Thieu's inability to keep South Vietnamese territorial integrity
  • The tragic events of the spring of 1975, including the infamous Convoy of Tears, the 12-day-long siege of Xuan Loc, Thieu's resignation on April 21, and the last-minute helicopter evacuation of the last Americans and a number of their South Vietnamese allies from Saigon
  • The long and bitter aftermath of the war, both in America and Vietnam
  • The conflicted feelings of American "draft dodgers" and deserters who left the U.S. and moved to Canada, including Jack Ford, a journalist and Army deserter who renounced his U.S. citizenship - and now regrets it
  • The campaign by veteran Jan Scruggs and others to build a memorial for the more than 58,000 Americans who were killed in the Vietnam War, and public reaction - pro and con - to Maya Lin's winning design

 My Take

I was 10 years old and living in Miami, Florida when Hanoi released the American POWs from their long captivity. By then, my English language skills had improved exponentially in the year since Mom and I had arrived back in the States after living abroad for nearly seven years and I understood most of what the TV news reports said. I knew now that many of the Americans were pilots that had been shot down over North Vietnam, and that one, Lt. Commander Everett Alvarez, had been a POW for nearly eight years. So, even though I did not understand what the war had been about, I was happy to see the images of the erstwhile prisoners coming home.


Of course, even though I was a precocious kid and read the newspaper and watched the news shows on TV, I was too young to understand the war, its causes, and its disruptive effect on American politics, culture, and society at large. I knew - vaguely - that it was the first war our entire country had lost since its founding. But I didn't know then that the simmering Watergate scandal was connected intimately to the war, nor did I realize that Presidents, bureaucrats, politicians and generals are often capable of deceiving the American people - and do it more often than one would imagine.

As a result, because the events depicted in "The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)" occurred at a time in my life that I recall with some clarity, this episode really struck some chords in my heart and mind.

Maybe this sounds like a cliché to those of you who have been reading this 10-part series of reviews about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War, but watching "The Weight of Memory" and the other episodes of this epic 18-hour documentary reaffirms my belief that history may not repeat itself, but echoes of the past do recur, like an earworm that won't go away.

I also share Ken Burns' belief that recent American history, including the acrimonious split in the American body politic between liberals and conservatives is one of the war's most devastating legacies. Just as Vietnam era conservative construction workers sneered disdainfully at young high school or college age kids who had joined the antiwar movement out of either moral conviction or simple self-interest, many Americans who presently support the current President of the United States look down on Americans who oppose him.

In both cases, the conservatives dismiss the protests as being "disloyal" and "unpatriotic." Extremists who believe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogans take their cues from Nixon's playbook and claim the protesters and the "mainstream media" are supported by a Communistic Democratic Party and the 21st Century right wing's favorite target of vitriol, George Soros.

In part, the hatred aimed at liberals, especially those that did not support the war in Vietnam, stems from some of the harsh words that the protesters said in mass demonstrations and to returning war veterans at the time. For conservatives, especially those in rural and working-class America who could not get their sons exempted from the draft or actually believed the U.S. was in the right, it must have been hard to hear returning GI's being greeted with epithets like "war criminal" or "baby killer" at the airport or while waiting for a taxi cab or a bus ride home.

And yet, The Vietnam War's conclusion also gives me a sense of hope that with age comes understanding and wisdom. In the segment about the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, veterans who fought in the war and members of the antiwar movement that tried to end it by any means necessary talk about "the wall" and how it affects them when they visit it.

 "I've been to the wall more than once," says Nancy Biberman. "When I look back at the war and think of the horrible things we said to vets who were returning, calling them 'baby killers' and worse, I feel very sad about that. I can only say that we were kids too, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry." 
A South Vietnamese helicopter - the iconic aircraft of the war - is heaved off the deck of a  U.S. Navy warship and into the South China Sea during the last hours of the evacuation from South Vietnam, April 1975. Photo Credit: (C) 1975 Associated Press file photo