John Pilger on President Obama: Don't believe the hype

Barack Obama is being lauded by liberals but the truth about him is that he represents the worst of the world's power.

My first visit to Texas was in 1968, on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. I drove south, following the line of telegraph poles to the small town of Midlothian, where I met Penn Jones Jr, editor of the Midlothian Mirror. Save for his drawl and fine boots, everything about Penn was the antithesis of the Texas stereotype. Having exposed the racists of the John Birch Society, his printing press had been repeatedly firebombed. Week after week, he painstakingly assembled evidence that all but demolished the official version of Kennedy's murder.

This was journalism as it had been before corporate journalism was invented, before the first schools of journalism were set up and a mythology of liberal neutrality was spun around those whose "professionalism" and "objectivity" carried an unspoken obligation to ensure that news and opinion were in tune with an establishment consensus, regardless of the truth. Journalists such as Penn Jones, independent of vested power, indefatigable and principled, often reflect ordinary American attitudes, which have seldom conformed to the stereotypes promoted by the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Read American Dreams: Lost and Found by the masterly Studs Terkel, who died on 31 October, or scan the surveys that unerringly attribute enlightened views to a majority who believe that "government should care for those who cannot care for themselves" and are prepared to pay higher taxes for universal health care, who support nuclear disarmament and want their troops out of other people's countries.

Returning to Texas, I am struck again by those so unlike the redneck stereotype, in spite of the burden of a form of brainwashing placed on most Americans from a tender age: that theirs is the most superior society in the world, and all means are justified, including the spilling of copious blood, in maintaining that superiority.

That is the subtext of Barack Obama's "oratory". He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people. That will bring tears, too. Unlike those on election night, these other tears will be unseen in Chicago and London. This is not to doubt the sincerity of much of the response to Obama's election, which happened not because of the unction that has passed for news reporting since 4 November (eg, "liberal Americans smiled and the world smiled with them"), but for the same reasons that millions of angry emails were sent to the White House and Congress when the "bailout" of Wall Street was revealed, and because most Americans are fed up with war.

Two years ago, this anti-war vote installed a Democratic majority in Congress, only to watch the Democrats hand over more money to George W Bush to continue his blood-fest. For his part, the "anti-war" Obama voted to give Bush what he wanted. Yes, Obama's election is historic, a symbol of great change to many. But it is equally true that the American elite has grown adept at using the black middle and management class. The courageous Martin Luther King recognised this when he linked the human rights of black Americans with the human rights of the Vietnamese, then being slaughtered by a "liberal" Democratic administration. And he was shot. In striking contrast, a young black major serving in Vietnam, Colin Powell, was used to "investigate" and whitewash the infamous My Lai massacre. As Bush's secretary of state, Powell was often described as a "liberal" and was considered ideal to lie to the United Nations about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Condaleezza Rice, lauded as a successful black woman, has worked assiduously to deny the Palestinians justice.

Obama's first two crucial appointments represent a denial of the wishes of his supporters on the principal issues on which they voted. The vice-president-elect, Joe Biden, is a proud warmaker and Zionist. Rahm Emanuel, who is to be the all-important White House chief of staff, is a fervent "neoliberal" devoted to the doctrine that led to the present economic collapse and impoverishment of millions. He is also an "Israel-first" Zionist who served in the Israeli army and opposes meaningful justice for the Palestinians - an injustice that is at the root of Muslim people's loathing of the US and the spawning of jihadism.

No serious scrutiny of this is permitted within the histrionics of Obama mania, just as no serious scrutiny of the betrayal of the majority of black South Africans was permitted within the "Mandela moment". This is especially marked in Britain, where America's divine right to "lead" is important to elite British interests. The Observer, which supported Bush's war in Iraq, echoing his fabricated evidence, now announces, without evidence, that "America has restored the world's faith in its ideals". These "ideals", which Obama will swear to uphold, have overseen, since 1945, the destruction of 50 governments, including democracies, and 30 popular liberation movements, causing the deaths of countless men, women and children.

None of this was uttered during the election campaign. Had that been allowed, there might even have been recognition that liberalism as a narrow, supremely arrogant, war-making ideology is destroying liberalism as a reality. Prior to Blair's criminal warmaking, ideology was denied by him and his media mystics. "Blair can be a beacon to the world," declared the Guardian in 1997. "[He is] turning leadership into an art form."

Today, merely insert "Obama". As for historic moments, there is another that has gone unreported but is well under way - liberal democracy's shift towards a corporate dictatorship, managed by people regardless of ethnicity, with the media as its clichéd façade. "True democracy," wrote Penn Jones Jr, the Texas truth-teller, "is constant vigilance: not thinking the way you're meant to think, and keeping your eyes wide open at all times."

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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From Finding Neverland to Goodbye Christopher Robin: how we reached peak Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic

Where did this bizarre genre come from? And why does it endure?

Writing is not the most cinematic profession. Blank sheets of paper, hours of boredom and procrastination, endless tea breaks, heavy eye bags – none of these things scream Thrilling Entertainment – For All The Family! Writing a novel is perhaps the activity least suited to a dramatic montage, and yet, that hasn’t stopped countless of examples from being produced. Hollywood has a rich traditional of biopics of famous writers – of wildly varying quality.

But cinema seems particularly obsessed with one kind of writer in particular – the whimsical, twinkle-eyed British children’s author. In the last two decades, we’ve found Neverland, saved Mr Banks – soon, we’ll even wave goodbye to Christopher Robin. From Shadowlands to Miss Potter, there are so many of these schmaltzy, nostalgic films they’re a genre of their own – neither fun enough to make great children’s films, or robust enough to be classic dramas. But while the intended demographic of these films is blurry, they persist, with even more currently on the way. We’re in the golden age of the Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic. Where did this bizarre genre come from? And why does it endure?

British society in particular has long been fascinated by writers’ lives. George Eliot, in an 1874 letter, insisted that “something should be done” to “reform our national habits in the matter of literary biography”. “I think this fashion is disgrace to us all,” she wrote, arguing that the genre is “something like the uncovering of the dead Byron’s club foot.” Regardless of her moral judgement on them, Eliot was right: biographies of authors are a national fixation – if one that is rather more enduring than a mere “fashion”. In his review of Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Terry Eagleton notes that “there would seem no end to the peculiar English mania” for the biographies of writers.

It’s not surprising, then, that those tastes would be reflected in cinema, too – films about renowned literary figures, have a long and healthy tradition. In the last 20 years, the number of films featuring famous writers include, to name a few, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), American Splendor (2003) Capote (2005), Infamous (2006), Howl (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011), The Rum Diary (2011), On The Road (2012), Kill Your Darlings (2013), Trumbo (2015), and the highly questionable Genius (2016).

It should be even less surprising that in this period we’ve seen sentimental biopics of a range of famous writers set against romantic British and Irish backdrops specifically – in fact, barely a year has gone by without one: Wilde (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Pandaemonium (2000), Iris (2001), The Hours (2002), Sylvia (2003), The Libertine (2004), Becoming Jane (2007), The Edge of Love (2008), Bright Star (2009), Anonymous (2011), The Invisible Woman (2013)… the list goes on. Writers like Beatrix Potter slot easily into this list.

But biopics about children’s authors are more than just a footnote in a larger trend. Finding Neverland, Miss Potter and Saving Mr Banks are stand-out examples of biopics that captured the popular imagination, and whose popularity has endured. And judging from films in production, biopics of children’s authors are now far more in demand than more sober alternative stories: there are at least five major upcoming Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopics (with subjects including AA Milne, Kenneth Grahame, Roald Dahl and JRR Tolkien) currently in the works.

They also adhere more strictly to certain conventions and a common tone. The author is almost certainly British, eccentric, and lonely (usually childless). They live in a beautiful British period setting. The film explores how they wrote one of their stories (often by mixing colourful, dreamlike or animated sequences in with the usual live action), but also how in doing so they discovered the importance of love (romantic, platonic or familial), challenging their once-isolated state. They also often interact with a child, and, moved by their innocence and wonder, derive both personal and professional inspiration from them. Many have a tragic death that forces the author to grieve and gain a new perspective on life and the afterlife. They’re usually released in the run-up to Christmas and awards season. They’re nostalgic and sentimental, and hover in a strange space somewhere between heritage (and sometimes wartime) period drama and family film.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the early Nineties, Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopics barely existed – and when they did, they were a bizarre, kaleidoscopic, hammy affair. Take 1985’s Dreamchild, a perhaps misguided attempt to dramatise the controversial relationship between Lewis Carroll and 11-year-old Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Wonderland’s Alice. Or 1990’s The Dreamer of Oz, a stilted made-for-television film about the inspirational characters behind The Wizard of Oz. They’re a far cry from the slick, Oscar-nominated weepies we see today.

Enter Shadowlands: the love story of the middle-aged CS Lewis and poet Joy Davidman Gresham. Starring Anthony Hopkins (a recent Oscar winner) as Lewis, it was released at the end of 1993, the same time as another Hopkins-led twilight love story, the eight-times Oscar nominated Remains of the Day. Though not about Lewis’s process of writing children’s stories specifically, it follows an eccentric (check) but isolated (check) British (check) children’s author (check) as he meets a headstrong, charming American woman who forces him to confront his reclusive lifestyle and learn how to live more fully (check) before she – spoiler alert – tragically dies (check).

Nominated for two Oscars and winning two Baftas, it was mostly, if not universally, warmly received. But it was the foundation for the genre of children’s author’s biopics as we know them. The Washington Post called it “a high-class tear-jerker” and “literate hankie sopper” and acknowledged the film as “really a rather corny tale”, a “soap opera with a Rhodes scholarship” – labels which could easily describe any of these films.

 

Still, it can’t be credited with immediately sparking a trend. It would be 11 years before another film recognisably in this mode would be released: 2004’s Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Coming out of a period that was enamoured with literary biopics (Shakespeare in Love, The Hours, Sylvia), a long enough gap had passed for the film not to garner too many comparisons to Shadowlands, despite their similar plots. As its title suggests, Finding Neverland follows playwright JM Barrie’s journey of writing Peter Pan, as well as the simultaneous discovery of a personal, existential Neverland. An eccentric but isolated British children’s author (check) meets a headstrong, charming woman (check) and her mostly charming, imaginative children (check) who rejuvenate him personally and inspire him to write his greatest work (check). His relationship with this family forces him to confront his reclusive lifestyle and learn how to live more fully (check) before – spoiler alert – the woman tragically dies (check), living on in the classic work. When an 11-year-old Freddie Highmore splutters “But why did she have to die?” at the film’s close, you are almost dared not to cry.

It’s a formulaic and emotionally manipulative film, which you can’t help but feel moved by, even as you note the clichéd soundtrack and impermeable script. Audiences and critics alike were charmed (the latter somewhat reluctantly). Grossing $116m and nominated for no less than seven Oscars and ten Baftas, it was one of 2004’s more popular family films. Finding Neverland clearly identified a gap in the market, even if critics were unsure what exactly the intended audience of such a film actually was – something that remains a curiosity of the genre. “It could appeal to everyone from preteens to pensioners, or it could appeal to no one at all,” Wendy Ide observed in The Times, concluding, “Ultimately this unconventionality is probably one of the film’s main strengths.”

