The War At Home · The Pharmacist · James Ellroy

And it's time to vote on next month's book review!

It’s time to choose the February bonus review book! The poll’s right here, and open until Friday. Pick me a gooder! — SDB

Not unrelated to the above, The Pharmacist drops February 5 on Netflix. A limited series about a Louisiana pharmacist’s fight to expose the corruption around the opioid crisis after his son’s death, it’s not unrelated because Dopesick is in the list of book-review options. I won’t be covering The Pharmacist on the main pod (and this isn’t really the reason, but: what’s with the midweek true-crime drop dates, Netflix? Makes it kinda hard to plan), but I’ll probably work up a Brief on it. The trailer’s below; any of you guys planning to watch this one?

In honor of awards season, we’re looking back at some of the overlooked true crime films that have been nominated in the Academy Awards Best Documentary category in years past. This week’s installment is 1979 nominee The War at Home.

The War at Homechronicles the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement at the University of Wisconsin from 1963 to 1973. The film opens in 1963 with footage signaling the familiar tropes of the all-American college town experiencing a boom year (and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the football team), but it would be in this year that student protests of the U.S. presence in Vietnam began. As the years go by and the nightmare of Vietnam becomes more and more undeniable, student activists organize and execute a series of overt protests, culminating in 1970 with the bombing of the U.S. Army Mathematics Research Center on campus, which took the life of a researcher and injured four others.

The initial protest efforts are familiar to those who lived through -- or, like me, have read or viewed various properties about -- this era in American history: attempts to execute citizen arrests of staff at the local air base, sit-ins at the campus administration building protesting the university’s participation in the draft effort, disruption of speeches by figures like Edward Kennedy (who despite the family charm comes across as a war apologist), the movement to put a referendum on the local ballot to end the war, and countless protests on campus and in town met with zealous and violent responses from local police. The activists target recruiters from Dow Chemical, the campus ROTC program, and other university programs and actions they view as complicit in the war machine. The film does an excellent job transmitting the sense of community that built around these efforts, which soon grew to include Madison residents and business owners not tethered to the student movement.

Participants come to terms with the “embarrassment of confrontation” (a phrase uttered by one of the student activists that resonates) and grapple with the best course of action to end what they see as an immoral and illegal war. As the war churns on and more and more lives are lost, frustration with non-violent methods grows, and more extreme tactics take root with some activists.

The first salvo in this stepped-up approach is the burning of the ROTC building on campus. In the minds of some, this doesn’t go far enough to garner the kind of response from the government they were looking for (an unequivocal withdrawal of troops). The U.S. Army Mathematics Research Center seems to have had a rather anonymous presence on campus until it became clear that work taking place there supported the war effort. And for those who fervently believed that a significant and consequential action was necessary in order to force the government’s hand, it seemed like a perfect target. The principal architect of the bombing, Karleton Armstrong, is interviewed and seems remorseful about the death that resulted (the bomb was timed to go off in the middle of the night when it was thought the building would be empty). He’s ultimately sentenced to 23 years in prison.

The crime at the heart of this story is left to the very end of the doc, and I found myself wishing the filmmakers had provided more insight into the machinations of the plot and those involved, as well as a focus on the victims (I had to Google the name of the post-doc student who was killed – Robert Fassnacht). But The War at Home provides a look at the anti-Vietnam student protest through the lens of one community and campus. There are countless stories from this era that are less familiar, and I’m glad to have had the chance to learn about Madison’s. – Susan Howard

A couple of worthwhile longreads from over the weekend:

  • The Texas Observer digs into solitary confinement in the state: “the effects of this extreme practice,” which is often “harmful for inmates, staff, and the communities that people damaged by isolation return to”; first-person accounts of memory loss and depression resulting from decades in solitary; and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s determined opacity re: solitary, down to what a cell in a solitary unit even looks like. (In a weird reference Mobius, I just caught part of that SVU episode in which Stabler spends a weekend in solitary to prove a point…a point raised by a character played by Stephen Rea, who was married for a long time to a key figure in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. The episode, and Christopher Meloni’s performance, is kind of a lot, but I do give the show credit for trying to shine a light on the issue even if that light ends up melting some cheese in the process.) Excellent work by Michael Barajas; the illustrations provided by inmate Aaron Striz (especially the one featuring his “cellie,” a spider) are heartbreaking.

  • Evan Ratliff’s profile of criminal-defense barrister Nicola Gobbo for The California Sunday Magazine is really something. The best way I can think to describe the prose is “breathless” — but not in a People-fawning way. It just hurtles along, deftly tucking in contextual facts and hints of what’s to come, and when the twist arrives, Ratliff is restrained in his judgment. — SDB

From the archives, my review of a classic (or is it?) in the genre, James Ellroy’s My Dark Places.

James Ellroy investigates his mother's murder -- and himself

The crime

In 1958, Jean Ellroy's body was found by a road in a down-at-heel Los Angeles suburb. She had been sexually assaulted. The 10-year-old son she left behind felt, in the immediate aftermath, relief; Jean's death meant he could go live with his father. But per the back cover of My Dark Places, Ellroy "spent the next thirty-six years running from her ghost and attempting to exorcize it through crime fiction" before quitting drugs and denial and buckling down to try to find Jean's killer -- and reconcile his own feelings about his mother in the process. Only one of these efforts succeeded, as Jean's murder remains unsolved as of this writing.

The story

I hadn't read much, if any, Ellroy before picking up My Dark Places; I'd seen properties based on his writing -- L.A. Confidential is a total poppy-fields movie -- but crime fiction isn't generally my thing, so I wasn't familiar with his prose style, that stinging-slap noir bebop cadence. It's not for everyone, and I don't know that I'd have tolerated it as well in a story that wasn't true and set in postwar L.A. -- he's not afraid to use the racial epithets of the time he's writing about, certainly -- but it's easy to skim, and occasionally he punches into the heart of something, as when the homicide detective Ellroy teams up with to try to un-cold his mother's case, Bill Stoner, muses on what he's learned about a particular breed of victim:

Stupid rebellious girls had limited options. Life favored stupid rebellious boys. Stupid rebellious girls repulsed and titillated. Their act was aimed at this big world out to ignore them. Sometimes the wrong man caught their act in a too-perfect incarnation.

Stoner learned that men killed women because the world ignored and condoned it. (216)

Boy, how times change. ...Wait: still true.

It takes a while to get to Stoner, and then to get back to Stoner. First, Ellroy has to do his penance for resenting his mother as a kid, her functional alcoholism, her good-time-girling, her Oedipal appeal to him as a noir redhead with a knack for making bad choices; this involves a lengthy tour into his impressive-in-its-depth downward spiral, and while it too is flavorfully written, it could have run half the pages and gotten the same job done. Ellroy has things he needs to say, to feel out loud in an order, to expiate the entire situation, and as a therapeutic exercise, that can't be rushed, but as a narrative, you know, we get it. A parent's death leaves more than a blast radius of trauma; it also leaves the bereaved unsupervised. That huffing results is a case we've already cracked.

The literal case at hand is not cracked, as of the writing of the book and of this review (despite an Unsolved Mysteries that aired on my twenty-third birthday, heh), and Ellroy's writing of that part of it, the setting up of a 1-800 tip line, the running down living witnesses, is energetic enough that it prevented me from Googling to see the outcome -- which is all you can ask for from any true-crime property, that it keep you in its timeline. My Dark Places can sag a little in its recovery-memoir middle, but the whodunnit on either side rattles right along. Not an essential read, but recommended for genre context for sure. — SDB, 7/11/18

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