A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture

Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists.

A Colossal Wreck: a Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture
Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 498pp, £20

The introduction to Alexander Cockburn’s posthumously published ramble across the American landscape contains a shot across the bows from his brother Andrew for anyone from this magazine who dares to review it. “Some fool back in the 1990s excoriated Alexander in the leftish English weekly the New Statesman for being ‘anti-American’ . . . It may have been the very stupidest of all the insults hurled over the years at Alexander.” If “anti-American” is the most stupid slur Cockburn attracted in more than 40 years of condemning the failures of US politicians, his life as a campaigning journalist must be deemed a failure.

It is true that “anti-American”, like “un- American”, is an abusive term often misapplied by sloppy thinkers, but Cockburn’s elegant ambiguity about his adopted home was designed to throw people off the scent. Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists. It is not so much a nation as a mishmash of disparate cultures, spread thinly across a vast continent, and any attempt to reach (let alone hammer a stake through) its hard heart is a fool’s errand.

As with most of his family – a distinguished clan of sub-aristocratic radical writers – Cockburn’s shtick was to pose as an outsider. The son of Claud Cockburn, the communist editor and reporter who first identified the Cliveden set as a nest of appeasers in the run-up to the Second World War, Alexander was brought up in County Cork. He was despatched to the rugger-bugger public school Glenalmond in Perthshire and then he went to Keble College, Oxford, where he rubbed shoulders with fellow members of the complacent class he claimed to despise.

A not-so-distant relation who saw the Cockburn universe in reverse was Evelyn Waugh, a bourgeois curmudgeon with his envious nose pressed firmly against the pane of privilege. The author who played this ohso-English game of inverted snobbery most successfully was George Orwell. Old rivalries continued into the next generation, leaving Alexander to defend his father from Orwell’s ghost: “Unlike Orwell, he didn’t rush to squeal, secretly squeal, on his comrades to the British secret service . . . Orwell certainly was suspicious of Jews, blacks and homosexuals. My father was a communist agitator.”

By the time Alexander was ready to right the world’s wrongs, the world had moved on. The British empire was defunct and the battle between Labour and the Tories had become a consensual sham. He headed instead to the new capital of world imperialism: Washington, DC, which a distant relative had burned to the ground in the war of 1812. For the best part of 50 years, Cockburn kept that flame alive, writing elegant, idiosyncratic prose for everyone from Murdoch’s Village Voice to the house organ of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal. His writing was always eloquent, erudite and original.

Inevitably he found himself cast in a grudge match against the compulsive attentionseeker Christopher Hitchens, a fellow New Statesman alumnus whose lust for fame and ability to perform casuistic somersaults put him at a distinct advantage in the age of hate radio and cable TV scream-fests. His pent-up frustration at watching Hitch chain-smoke his way to drunken stardom reached its peak at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, when Cockburn’s louche nemesis abandoned the triangulating Bill Clinton and turned on a dear friend, the president’s sidekick Sidney Blumenthal.

“I’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss,” Cockburn wrote. “And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time.”

Cockburn calls as evidence of Hitch’s ideological depravity his dislike for the German Red Army Faction, whose members, to show their disdain for capitalism, mounted grisly killing sprees against public officials and their blue-collar helpers. At a typical late-1970s dinner party in Washington, Americans lined up to watch the pair of literary Brits claw each other over long-forgotten slights. Hitch accused the murderous Germans, then on the run, of giving the left a bad name.

“If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitch said, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in.” Cockburn backed the killers: “Wouldn’t you just, I remember thinking at the time. I’ve often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.”

For Cockburn as for Hitch, the internecine battles of the early Soviet revolutionaries were an inspiration against which everything was measured. Through what appears to be a ragbag of journalism, diary entries and blogs, behind all the critiques of America – particularly its interventionist foreign policy – Cockburn’s belief system remains intact. His first point of reference is often the Roman history that he learned at school: so the demands of the military-industrial complex on Bush and Gore in 2000 are compared to the Roman praetorian guard auctioning off the imperial throne in 193AD after the assassination of Emperor Pertinax.

It was this effortless cultivation of references that made Cockburn so loved in the US, where journalism is not the knockabout trade it is in Britain but more of a smug priesthood. American journalists can rarely write like an angel nor can they deliver a left hook; Cockburn could do both. If from an Englishman’s point of view there was too often a Pooterism in his writing, it did not, in this volume, prevent him being endlessly refreshing in his observations.

Timorous Americans, who even in brutal, mannerless New York recoil from no-holdsbarred argument, deemed Cockburn unduly “mordant” and “acerbic” – both adjectives that appeared in his New York Times obituary. In reality – and alas – he was a pussycat who barely laid a finger on the American empire that took him to its bosom.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

Decline and fall: relics of an American empire. Image: Tema Stauffer.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories