The Rack, Arnold Laven (1956)

One of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. It has the awkwardness and claustrophobia of a funeral from the very first frame. Paul Newman spends two years in a North Korean prison camp. When he gets home, he’s charged with collaborating with the enemy. It becomes clear that if he did provide aid and comfort to his captors, he did it to protect his comrades and/or because he’d been driven insane by torture. The tragic logic of the prosecution is eerily reminiscent of so many contemporary stories. Why was Muhammad Ismail Agha, fourteen, sent to Guantanamo? Because he’s a terrorist. How do you know he’s a terrorist? Because he was sent to Guantanamo.

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Defiance, Edward Zwick (2008)

This is a movie of the story of the Bielski partisans. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a great story. You can’t eat popcorn while you watch Shoah, but you can eat popcorn while you watch this. I feel kind of sick to my stomach saying that. I don’t like Holocaust movies, generally speaking, since I don’t like texts that purport to represent the un-representable. But this isn’t really a Holocaust movie. That said, I didn’t really like it, either.

By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño (2000)

Marvelous. A playful and morbid treatise on how political, religious, and literary institutions corrupt and compromise the individual. The passages where the protagonist is summoned to lead Pinochet and his generals in a seminar on Marxism are sublime.

This is my second Bolaño. I’m starting with the early small ones before getting to the later big ones everyone professes to love. So far I’m delighted; he reminds me by turns of many of my favorites like Sebald and Bernhard, but is utterly distinctive.

Spartan, David Mamet (2004)

Val Kilmer is a modern-day Spartan, a special forces / CIA / Secret Service type (we’re not sure which) whose job is to execute the orders of his superiors, not question them or think them over. But when confronted with irrefutable evidence that his superiors are using him for evil rather than good, he faces a choice. An elegant problem play from Mamet, coated in a thin veneer of action-movie candy so as to sell tickets. Does that last make Mamet something of a reverse aesthetic Spartan? True to his art until marketplace exigencies require him to crank up the special effects machines? Not really, because I think he actually enjoys the shootouts for their own sake. With a very nice turn by the always-excellent William H. Macy, whose parents long had no idea, I’m sure, that they were put on earth expressly to provide David Mamet with his ideal actor.