Why Millennials Are Disenchanted: Obstructionism Works!

Politics is not complicated. Here are the key tenants of political strategy you need to know to win elections:

1) You should encourage as many of your supporters to vote as you can.

2) You should discourage as many of your opponents’ supporters from voting as you can.

That’s essentially it.

This is why I was so dispirited to see a new WSJ poll and new research from Pew on Millennial voters that shows them abandoning the Democratic Party. They are not becoming Republicans. This is because Millennials (as the Pew research shows) identify as more liberal than any other age cohort. This advantage is even larger if you break it out to positions on individual issues. Millennials want more government involvement in the economy, a looser immigration policy, legal marijuana and gay marriage. 1 They identify as less religious and less “patriotic” than older cohorts.

This is part of the reason why Republicans are poised to win the 2014 midterms despite having one of the most wildly unpopular agendas a major US party has ever run on. Millennials increasingly identify as “independents” and are unenthused about voting for the Democratic Party. If you can’t turn out your party’s core voters, you will lose elections. People with liberal policy views are, or should be, the Democratic Party’s core constituency.

It is important to understand why this happened. This happened because obstruction works and Democrats badly mishandled the political situation in 2009-2010.

Obstruction Works Because Voters Don’t Understand How Government Does

Virtually nobody understands how the American political system works. Only one quarter of voters know that it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, for example. 2 Polling on procedural questions like whether to raise the debt ceiling show that huge majorities of the public doesn’t know what the debt ceiling is or why it’s important. I could list dozens more examples.

Basically, the marginal voter’s understanding of the political system boils down to: “The President is in charge and if things are going badly he is responsible.” They may also express a desire to throw out some or all members of Congress, who are (correctly) understood to be largely corrupt and ineffective, but because people tend to actually like their congressman, this will never happen.

No marginal voters 3 understand the political system well enough to understand why something is passed or isn’t passed. It’s too stupid 4 and too boring.

This is why obstruction is effective. It has three benefits: It obstructs legislation you disagree with from being enacted, it makes the President look ineffective or insincere because he’s unable to enact his stated agenda and it demoralizes the public about the political system, decreasing voter turnout among less committed demographics. This is why Millenials won’t vote in 2014. It’s not that their preferences don’t align with the Democratic Party. It’s that they no longer believe Obama actually supports the Democratic Party agenda because they don’t understand why he was unable to actually enact it. No one who matters understands, because it is too stupid and too boring. The only downside to across the board obstruction is that it will make the country shittier, but that’s not even a downside, because the President, not individual Congressmen, will be blamed for that anyway.

Yes, it has made the Republican Party unpopular, but a party built on groups that reliably turn out for elections (whiter, wealthier, older votes) has much less to lose from voter demoralization than the Democrats. Making voters cynical and dispirited isn’t a side effect of obstruction, it’s why it works.

The Missed Opportunity

What’s so frustrating about this is that the Democrats actually had a chance to avoid this. They entered 2009 with 58 seats in the Senate and a huge majority in the US House. Great, right? Given the power to enact basically any legislation you wanted, the White House decided to employ a strategy of reaching out to Republicans. The idea, basically, was that the stimulus bill would be so popular that the GOP would be forced to support it, and then the momentum built off that would shame Republicans into enacting other Democratic priorities into law with GOP support.

I understand why this is an appealing strategy. Everyone would rather be seen as a healer than a tyrant. Part of the appeal of Obama was the idea of healing the ideological divide between “Red America” and “Blue America.” I’m sure now that he was sincere. Maybe it expresses a desire to avoid conflict that has served Barack Obama well in other areas of his political career. Maybe he’s really an idealist that honestly believes guys like Jim DeMint just want what’s best for America.

Whatever his intentions were, it’s insanity to ask politicians to vote in ways that are disadvantageous for their political career, especially if they’re agenda items that they disagree with. Smart Senators and Representatives know that even local elections increasingly turn on Presidential approval rating 5 so helping a President of the opposing party is extremely bad political strategy.

So the White House’s strategy, based on having a compliant opposition in Congress, was basically fucked from the day he took office. 6 Part of the reason is because this strategy has never worked in the history of the United States. The idea of achieving a “bipartisan consensus” in Congress is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s when the issue of segregation caused the parties to become briefly unaligned from liberal/conservative blocs. If you look at the Presidents that history has considered “great” you have “moderators” like FDR, who once basically attempted to dismantle a branch of government in order to enact his agenda. Or Abraham Lincoln, who solved America’s slavery problem: not by compromising with secessionists, but by actually eliminating slavery, even if he had to wage a war and lock up political opponents to do it. Presidents who were instead stymied by obstruction from adversaries in Congress like Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter have enjoyed much lower reputations. Republicans went on to do just that to Barack Obama, preventing him from enacting most of his agenda by voting in lockstep against any major items and using obscure parliamentary rules to obstruct the business of Congress.

None of this is to say that moderation isn’t appealing rhetoric, but for it can’t be an effective political strategy as long as the incentives in the system mean the opposition party should be obstructionist. 7 You will end up being ineffective and despised by the exact voters you need to turn out for you to win future elections, which is exactly what the new data has shown is the case with today’s Millennials.

Your New Political Hero: Thomas Brackett Reed

Thomas_Brackett_Reed_-_Brady-Handy

Thomas Brackett Reed (R-ME), magnificent bastard

In 1888 8 the Republican Party controlled the Presidency and Congress for the first time in nearly two decades. But newly elected Speaker of the House Thomas Reed faced a major obstacle. Due to an obscure parliamentary loophole called the “Disappearing Quorum” 9 the minority retained the ability to block legislation, jeopardizing Republican priorities that the public had just voted to enact.

From Barbara Tuchmann’s The Proud Tower 10

To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent the legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, “it becomes a tyranny.” He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.

Basically, this is what happened: when the Democrats attempted to use the disappearing quorum, Reed used his authority as Speaker to say that they couldn’t, knowing that he could not be overruled without an actual majority. Again, from Tuchmann: 11

They called Reed tyrant, despot and dictator, hurling epithets like stones. Among the variants on the word “tyrant,” “czar” emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as “Czar” Reed, the Speaker was known thereafter.

Reed didn’t care. Democrats boycotted the chamber in protest. But after a few days, because parliamentary procedure is so boring, they lost interest, returned to the chamber and Reed rewrote the rules of the House of Representatives to prevent the Disappearing Quorum from ever obstructing the majority ever again. Thomas Reed went down in history as one of the greatest US House Speakers, not as a czar or tyrant.

The Other Reed/Reid

Back to the present day: The Democrats, lead by another guy named Reid, could’ve done something similar in 2009. Nothing was stopping them from exercising the so-called “Constitutional Option” to eliminate the filibuster and pass legislation with 51 votes. They had just won a resounding electoral victory and enjoyed huge majorities in both chambers of Congress and the Presidency. Because no one understands how the filibuster works, no one would have cared. 12 See this exhaustive and depressing list of popular bills that likely would have passed had the Senate filibuster not existed: Some choice examples:

DREAM Act

Perhaps the most consequential blocked bill in 2009 and 2010 was the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were children when they immigrated, provided they serve in the military or go to college. It was blocked twice, once as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that was paired with repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and once as part of the banal-sounding Removal Clarification Act of 2010. It had already passed the House, so if not for the filibuster, it would be law.

Public option

In November 2009, the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America act, a health reform bill that included a government-run health plan or “public option” similar to Medicare that exchange participants could purchase instead of private insurance. That same year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced that he had 51 votes for such a proposal in the Senate. But as anyone who followed the health care debate recalls, the proposal died when Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) declared their intention to filibuster a bill that included it. Absent a filibuster, it’s likely a public option would have gone through.

Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act

This bill would have barred corporations from benefiting on deductions and/or credits due to outsourcing and from deferring payment if taxes on profit earned abroad, a policy which encourages outsourcing. It would also exempt employers who “insource” jobs – that is, who move operations from abroad to the United States — from the employer portion of the payroll tax for those newly hired U.S. workers. The House never voted on the bill, but given its composition during the bill’s consideration in 2010, passage was probable. Nevertheless, the bill failed, garnering 53 votes with a few Democrats defecting.

(It’s also likely, in my opinion, that they could’ve passed the Cap and Trade bill that passed the House in 2009.)

Millennial voters would have much fewer reasons to feel depressed and cynical about the Democratic party if they had passed this extra legislation. It’s even likely that the Democrats would’ve done better in the 2010 elections because a larger stimulus would likely have improved the economy since the popular Public Option would have buoyed support for the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats would’ve been called tyrants by hardcore conservative partisans, but that already happened anyway on the issue of much more benign parliamentary procedure.

Instead, the Democrats got very little of their agenda passed, got wiped out in the 2010 election and pushed a generation of otherwise-liberal Millennials into the “politicians are just talk, I’m staying home on election day” camp. This is especially true after these voters actually did turn out to re-elect Obama and he was still unable to enact his agenda due to Republican control of Congress (which marginal voters do not understand). It’s too late to do anything about this monumental fuck up, especially because the 2010 election resulted in enough Gerrymandered Republican districts that it will be essentially impossible for Democrats to retake the House of Representatives before 2020.

It might be a long time before liberals have another majority in United States government, in part because conservatives are unlikely to fall into the trap of being obstructed (I have no doubt that if the Republicans retake both the Presidency and Congress their first order of business will be eliminating the filibuster), but next time they do they should learn from this tragedy. Obstructionism works, and you can’t compromise your way out of it. Your only alternative is to crush it, and you will get away with it because voters don’t understand what you did.

Notes:

  1. The big exception here is support for cutting Social Security. This is a completely separate messaging failure by Democrats that I won’t address here.
  2. This is even more embarrassing because the poll was taken when constant Republican filibusters were the main story in the political press. It was not some obscure issue in 2010.
  3. Hardcore political junkies and partisans will vote in every election, which makes them perversely unimportant in understanding actual voter behavior. The people we’re concerned with here are the people who might vote in each election.
  4. In the sense that it neither reflects what they’re taught in high school civics class (which itself is totally divorced from how US politics ever worked) or any sort of rational system
  5. because marginal voters don’t understand how the system works. See above.
  6. Actually, it was kind of fucked before he took office. It was clear the stimulus, which he wanted to sign on his first day in office, was already in serious trouble several weeks before his inauguration. I actually remember sitting in a bar at around 7:30pm on election day 2008 and telling someone that the early returns out of Kentucky meant that Mitch McConnell would win his Senate seat and the Democrats would fall short of a filibuster-proof majority (they only achieved this later through Arlen Specter’s kinda weird party switch) and therefore be fucked. I can’t believe I could see it then and super genius Larry Summers thought they could go back to the Senate for additional rounds of stimulus. But I digress.
  7. Just to review, that’s 1) public ignorance of how obstruction works, 2) strong correlation between Presidential popularity and results of congressional elections 3) demoralization favoring the party with voters who will turnout reliably
  8. Bear with me here
  9. Trust me, as someone who said that current Parliamentary procedure is too dull for most people to care about, you really don’t need to know the details of the disappearing quorum, which is somehow even less interesting than the filibuster. But if you’re into that sort of thing, here you go: Disappearing Quorum on Wikipedia.
  10. page 125
  11. page 128
  12. In fact, just a couple years before, the Republicans had threatened to eliminate the filibuster to prevent George Bush’s court appointments from being blocked. This did not stop them from immediately reversing themselves on the issue, because they understand no one understands how Congress works.

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Breaking down Neil Freeman’s alternate fifty states

Redrawn US Map

State lines in the United States don’t make a ton of sense. Many are derived from 17th century colonial disputes, or obscure treaties and congressional compromises, and many were drawn when the actual geographic knowledge of the areas in question was almost non existent. Hence we’re left with a country crisscrossed with semi-arbitrary state lines resulting in gigantic states like California that literally have fifty times the population of small-population states like Wyoming.

This causes some problems in US government since each state is assigned two US Senators regardless of size, leading some areas of the country to be grossly over-represented in that body. Additionally, every voter in each state is lumped together for the purposes of electing the President, effectively disenfranchising millions of voters who happen to live in a state whose vote is a foregone conclusion.

Artist Neil Freeman recently created this map, showing a hypothetical United States where the state lines have been redrawn so that each state has an equal population. It’s made its rounds on the internet (I’ve seen it turn up at the top of  Reddit’s /r/mapporn section several times). Freeman’s ostensible goal is to fix the electoral college system by ensuring each state has an equal population. This got me wondering though: what would be the practical impact of his proposal?

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Link Dump – 12/22/12

Holidays:

Following up on my essay from yesterday about why the Democrats are wasting resources pushing for more gun control, here’s an analysis from a liberal gun expert about why the first assault weapons ban wasn’t effective.

Why are surgeons worse than pilots at preventing catastrophic accidents?

The “Kobe Assist:” Can a basketball player help his team by missing shots?

Wages of Wins responds that, no, a basketball player cannot help his team by missing shots (or at least, if they can, the “Kobe Assist” article doesn’t come close to demonstrating this.)

Slate counter-intuitively declares the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dead. As long as most indie films are conceived and directed by nerdy, privileged 25-40 year old men, the archetype will never die.

The Microsoft Surface is a turd sandwich and nobody wants to buy one.

A redditor explains why Legos are so expensive. The top reply reveals Legos have lower error tolerance than nuclear submarine parts.

Scott Adams proposes dividing the world between people who create more wealth than they consume and those who consume more than they create, instead of dividing between rich and poor.

--Mike

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Hold your fire: the gun control debate hasn’t changed

After the horrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, the long dormant gun control debate has suddenly re-erupted. Many liberals, who had ignored the issue for years, are suddenly emboldened by the public outcry over both the murders and the ease with which the high-powered weapons were acquired. Barack Obama has created a task force to address the issue, helmed by a staunch advocate of gun control in Vice President Joe Biden, and public opinion has sharply swung towards new gun legislation. As many have speculated, this tragedy seems to be a turning point in America’s irresponsible and dangerous relationship with guns.

Don’t believe it.

In taking on the guns issue again, liberals are challenging what is probably the best organized pressure group in the history of the United States and possibly the history of representative democracy. The National Rifle Association and allied groups control millions of members, many of whom are dedicated, single issue voters. They control completely one of the nation’s two major political parties 1 and many important members of the other (Sen. Majority leader Harry Reid, for instance, has been a consistent supporter of the NRA and gun ownership).

To liberals and gun control advocates who are now offering to take this juggernaut on, I say: You’re welcome to start anytime. So far, you’ve done nothing.

Gun advocacy chart

Chart taken from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/12/18/the-nras-big-spending-edge-in-1-chart/?tid=pm_politics_pop

Gun control advocates bring, well, a knife to a gunfight. They are underfunded (the largest gun control advocacy group has literally 1% of the budget of the NRA), unorganized and lack even basic political infrastructure. There are no great mailing lists of gun control supporters that Congressional candidates can raise money from. There are no well-funded gun control think tanks pumping out policy papers. No wavering Democrats have been primaried by gun control advocates, and no Republicans have been made to pay a political price for their unquestioning fealty to the NRA.

Gun control advocates can’t even figure out what legislation they want to try and pass (hence the necessity of the Presidential task force). 2 Some are proposing stricter background checks, which are a good idea but would’ve done nothing to prevent Sandy Hook, because the guns used were stolen. Some are promoting a re-passage of the Assault Weapons ban, despite the fact only 2% of gun crimes involve these types of weapons. Not only do gun control proponents currently lack the influence or ability needed to pass gun control legislation, they’re so marginal that they lack the intellectual infrastructure to figure out what effective legislation would actually be.

It’s true that public opinion supports stricter gun control, but it has before. Public opinion, in a representative Democracy, is only as good as its ability to influence elections and gun control advocates currently have almost none. And as our fast-moving and fickle media culture forgets about Sandy Hook and its victims, the issue will fade from the minds of most Americans, especially without a pressure group on the left that can match the muscle of the NRA and its allies.

Oh, and did I mention that even if Congress were able to pass strict gun control legislation, the current Supreme Court is especially and historically hostile to gun control and would be likely to strike down any far reaching legislation on Second Amendment grounds?

This is a twenty year project. It might take a lifetime. It requires hard work, organizing and fundraising, not the angry Facebook posts and “we must do something” op-eds we’re getting now. It would require liberals to promote gun control to one of their top policy priorities. It would require them to primary pro-gun Democrats, even in cases, such as in West Virginia or Montana’s Senate elections in 2012, an anti-gun Democrat would likely find winning impossible. It would require hundreds of millions of dollars in fundraising per year dedicated to the issue

This is not impossible. But I’d argue that it’s stupid, and liberals and progressives need to understand that this is an extremely heavy lift for a relatively small reward.

The Sandy Hook massacre is a dramatic and shocking crime. Thankfully, in the context of the entire country, these sort of spree shootings are relatively rare compared to other causes of preventable deaths. According to Wikipedia’s depressing compilation of US school shootings, 339 Americans have died in schools as a result of gun violence since 1992, (this includes incidents in which a student committed suicide with a gun without harming anyone else). 3 Part of the reason gun control advocates have trouble on this debate is because the sort of dramatic mass shootings that inspire action on these issues are a tiny percentage of, and unconnected to, the vast majority of gun murders in the United States, far more of which are young men engaged in the drug trade shooting other young men engaged in the drug trade. 4

Just for some context on that 339 number: in the last twenty years, as many Americans died in school shootings as will die in car accidents in the next four days. And while the United States is indeed a grim outlier in gun deaths worldwide 5 the same is true of car accidents, with Americans being 3 times as likely to die in them than citizens of Germany, the UK or Japan. If the United States could lower its rate of auto fatalities to that of the UK, we would save around 22,000 lives per year.

Traffic safety, as an issue, doesn’t have the same emotional punch that gun control has, but this is just to take one example. I could list a dozen causes, from increased access to health care, reducing obesity, helping people quit smoking, or reducing air pollution that would have an impact dozens and dozens times larger than gun control, and conveniently doesn’t involve taking on the world’s most powerful lobbying group head-on. On many of these issues, advocates already have impressive and well-funded organizations and legions of supporters, with concrete, effective legislative solutions just waiting to be passed.

But instead, it seems as if one dramatic crime has convinced rank-and-file liberals that they should be devoting more time to the one issue where they will have the toughest challenge and that will yield some of the weakest results. Already, knowing that legislative action on the gun issue is unlikely, and that the NRA is far more likely to punish them electorally than gun control supporters, many of the moderates who had seemingly come out in favor of increased gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), have turned their attention to scapegoating the much easier target of video games and Hollywood. 6

None of this is to say the NRA isn’t run by despicable lunatics, or that the United States’ gun laws are anything but absurd. But liberals and progressives need to think very carefully about whether to pick this particularly steep hill to die on, when there are other challenges that are both easier and more important.

–Mike

Notes:

  1. Of the Republicans in the Senate, for example, only Illinois moderate Mark Kirk has less than a C+ from the NRA’s extremely strict grading system.
  2. The one exception here is that more or less everyone advocates closing the egregious and indefensible “Gun Show Loophole.
  3. This is me tallying up the numbers by hand, by the way. If I’ve made a mistake, I’m more than willing to be corrected.
  4. Statistics on this are hard to pin down, but a 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that at least 18% of the homicides in the US were drug related.
  5. The “gun deaths” statistic is somewhat misleading, since it includes suicides by gun, most of which presumably would’ve been committed anyway by other means if guns were not available, since the United States has a much lower suicide rate than many states with strict gun control.
  6. Just about a month ago I wrote on my blog that video games had now and forever won the battle against government censorship in the United States. Oops.

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Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and why the critics are wrong again this year

Hugh Jackman in Les MiserablesMy anti-musical credentials are unimpeachable. I sat through a Broadway performance of Phantom of the Opera and hated every minute of it. I think Chicago is clearly the worst film to win a Best Picture Oscar in my lifetime, even worse than the famously-disliked Crash. I find more-or-less the entire genre kitschy and weird.

But fuck it: the new Tom Hooper-directed Les Miserables is great, and the legion of film critics who are lining up to loudly express their distaste for it are assholes.

My contempt for their contempt is inspired by the familiar unfolding of an annual awards-season tradition: serious film critics identify two films as “the Oscar contenders” and almost unanimously line up behind one of the two, declaring it to be a serious and brave work of cinematic art and the alternative to be mindless drivel whose brief popularity is a baffling aberration, or, more tellingly, a sign of the American public’s increasingly crass tastelessness compared to said critics’. 1

This trope is at worst a minor annoyance, but for the love of god, at least pick the right films to pigeon-hole. The last time we witnessed this conversation unfold was around another of Hooper’s films during the 83rd Oscars 2, where the critics decided that The Social Network was a subversive and edgy masterpiece, and The King’s Speech middlebrow awards fodder. Superficially, this made a lot of sense: The Social Network was directed by beloved-by-critics David Fincher 3 and was briskly modern. It had Aaron Sorkin’s loopy mile-a-minute dialogue, a lot of confusing timeline shuffling and an extremely timely subject matter. The King’s Speech, on the other hand, was a costume drama set in Edwardian England, tiny in scope and light in tone, the sort of movie where we learn how irreverent and wacky the hero is when he fails to be appropriately polite to a Duke.

This made a lot of sense until you actually sat down and watched the movies. The Social Network wasn’t awful, but it was uncharacteristically sloppy for the normally meticulous Fincher 4 and featured maybe the least compelling plot of all time. The movie expects to extract serious suspense over whether certain already laughably-privileged characters will become mere millionaires instead of the much cooler billionaires the audience is supposed to root for them becoming. Even the film’s protagonist couldn’t be bothered to give a shit, only showing real emotion when, gasp, his servers briefly crashed. A business lawyer with a hobby of IT maintenance wouldn’t find this compelling. The reason the film existed in the first place wasn’t because it was a story that needed to be told, but because the zeitgeist, captured by the notion that Facebook was unstoppably ascendant, willed it into existence. Never mind that Mark Zuckerberg was just a boring, smart, upper-middle-class guy who started a surprisingly successful company. The critics and public decided Facebook was hot and so The Social Network must be hot too.

Reading critics (who mostly, it should be noted, sort of liked the film) lamenting The King’s Speech‘s Oscar win, you would think it was a staid Merchant-Ivory costume drama 5. But The King’s Speech we saw on the screen was anything but. It was shot in a startling style, with head-on, wide angle closeups replacing more conventional composition. A lot of critics have poked fun at Hooper’s shooting style as an odd quirk, but in fact it’s legitimately daring, unusual and surprisingly effective. I say surprisingly because it’s hard to think of another film shot anything like it, so its tough to analyze why cuts and compositions that shouldn’t totally work (a cut from head-on closeup to head-on closeup, for example) do actually kind of work or why we don’t mind seeing Geoffrey Rush’s bulbous features made more-bulbous by the wide angle lens inches from his face. Using this strange style, Hooper made a film that doesn’t just feature beautiful sets and costumes (low-hanging fruit for a film about 1930s English royalty) but is beautiful in its own right. It’s an accomplishment.

In addition to the real virtues of being innovative, beautiful, and unusual, The King’s Speech managed to tell a somewhat complicated story (it unfolds over the course of a decade or so) clearly and plainly. The Social Network, by contrast, is bloated and confusing, bogged down by extraneous plot elements and characters (Andrew Garfield’s crazy girlfriend!). Its story is also complicated, of course, but the filmmakers do the audience a disservice by actively trying to make it more convoluted by adding a weird, Citizen Kane style framing device in order to jumble up the timeline. Both films clock in at around two hours, but its very telling that The King’s Speech feels shorter than it is, and The Social Network feels like a slog.

All of the above is just a complicated lead-up to my complaint that this dynamic seems to be replaying itself this year, with Hooper’s Les Miserables in the King’s Speech role and Kathryn Bigelow’s inexplicably praised war-on-terror procedural Zero Dark Thirty as the beloved-by-critics “if the public had any taste this is what would win” Social Network role. 6 Grantland’s Zach Baron has already threatened to burn down the Academy if Les Mis wins. And you can rest assured that the critics who have merely expressed serious reservations about the film now, like New York’s David Edelstein or Time’s Richard Corliss, 7 will only grow to hate it more once the film becomes the gigantic hit it inevitably will be as the show’s loyal fans end up returning to the theater to see it multiple times.

I went into Les Miserables, musical-theater hater that I am, extremely prepared to not enjoy it. It won me over. The film’s gimmick, that the songs were recorded live instead of lip-synced over playback, works fantastically. Of course, choosing to record the audio live, in long takes makes it harder to give cover to some of the weaker voiced actors’ missteps, and inevitably, some voices warble. Notes are missed. The cast’s vocal ability is uneven. Amanda Seyfried is shaky, Hugh Jackman is great, and Russell Crowe is bad but probably better than you’d think.

By far the strongest performance in the film is newcomer Samantha Barks as Eponine. Barks played the same role in the London stage version of Les Mis and Hooper reportedly passed over more famous actresses to giver her the part, and was absolutely right to do so. She can really really sing, and her excellence provides a somewhat uncomfortable contrast to the recognizable film stars sharing the screen with her. I found myself minding their missteps a lot more after watching Barks completely nail “On My Own.” A lot of people are already mentally engraving the best supporting actress statuette with Anne Hathaway’s name (she’s not as great in this as you’ve probably heard, but I definitely seem to be in the minority on that. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” got a standing ovation at the screening I attended, and even critics who haven’t liked the film praised her.) but if I can put on my own “if people had any taste x would win the Oscar” hat for a moment, it really should be Barks.

Anyway, if you wanted a perfectly polished version of the music that you could sell as an original-Broadway-cast type CD, this is not it. But it doesn’t have to be, and the realness of the vocal performances is one of the most compelling aspects of the film, and one that fits perfectly with Hooper’s in-your-face wide-angle closeup style (which is far too close to accommodate lip-syncing). The closeness makes the big performances even bigger, which many critics will hate.

Film critics seem to have a problem with theatricality, even when it’s present in a loyal adaptation of a stage musical. Look: I get that musicals are sort of an inherently ridiculous enterprise, with the characters suddenly breaking into song and dance, but if you’re going to do it, do it. Les Miserables is unapologetically theatrical, with big performances, big songs, and big sets. The production design is outstanding, incidentally. The film wisely doesn’t attempt to make the sets or costumes feel “real.” They look like a Broadway set’s wet-dream of itself, with exaggerated angles, dramatic spaces and stark colors. The film knows its a filmed version of a show, why pretend otherwise?

Compare again to the beloved-by-critics Chicago, which was so ashamed of being a musical that it resorted to the conceit that all the songs were happening in the protagonists’ head. 8 Instead of filming the dance numbers in the classic and comprehensible “show the performers from their head to their feet” Chicago covered up the performances underneath a flurry of quick, music-video style cuts. Hooper lets his musical numbers play out in a much more measured and controlled style, letting many of them linger in very long takes (there’s no dancing in Les Mis). If you’re going to put on a show, go big, rather than trying to square-the-circle by making a musical that people who don’t like musicals will like.

The “heavyweight” alternative to Les Mis‘s audience-pleasing populism is Kathryn Bigelow’s torn-from-the-headlines account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Showing a decade of CIA operative Jessica Chastain’s hunt for Osama bin Laden in a seemingly-decade-long 157 minutes, the film manages to be confusing, tedious, and boring. It’s hard enough to keep track of the various personality-less intelligence bureaucrats she works with over the years, much less the gang of unseen Al-Qaeda terrorists they’re trying to ensnare. This is not for a lack of trying, and the film frequently resorts to the sort of “filling the audience in” expository dialogue they warn aspiring screenwriters against. I suppose you could read the long and confused buildup to the infamous Abbottabad raid as a comment on the difficulty of intelligence work, or the directionless and morally suspect Global War on Terror or something, but mostly its just a slog to sit through and evidence of sloppy filmmaking.

Speaking of morally suspect, many have criticized ZD30 for being pro-torture. The charge is ridiculous. It contains scenes of torture, but makes no endorsement of it. I suspect most in the audience will find the scenes disturbing or uncomfortable, though there will undoubtedly be sad right-wingers cheering at captive men being waterboarded. That’s a reflection on them, not the film. I suppose some anti-torture advocates would prefer the CIA operatives who conduct the torture to be presented in mustache-twirling villainy rather than ambivalence, but the fact is that the film isn’t very interested in the “torture debate” one way or another. The film should be under no obligation to feature a finger-wagging condemnation of the practice, and it’s better for not doing so.

There was one line that I found to be somewhat objectionable, where, planning the raid, a CIA guy laments that they can’t confirm the location of bin Laden’s compound with Guantanamo prisoners, because they now have lawyers who could pass the intelligence out. But it’s glossed over, and hopefully won’t be taken by many audiences as an endorsement of the reprehensible notion of denying legal representation to terrorist suspects.

The raid itself is compellingly staged, and audiences are likely to recognize the outline and layout of the famous compound the filmmakers so painstakingly recreated. It’s exciting, but is annoyingly hard to follow, partially because the film has a huge handicap in that all the soldiers wear identical uniforms (including helmets and night vision goggles obscuring their faces) making it difficult to distinguish them. Even Black Hawk Down, which used the clever cheat of literally writing the characters’ last names on their helmets in Sharpie (and took place mostly in sunlight, unlike ZD30), managed to be confusing for this reason. I’m not sure if its really a problem there’s a good solution to, so I’m willing to cut Bigelow some slack on this.

Less forgivable is how dark the sequence is. Yes, I’m sure it was dark in Abottabad that night, and yeah, I get it, the movie is called Zero Dark Thirty, but you don’t have to literally make the film so dark you can’t see whats in the frame. 9 But despite these handicaps, the raid manages to be riveting, and I think most audiences won’t have trouble imagining that it’s pretty close to what it looked like when it actually happened.

Update 12/27/12: I recently rewatched Zero Dark Thirty on a 55 inch Plasma TV instead of the 32 inch LCD I watched it on for this review and I’m happy to report that the darkness problem was with my monitor and not with the film. No one viewing the film on a proper display or in a movie theater will have the slightest problem. Please disregard the previous paragraph’s darkness complaint — it was made in error.

But the raid itself is only the final half hour of a 157 minute long film and doesn’t come close to redeeming what came before, especially because the protagonist we were with the entire film doesn’t directly participate in it. (We do get a lot of breathless shots of her watching the raid on a computer screen though!) Which sort of makes you question the what exactly the point of including the not-terribly-compelling meetings, interrogations and scenes of Chastain pouring through computer files was in the first place, or what the wisdom of centering the film on a character who doesn’t participate in its climax was. Chastain’s character doesn’t have a strong personality (she starts out timid but grows resolve) and we have no reason to care about her or want to see her succeed.

But none of this will matter. Bigelow, fresh off her Hurt Locker reinvention from Hollywood hack to “gritty” indie filmmaker, is fashionable, and the earnest silliness of Les Miserables and possibly Tom Hooper will never be. Zero Dark Thirty will find fans in news junkies who can congratulate themselves on recognizing the names of various terrorists and foreign locales, and in young men who will enjoy the macho Call of Duty military verisimilitude ZD30 contains loads of. These demographics are way more influential (and far more likely to be professional film critics) than the legions of musical-theatre lovers  who have all the words of “I Dreamed a Dream” memorized, but why should they be? Les Miserables is awesome, Zero Dark Thirty sucks and anyone who claims otherwise probably should get over themselves.

–Mike

Notes:

  1. I should be totally clear and say that this has absolutely nothing to do with who will actually win the Academy Awards, since critics do not vote on them. This complaint is more centered around the people who will write their annual “Who should’ve won the Oscars” column in an attempt to write the second draft of cinematic history.
  2. Last year’s awards didn’t feature this, since the extremely lightweight The Artist was so impossible to dislike that there was no serious attempt made to dethrone it from frontrunner status.
  3. Never mind that critics failed to “get” his best film, Fight Club, on its release either, panning it as dumb, macho violence until the film’s legion of fans were able to talk many of them into reevaluating it.
  4. Tip to aspiring filmmakers: don’t bother half-assedly CGIing visible breath onto your characters to show how cold it is if you’re also going to include trees in the shot covered in leaves
  5. Here’s Slate’s Dana Stevens calling it “glorified Masterpiece Theater. Even the AV Club’s positive review of it cites it as “calculated awards bait.
  6. Okay, this is where I acknowledge that I’m overlooking the actual favorite to win the Best Picture this year in Spielberg’s totally-great Lincoln. It’s existence in this year’s race isn’t totally relevant to the point I’m trying to make, and it’s my essay so I’m just gonna ignore it and move on.
  7. I decided to pick on these two because both slam Hooper’s solid filmmaking, but also breathlessly praised Chicago, which really was shot incompetently.
  8. The “it was all in the main chracter’s head” trope is a pet peeve of mine so maybe I hated this more than others did.
  9. I watched ZD30 on a DVD screener instead of in a theater so I’m open to the idea that this isn’t such an issue on a big screen. Parts of the raid are borderline unwatchable on a TV screen though, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they crank up the gain a bit on the transfer for the eventual commercial DVD release. [Note: see update below in main body of the article]

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Link Dump 12/05/12

I’m way too busy to copy/paste 6 links a day, so this is the first one in like a week:

The Houston Rockets’ win over the Lakers last night is statistically the worst win of the last 18 years in the NBA.

Windows 8 is a disaster. Here’s Jakob Nielsen’s usability report on the operating system.

Is Gangnam Style the key to the apocalypse?

If you lost money when the government shut down online poker sites, you’re probably screwed.

The cable TV bubble is bursting.

Maybe I’ve been around the internet too long, but sad lonely people faking illnesses for attention is like the least surprising thing ever. Good article though!

China is claiming laughably large parts of international shipping routes, and reserving the right to board ships of those who disagree. Hopefully I’ll age out of the war-fighting demographic before this shit gets too real.

 

Boards of Canada was jumping from space before it was a thing:

–Mike

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Link Dump 11/26/12

It’s Monday so feel sad:

The confetti at the Macy’s Thanksgiving-Day parade was shredded (but still readable) confidential police documents. Awesome. Incidentally, here’s a nice explanation of how to reassemble shredded documents.

Mark Cuban is awesome.

Stupidity and Evil are the same thing if you are only counting the results.” This is from an article about NBA shooting efficiency, by the way.

Huge parts of the most famous map in the history of video games was basically copied verbatim from a different game. The map’s designer tells all.

Nate Silver steps down off the mountain to condemn world’s dumbest tax reform proposal.

 Hamilton Nolan makes impassioned, impotent plea for journalists to be less dumb.

An internet epoch ends as Bill Simmons changes his twitter handle from @sportsguy33 to @BillSimmons. I now know how people felt when they found out Kennedy was shot.

How can I explain?

–Mike

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Link Dump 11/24/12

I didn’t do one of these yesterday and this one isn’t very good but here it is so okay:

Great idea: $2 random used-book vending machine.

Apple Maps trying to create new “LoDel” neighborhood exist below Delancey Street. Add it to their already extensive list of crimes. 1

Why are there so few good base-building computer games?

Roger Ebert reflects on Mulholland Drone of my favorite movies and I think one of his too.

Stalingrad station: A brief history of controversial place names.

–Mike

Notes:

  1. I may be becoming obsessed with NYC neighborhood neologisms. Story developing…

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Link Dump 11/22/12

Turkeys

The science behind Thanksgiving dinner, and why turkeys are twice as large as they were fifty years ago.

Jon Chait channels Pareene in this masterful takedown of John Podhoretz.

Former Heritage Foundation employee calls them a “shameless propaganda mill.”

“The New York literary world is a fetid, putrid swamp, cloistered off from the rest of America, as inbred as the Hapsburg Empire in the 19th century,” is a cool way to start a polemic, but sort of a weird way to start an interview. 1

Looking for someone to thank for the first Thanksgiving? Thank the microscopic bacteria that killed all the Indians before the pilgrims landed.

I know you’ve got money.

–Mike

Notes:

  1. I’d also point out that Hapsburg inbreeding peaked in the early 18th century, and by the 19th century the Hapsburg dynasty wasn’t really a going concern. Say what you will about the New York literary world, but this is the sort of detail they’d probably still be good at researching.

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Link Dump 11/21/12

A bad picture of yourself to use for your website dedicated to convincing people you aren’t a murderous drug addict.

It’s almost Thanksgiving so go drink with people you went to high school with:

An in-depth timeline of Twitter slowly ruining itself, apparently in a quest to be more like Facebook.

John McAfee, anti-virus software founder, “person of interest” in a murder investigation, and fugitive from the law in Belize, has a blog.

Matt Yglesias is slowly realizing what’s been obvious since the election: that Republicans don’t want a deal on the “fiscal cliff” at all.

That whole “kid in college basketball game scores 138 points in one game” thing is a total sham.

Or is it? Maybe the whole system is a sham, dude.

Ecstasy could be used to treat PTSD, but our ridiculous drug laws prevent comprehensive research.

It’s a new evening:

–Mike

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