Where Shadowlands failed to spark a trend, Finding Neverland clearly succeeded: the Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopic was born. Two years later, Miss Potter (2006) made its way to the box office with Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. It follows an eccentric but isolated (Zellweger’s voice-over intro cheerfully emphasises that Potter is a “spinster”) British children’s author (check) meets a charming, handsome man (check) who helps her achieve her dream of becoming a published author (check), inspires her to write more (check). He also rejuvenates her personally (check), forcing her to rethink her “spinster” lifestyle (check) by proposing before he – spoiler alert –tragically dies (check). Several critics noted the debt it owed to Neverlandthe AV Club opening its review with the line, “Fans of the fictionalized JM Barrie biopic Finding Neverland are bound to experience déjà vu watching the oppressively twee new biopic Miss Potter, a film that hews so closely to the Neverland template that it must have taken a phenomenal act of will not to just name it Finding Neverland 2: The Beatrix Pottering.”

The year after that, we had My Boy Jack (2007), starring David Haig as Rudyard Kipling, and Daniel Radcliffe as his 17-year-old son, Jack. Less whimsical in tone and less interested in Kipling’s works for children, it nevertheless includes an emotionally isolated British children’s author (check) who is rejuvenated and motivated by a “boy” (check) until he – spoiler alert – tragically dies (check), living on in a classic work (here, the poem “My Boy Jack”, spluttered at the film’s closing emotional scene).

Then 2009 brought the BBC film Enid, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Enid Blyton. It follows an eccentric but self-absorbed British children’s author (check) who meets a charming, handsome man (check) who helps her achieve her dream of becoming a published author (check) and attempts to change her independent lifestyle (check) by proposing. The main diversion here is how little Blyton is influenced by others – divorcing her husband, ignoring her children, and maintaining her independent creative lifestyle until her death.

The next mainstream Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic, Saving Mr Banks (2013) plays with similar ideas. Starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as PL Travers and Walt Disney, it follows an eccentric but isolated British children’s author (check) who meets a charming American man (check) who wants to adapt her classic work – despite difficult beginnings they learn from each other and Disney seems to encourage her to confront her reclusive lifestyle (check) and collaborate creatively. An argument sees her return home to maintain her independent creative lifestyle – until she is inspired by the finished classic film, seemingly moved by its depiction of a man who thanks to imaginative children (check) learns how to live more fully (check). Grossing $118m and earning Oscar and Bafta nominations, it’s the only film to have come close to Neverland’s success – and was received with similar, at times reluctant, praise.

The trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Due to be released this October is Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story of how AA Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was inspired by his son to write the Winnie The Pooh books and overcame his war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Also due to be released later this year is Rebel in the Rye, the story of how JD Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) was inspired to write The Catcher in the Rye, and overcame his war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

There are more coming, too. Adrien Brody is set to play Wind of the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in Banking on Mr Toad, the story of how Grahame coped with his mother’s death as a child, and his relationships with his wife, his autistic son, and his writing. A second film about Christopher Robin Milne starring Ewan McGregor is in pre-production, while Nicholas Hoult is also apparently in talks to play JRR Tolkien in a film about the author’s search for “friendship, love, and artistic inspiration among a group of classmates prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914”. There are seemingly two other Tolkien projects development: Middle Earth and Tolkien & Lewis, though news of these has petered out in recent months. And Hugh Bonneville has just been cast as Roald Dahl in an upcoming biopic “focusing on Dahl’s marriage to actress Patricia Neal” and set in the early 1960s, “a time when Dahl struggled to write some of his most famous works”.

Perhaps this type of film, with its oddly specific set of tropes and conventions, endures because it blends so many popular genres and tastes. It combines personal childhood nostalgia for classic stories with a public nostalgia for 19th and 20th century period dramas. It combines British heritage films, fetishised by British and American audiences alike, with the whimsical elements of more colourful family films like Mary Poppins. And because the children’s tales are so enduring, because so many people of different generations have read them, they unite audiences in vastly different age ranges. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter how uncinematic the act of writing is in reality: Sentimental Children’s Author Biopics aren’t disappearing from our screens any time soon.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania