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Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – review

There is a timeless, aphoristic quality to the writer's final work.

Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 240pp, £10.99

For much of the last decade of his life, Christopher Hitchens was spoken of in terms normally reserved for the supposedly immortal. In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis wrote of his friend, “Against the Hitch, physical and intellectual opposition are equally futile”. That one man could write so much, talk so much, smoke so much and drink so much was, his theist opponents would occasionally quip, persuasive evidence of the supreme being he rejected. In 2005’s Love, Poverty and War, Hitchens wrote, with a mixture of pride and surprise, “I have never had a serious illness or injury”. Five years later, after a diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, he conceded: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction”.

This collection, the first to be published since Hitchens’s death at the age of 62 last December, includes the six elegant pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair chronicling his illness and a closing chapter of dying reflections from what he called “Tumourtown”. Hitchens’s traditional strengths – his mastery of irony, his range of reference, his contempt for euphemism – are all in evidence here but there is a timeless, aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings on politics and literature. “To the dumb question, ‘Why me?’” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’” Following a series of adulatory proto-obituaries, he observes: “it seems that rumours of my life have also been exaggerated.” After enduring the petty humiliations of chemotherapy (he suffered from a permanently runny nose after discovering that “hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils”), he appreciates “the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body”.

The title’s eloquent brevity calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s declaration that “when I die I shall rot”. For Hitchens, the corollary of this atheistic conclusion was that life should be prized above all else. Though his chances of survival were slim (his cancer had already reached stage IV at the time of diagnosis), he underwent the severest course of radiotherapy available, while also having his entire genome sequenced in order to receive an experimental treatment developed by Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project (a privilege that prompted him to donate his body to medical science).

In the case of Hitchens, the aim was not so much to continue living as to continue writing. For him, the two were indistinguishable. When I interviewed him for the New Statesman in London in May 2010, I asked him what he would have been had he not been a writer. “Have been someone else, because writing is all I ever wanted to do,” he told me. “It’s what I am, rather than what I do.” From most writers, this would sound absurdly grandiose but the range and quality of Hitchens’s output and his work ethic meant that, from him, it did not. In his remembrance of Hitchens, Ian McEwan, who visited him in his final weeks, wrote movingly of how “his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line”. There is a natural journalistic temptation to immortalise the above as Hitchens’s “greatest battle” or his “final struggle” but it is one that he repudiates as powerfully as John Diamond did. When your body is slowly filled with “chemo-poison”, he writes, “the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

Being Hitchens, whose motto could have been “I argue, therefore I am”, Mortality also continues and deepens his confrontation with the religious. Though he occasionally adopts a tone of indignation towards those who contend that his cancer is a punishment from God, more often than not he appears to relish such dialectical combat. “Those who say I am being punished are saying that god can’t think of anything more vengeful than cancer for a heavy smoker,” he laconically observes. Wit, irony, the consolations of philosophy – these are the reserves we draw on when medicine can do no more. And rarely were they more formidably deployed than by Hitchens.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.