The Morning Jolt

White House

Trump Disregards Evidence from Allies over Russian Murder in U.K.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference following their summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump doubts our allies about a chemical weapon attack; the NBA pledges to obey the Chinese government; the long Joker review; and the United States formally abandons its Kurdish allies before a Turkish attack. Yeah, this is one heck of a Monday.

Why Does Trump Believe Putin’s Denials?

The Washington Post:

In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on the call. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted an article about Trump’s doubts Sunday and added, “Best evidence that no evidence of Russian involvement exists.”

For those who forgot,  Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer recruited by British intelligence as a spy in the mid-1990s, was nearly killed by a nerve agent called Novichok — a chemical weapon designed by the old Soviet Union — just as two agents of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency just happened to be in his neighborhood. Skirpal’s daughter was also poisoned, and another British woman who was not a target was killed by the nerve agent.

In August 2018, secretary of state Mike Pompeo signed off on a determination that Russia violated international law by poisoning the former spy — meaning either Trump changed his mind (good) or Pompeo’s just issuing statements that the president disagrees with (bad).

You know, congressional Republicans, when remaining in the president’s good graces requires you to look at your shoes and be silent when the president believes Vladimir Putin’s denial that the Russian government tried to kill its own turncoat with a weapon in its own arsenal, when our closest ally, the British government, has a mountain of evidence . . . it’s time to ask just what the hell you’re getting out of the deal.

The Soul of the NBA, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government says, “jump,” the National Basketball Association says, “how high?”

Every time an NBA official, team, or player tells us they’re socially aware, dedicated to improving their communities, throw this back in their faces. Between the democracy activists in Hong Kong and the authoritarians in Beijing, the league and the owners are choosing to stand with the authoritarians. One brief comment by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — a tweet declaring, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — caused the Chinese government and its various business allies to erupt and threaten the NBA’s operations in China. And just about everybody in the NBA’s upper ranks backed down quickly:

The NBA said Monday that it recognizes that Morey’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement, which was published on the Chinese social media website Weibo. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Morey on Monday said in a series of tweets that he was speaking on his own behalf. “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the team from politics. The team is in Tokyo for a series of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors this week. Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Fertitta said Saturday on Twitter.

These men are cowards, driven by greed to stand with the oppressor instead of the oppressed.

One way or another, in the coming days, the superstars of the NBA will stand up for their values. The question is . . . what are their values?

Joker: Self-Actualization Through a Gun and a Camera

[LOTS OF SPOILERS FOR ‘JOKER’ AHEAD.]

To paraphrase the late former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, it was what I thought it was.

For what Joker is trying to be, it’s well done. I just don’t like what it’s trying to be. As many observed going back to the first trailer, Joker wants to be a Martin Scorsese-esque film about a mad loner wrestling with his demons and losing amidst the crumbling slums of what’s called Gotham City, but that looks just like late 1970s New York City, right down to the logos on the police cars, the Times Square porn theaters, and the tabloid newspaper headlines. This is a dark psychological drama that just happens to share a handful of character and location names with the comic book, and one wonders if this started out as a completely different idea for a film that was later attached to the comic character.

As for whether this movie asks the audience to sympathize with its protagonist . . . our Kyle Smith, a guy whose judgment and analysis about film is as good as anybody in the country, thinks that contention is preposterous. As much as I respect Kyle, I’m not so sure I agree. I’d argue that in its storytelling choices, Joker goes right up to the line of trying to get the audience to sympathize with its titular character.

In the first act, the movie uses every “pet the dog” trick in the book to get us to like Arthur Fleck, the man who will become the Joker. He takes care of his elderly mother. He performs at the children’s ward of the local hospital. He tries to entertain a little boy on the bus by making faces. His medication is threatened by the faceless menace of “budget cuts.”

Joker uses Arthur as an unreliable narrator, meaning that well into the film we learn that certain scenes did not happen the way we saw the first time. We get the sense that his first attempt at stand-up at a comedy club didn’t go that well, but the subsequent videotape makes it clear he bombed completely.

About two-thirds into the story, we learn Arthur has no relationship with the single mom played by Zazie Beetz, and that the burgeoning courtship we’ve seen is all in his head. (In all of the previous scenes before the revelation, I thought her amiable attraction to the perpetually weird and off-putting Arthur was wildly implausible.) When she finds him in her apartment — and we realize he imagined their relationship — the scene ends rather abruptly; perhaps he left quietly or perhaps he did something terrible. But if we the audience had watched him do something terrible to her, that would have made Arthur a monster a little too early in the story.

Because almost every scene follows Arthur, this narrative sleight-of-hand means we shouldn’t be sure that anything we’ve seen before is accurate, or whether it’s Arthur’s imagination or reinterpretation. At least three times, people are nasty or cruel to Arthur for seemingly no reason: the punks who steal his sign and beat him up in the alley, the mom who snaps at him on the bus, and the Wall Street-ish jerks who bully a woman and then attack him on the subway. (We might even throw in the social worker who doesn’t seem to listen all that closely.) Except . . . did they? The movie suggests that he’s the love child of Thomas Wayne and a family servant, then suggests that he isn’t, and then it leaves the window open again — we see his mother insisting that the story of his adoption is a fake to cover up the scandal of Wayne impregnating the staff. A bizarrely reckless co-worker gives the obviously twitchy and medicated Fleck a gun for protection . . . or did he?

In the climactic scene, Arthur gets interviewed on a Johnny Carson/David Letterman style late-night comedy talk show host. (I see you, Dr. Ruth stand-in and subtle shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns.) Arthur gets the chance to offer his self-justifying monologue, arguing that the world is mean and uncivil (it is) and that someone like Thomas Wayne has no idea what it’s like to live a life like his (he doesn’t). Then the argues that DeNiro’s talk show host is as mean as the rest, because he invited him on the show to make fun of him. (He did.)

This is a frustrating argument to put front and center before the climax, because the Joker is at least technically right about everything he says — or at least he seems right based upon what we’ve seen in the film so far. We haven’t seen him kill anyone who was the least bit likable; we learn that even his mother has done terrible things to him. For a maniac filled with rage, this Joker picks some frustratingly reasonable targets for his rage. Joker’s vengeance against the talk show host is swift and brutal, and hopefully everyone in the audience will recognize that however legitimate or accurate Joker’s gripes about society’s injustices are, his solution is abominable. An early fantasy scene suggests Fleck just wants the love of a father and to be treated with respect — or at least, that’s what Fleck imagines he wants. But from what we can see, what he really wants to do is kill people because he thinks it’s funny.

People will understandably freak out about this movie and the messages some people would take away from it. Mass murder as a form of protesting society is having a big moment right now: Shooting cops, shooting Latinos in Wal-Mart, shooting classmates, shooting family members. We are awash in angry people — mostly angry young men, but not exclusively — who insist that their family, classmates, parents, cops, and society at large treated them so badly that the only way they could even the score was by picking up a gun and trying to put bullets into other people’s bodies.

Every post-shooting manifesto is the same: I may look like a villain to you but I’m really the hero, because of how I suffered. They almost always insist that someone else who’s really to blame, and the murderers the true victims because of what has come before, wrongs that a callous society failed to address. I’ve written in the past about how criminologists and psychologists found many mass shooters to be “grievance collectors,” people who grow increasingly obsessed with the idea that they’ve been uniquely unjustly punished and that someone else has taken advantage of them; everyone else’s good fortune is a sign that they’ve been cheated somehow.

The film’s next-to-closing scene is Joker standing upon a police car, as a rampaging riot of thugs in clown masks, indistinguishable from Antifa or Occupy Wall Street, tear apart the city and revere him as a hero. Fleck smiles his first genuine smile of the movie; despite all of his failures, he’s found his purpose and people who appreciate him for what he is. He has power, he has fame, he’s stumbled into the role of a cult leader of sorts — all because he picked up a gun and started shooting the “right” people without warning, when the cameras were rolling to record it all.

Everyone involved in this film set out to make a gripping and unforgettable portrait of how a man turns into a monster, and they did that with style and panache. But along the way they’ve also made Fleck’s transformation into a monster appear liberating and empowering. Arthur Fleck is a sad sack, and life beats him up in every way imaginable. When he becomes the Joker, he doesn’t endure pain; he inflicts it, with euphoric glee.

Who knows how many frustrated, sad, angry young men watched the movie weekend and saw that scene and thought, “that could be me”?

This isn’t an argument for banning the film, or a suggestion that if someone in a clown mask chooses to do something terrible in the coming days, weeks or months, that the filmmakers are responsible. Criminals are responsible for their own actions. But Joker isn’t as profound as it thinks it is, or it wants to be. You could have made a similar film from the perspective of the Columbine shooters or the Sandy Hook shooter or Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta. Every evil man believes he’s doing the right thing, that in the long run, his actions will be seen as justified and righteous.

A slew of creative people set out to make a film that would teach us how the world looks when seen through the eyes of a psychopath. Except we get those lessons outside the theater with disturbing regularity.

ADDENDUM: It’s amazing that anyone is ever this country’s ally: “The White House said Sunday that U.S. forces in northeast Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault, essentially abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside American forces in the years-long battle to defeat Islamic State militants.”

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