james debate
james debate

Saturday, 20 July 2019

This month saw the first round of debates in the Democratic primary, a sign that the 2020 Presidential election is well and truly underway. A perfect opportunity, then, to present a way-too-early preview of how the race is shaping up and what to expect. With the election more than a year away, such discussion might seem premature, but this is no ordinary primary. The general perception is that whoever wins this contest has a very good shot at being the next President, making the next few months almost as crucial as the final vote in November 2020.

trump election 2020 democratic primary biden buttigieg pete beto bernie sanders kamala elizabeth warren tulsi gabbard

What is the state of play?
Let's get something out of the way up front. Donald Trump should win this election. The incumbent almost always wins a Presidential election, particularly when the economy is doing well, as is currently the case. In an ordinary year, I would expect the incumbent President to be about a 70/30 favourite, maybe higher with this economy. And yet, Trump goes into this election arguably only just about evens to win, and possibly even less.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. Foremost among them: Trump's approval rating is historically low, hovering around the high 30s and low 40s for most of his Presidency to date. No American President in the modern era has had such consistently low approval ratings, and none with an approval rating so low in the run up to election has ever won.

Of equal significance is the fact that Americans, by and large, do not credit Trump with the state of this healthy economy. The economy improved significantly under Barack Obama, and while it has generally remained strong for the first two years of Trump's Presidency, it has not noticeably improved for many, and by some measures appears more tenuous than at any point since 2008. This effectively disarms Trump's greatest talking point heading into election, and places him in a far more precarious position.

The final notable cause of worry for Republicans is the result of the off-year elections from 2017-2019, largely seen as a historic blue-wave for Democrats (to put it mildly). Certainly, it is not unusual for the President's party to suffer big losses in the midterm elections (just ask Bill Clinton and Obama, who lost big in midterms and both went on to secure second terms). Rather it is the state-by-state performance that will worry Trump, including historic swings in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, well above the national margin. These are all states that Trump won in 2016 and will be counting on again in 2020.

So as you can see, Trump heads into the 2020 election in a far more vulnerable position than just about any incumbent of the modern era. There really is a much greater than usual chance that the opposition candidate will win next year, making this a primary election of unusual significance.

So who is running against Trump?
One consequence of the perceived vulnerability of this incumbent is that there is an astonishing number of people running against him in 2020.

Trump has already drawn one major primary challenge in the form of former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and there are rumours that more could follow, including Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford or John Kasich. An incumbent President drawing a primary challenge is ordinarily a sign of fatal weakness, but I won't spend too much time discussing the Republican primary for two reasons: 1) The Republican Party has made clear that it will not support or encourage any such challenges, and it is allegedly considering cancelling all votes so that they can just rubber stamp a Trump nomination, and 2) Trump, for all his vulnerabilities, is still very popular among Republicans, and it is difficult to see anyone who could successfully challenge him for the nomination.

But it is not just the Republican primary. The Democratic primary has also drawn a remarkable number of candidates - some 25 who could be considered major candidates at the time of writing, with the bizarre possibility that still more could jump in at any moment.

There are more people running for President in 2020 than in any prior primary cycle, and the reason is clear: they all smell blood in the water and fancy their chances in a 2020 match up against Trump. But ultimately, only one major candidate will face off against the incumbent in the general election, which means we somehow have to whittle down this massive field to just the main contenders.

The field is large, but the polling to date shows a clear "big six". This top six has basically remained constant since the start of the year, and every member of the big six has been in the top three at some point polling as high as the high teens or low 20s.

The exact numbers vary from poll to poll, but across the total aggregate we can get a pretty good idea of where things stand. Joe Biden leads, with polls currently in the low to mid 20s. Behind him, essentially a three-way tie between Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren each polling in the high teens. Finally Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke are essentially tied in the mid-single digits (having both previously polled in the high teens). No one else in the race is or has previously polled consistently >1%.

For this preview we will look at each of the big six in turn, and finish with a summary of "the best of the rest".

The Big Six

1. Joe Biden
The former Vice President and "next in line" candidate. Joe Biden entered this race with near universal name recognition and the admiration of most Democrats, who identify Biden with the success of the Obama era.

His appeal is clear: he is a trusted, established figure, a moderate Democrat with appeal to the nation's centre. Crucially, he is a working class rust-belt Democrat who can potentially help win back the blue-collar voters who gave Trump Pennsylvania and Michigan.

He has begun the race with a commanding lead, but as was the case in 2016 with Hillary a large part of this appears to be a result of his superior name recognition, and the lead has tightened as the race has progressed. Biden's age is also a problem, and at 78 in January 2021 would be the oldest person ever to enter office. Given the advantage that incumbents hold, Democrats are hesitant to put forward a nominee who may not run for a second term (and so miss out on this advantage). But Biden's biggest problem is simply that politics has changed a lot in recent years. Biden has been around for so long that he is on record as having taken positions that were acceptable at the time, but wouldn't fly today, particularly when it comes to gender issues and race.

By historical measures, Biden's current polling and relative strength of the field suggests that while he is the most likely person to win the nomination, he is still more likely to not win. The favourite, but not overwhelmingly so.

2. Bernie Sanders
The runner up of the 2016 Democratic primaries, and a firebrand champion of the left with a devoted fan-base. Bernie took the world of politics by surprise in 2016, but this time he enters this race with universal name-recognition. Many had expected he would be among the frontrunners, and that is exactly what we have seen.

For most of the race to date, Bernie has polled behind Biden, but clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, as is the case with Biden, it is becoming apparent that much of this lead is down to his initially superior name recognition. Consequently, as the other candidates have become better known, his polling has suffered. Indeed most recent polls have shown him trailing one or both of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. For Bernie to be trailing his less well known colleagues at this stage is a very worrying sign for his supporters.

So why isn't Bernie doing better? As with Biden, age is a problem, and Bernie will be even older at 79 in January 2021. Bernie is also seen as a more polarizing figure than the other frontrunners. A lot of Democrats have a sour taste in their mouth from the damage his campaign dealt to Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as the ostensible support he has received from Russian election interference. That is not to suggest that Bernie has any complicity in this, but the fact that the Russian trolls do seem to want him to be the nominee is, in the eyes of many, a good reason not to nominate him. But the most significant reason may simply be that this time he has more competition, including several credible candidates who occupy his niche on the left. 2016 Bernie benefited from being essentially the only option for Democrats who did not like Hillary, but in 2020 those Democrats have other options.

3. Kamala Harris
As a prominent Democratic Senator, Kamala Harris has been discussed as one of the more likely Presidential candidates basically since the start of the Trump Presidency, and yet her campaign has so far flown strangely under the radar. She has consistently polled among the frontrunners, but has generated fairly mediocre fundraising numbers, and received considerably less media coverage than other candidates. As a relatively fresh face, her low name recognition obviously posed difficulties, as well as the fact that many of the younger, higher information voters initially flocked to media-darling candidates such as Beto or Buttigieg.

That was until the first set of debates. For many, this was the first opportunity to see Kamala Harris on the big stage, and she made the most of it. Following the debate, Harris has shot up the polls and is now polling essentially in a three-way tie with Bernie and Warren, and just a few points shy of Biden.

Kamala Harris has a lot of things going for her. She is keen intellect and former prosecutor at a time when Democrats are looking for a candidate who is going to be able to grill Trump effectively on the debate stage. As an ethnic minority woman and lawyer, she is essentially the antithesis to a President who has been criticized for sexism, racism, and a casual disregard for the law. Her defeating Trump would be seen as the ultimate repudiation of those unseemly elements that he has embraced. But more importantly, she is cultivating an image as a strong and capable leader, one who embodies the progressive America that Democrats long to see. If I was a betting man, I would probably put my money on her right now.

4. Elizabeth Warren
Seen by many as heir apparent to Bernie as champion of the left, Warren has shown herself to be more than just an ideologue. Her's is a very compelling case: a firebrand liberal who espouses the same progressive policies as Bernie, but presented in a more establishment and moderate friendly package.

Warren had a bit of a slow start considering she was already reasonably well known, but she seems to be the type of candidate that people like the more they get to know her and her proposals. Over the course of the past year she has been quietly and gradually closing the gap on those ahead of her (mainly from Bernie supporters who perhaps see in her a similar candidate but with a greater chance of victory) to the point where she now consistently polls among the frontrunners.

Warren has become famed for her numerous highly detailed policy proposals, spawning the first genuine meme of the 2020 election in "Warren has a plan for that!". She is capably positioning herself as the wonkish, policy-driven candidate of the race, and that's very attractive for a certain type of voter. Unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of voters have no idea about policy proposals and won't care, hence why Presidents tend to be charismatic and slick rather than bookish and professorial. One has to wonder, therefore, if there is going to be a ceiling on her support.

Those arguments make sense on paper, but to her credit Warren has shown herself to be a likable candidate even among more casual voters, and her polling has been surprisingly robust, even in states where you would ordinarily not expect her to thrive. There may be questions over whether she is tough enough or charismatic enough to beat Trump in a televised one-on-one, but in terms of the primary contest she is undoubtedly among the top contenders.

5. Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete has been, without a doubt, the sensational story of the primary so far. A small-town mayor with absolute zero name recognition running for President, no one gave him a hope in hell. And yet, somehow he has managed to catch fire, propelling him right into the top tier of candidates. It is easy to see why he has caught the imagination. Pete is exceptionally articulate, and seemingly unflappable even when faced with tough questions. His policy proposals mainly place him in the moderate wing of the party, but his youth and energy endear him to the more liberal young voters. He frequently touts his military service, speaks eight languages fluently, and is a Rhodes Scholar.

On the other hand, there are so many reasons why Pete should not succeed as a candidate. He would be the youngest person ever elected President. His homosexuality is still, sadly, a liability in many parts of the country. His only political experience is as Mayor of a small town, arguably the lowest rung of political service in the United States.

And yet, such is the deftness with which he handles these apparent vulnerabilities that he manages to create strengths out of them. He stresses the executive experience of a Mayor in contrast to the lack of such experience among Congressmen and Senators. Pete and his husband Chasten have presented their marriage as such a posterchild of wholesome family values that it's hard to see them as anything other than the ideal first couple, especially when contrasted with the marital chaos of the current incumbent. And far from just reciting practiced lines, what has impressed about Pete is his repeated ability to think on his feet, to show humour and wit.

There have been signs that Pete's polling has been slipping in recent weeks, but there are still plenty of reasons for his supporters to be bullish. His fundraising numbers are phenomenal, the highest of any candidate for the most recent quarter, in spite of having considerably lower name recognition. In addition, while his national polling may have dropped, he still polls very strongly in the key early states. Pete is and has always been an extreme underdog of this race, but the signs so far make clear that he is not to be taken lightly. If he picks up a strong result in Iowa and New Hampshire then that could give him the momentum he needs. Regardless of what happens in this primary cycle, it is clear that Pete is a future star of the party, and will no doubt rank among many candidates' top picks for Vice President should he not win the nomination.

6. Beto O'Rourke
Rounding out the big six, and currently in a statistical tie nationally with Mayor Pete, is Beto O'Rourke. Beto was the star of the 2018 midterms, in which he narrowly lost to highly prominent Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, one of the reddest states in the country. A combination of soaring rhetoric and good old fashioned photogenicity saw Beto briefly labeled the next great political rockstar, and smashed the fundraising record books. But in truth it was his authenticity and idealism which won voters in droves. Facing off against one of the slimiest, nastiest politicians in the country, Beto refused to get dirty and resisted the urge to fight back. Beto's style is very much to focus on the issues, and the things that actually affect voters. That is an approach that stands him in good stead, even when the punchy, media friendly soundbytes may be lacking.

Beto's Presidential campaign got off to a similar start, smashing the week one fundraising records and shooting straight to the top tier of the polls. But somewhere in the weeks since, his campaign has hit a slump. While he has consistently maintained his polling position among the big six, he now finds himself at the tail end of that top tier, and his polling among the early states is even worse than his national polling, in spite of very extensive local campaigning.

There are many reasons why Beto has slipped. Mayor Pete has stolen his thunder as the youthful, exciting candidate, and Joe Biden has taken his place as the moderate of choice. But the biggest issue has been his media strategy. Beto made headlines in 2018 for visiting every county in Texas, and he has tried to replicate this state-level success by campaigning in the same way, as if this was a local election. That means a heavy emphasis on in-person and local events, and practically zero national coverage for the first several weeks. His staff have clearly woefully misunderstood the dynamics of a national election, and his campaign has struggled since.

Beto is certainly not finished at this point, but it is difficult to see a path back for him, especially as debating is not the medium of choice for a candidate who thrives most in pure oratory. His best bet at this point is to keep his favourables high, poll well enough to keep getting into the debates, and then as other candidates begin to drop out emerge as a consensus candidate. Still, one wonders if this may have been one election too soon for Beto.

The Best of the Rest
These six candidates are by far and away the leaders of the race so far, and the most likely to win the nomination. But this is a race with some 20+ candidates, many of whom are themselves fairly prominent and impressive figures. These candidates are "the best of the rest". It's a longshot for sure, but there is certainly a possibility that candidates from within this group could break out following a good debate, or later on as other candidates begin to drop out.

So who stands out among the other candidates? The obvious first choice is Cory Booker, another prominent Democratic Senator who has long been tipped for a Presidential run. During his time as Mayor of Newark, Booker was considered by many to be a future star of the party. Supremely charismatic and well-liked, Booker used to make headlines for doing things like rescuing people from burning buildings. In recent years he has been dogged by a perceived close relationship to Wall Street, but make no mistake he is a formidable and well-spoken presence in the party. At the moment he may not be many people's first choice, but I could easily see him being a lot of people's second or third choice, meaning there is the potential there to emerge as a consensus candidate once people start dropping out.

In a very similar mould is Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and Housing Secretary under the Obama administration. Castro first gained national prominence as a keynote speaker during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and was allegedly high on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton's potential Vice President picks. Much like Booker, Castro is a very charismatic and well-liked politician who arguably would be a contender in a less crowded field (specifically if a certain fellow Texan hadn't gotten into the race).

For voters more in the mood for an outsider, there's Andrew Yang, a successful tech billionaire and a man with absolutely no political experience. His hook is essentially that he is the candidate Donald Trump was pretending to be: a successful businessman free from the shackles and corruption of Washington. Unlike Trump, that's actually true. Also unlike Trump, Yang is actually an extremely sharp candidate with some genuinely clever ideas. After Warren, Yang is probably the most policy-driven candidate, with a fascinating mix of centrist libertarian policy and radical left wing (universal basic income). I suspect Yang will struggle against more seasoned debaters, and with primary voters who do not appear to be in as nihilistic a mood as Republicans were in 2016. But if the mood changes and Democrats decide they need to think outside of the box, they could do far worse than Yang.

And honestly, everyone else running might as well not be. I've seen some people make an electoral argument for Amy Klobuchar or John Hickenlooper, but I have seen little real-world evidence to lend those predictions much credence.

I would like to make a special shout out to Tulsi Gabbard, who ostensibly appears to be the Kremlin's attempt at doing a Donald Trump, but for Democrats. Between her shockingly Putinistic talking points, often matching word-for-word the lines being put out of the Kremlin, and her being probably the only person in America other than Donald Trump to still deny that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, it's a wonder that anyone on the left still gives her the time of day. Fortunately, she seems to be garnering little support outside of the Russian bots on Twitter (which to their credit have been spamming Tulsi propaganda for months).

The huge Democratic field has become something of a punchline, and deservedly so. Many of the candidates really have no business running. But cut through the chaff and you find a core of some very capable leaders, any of whom would be a credible nominee. This Democratic field may be historically large, but it is also compellingly deep with quality candidates for all corners of the political spectrum. I for one can't wait to see how the race develops.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

james bond secret cinema casino royale daniel craig

Let me preface this by saying that I am a great fan of Secret Cinema and what they do. Secret Cinema presents: Casino Royale marks the fourth of their events that I have attended, the others being Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, and 28 Days Later.

I love Casino Royale. I think it's a great movie and arguably the best of the James Bond franchise. There was an awful lot of potential here for an immersive experience and for the chance for people to live out those secret agent fantasies that we have all had. And while I certainly had a great time with Casino Royale, I have to say it was easily the weakest of the four.

Secret Cinema's latest offering has an awful lot going for it. After purchasing tickets, the company sends you details to help set up a secret identity and mission for the evening. You select an alias, are assigned a job, and have the option of purchasing costume and prop items. The latter, obviously, Secret Cinema's way of monetizing the event as much as possible, but nevertheless the quality of the items we ordered was actually not too bad. You are given a contact to seek out at the venue, and told to bring business cards to cement your fictional identity.

A similarly pleasing effort has also been put into the crafting of the immersive environment itself, a Dagenham warehouse impressively converted to recreate four different countries which form the setting of the film. Upon arrival, you are given some fake casino money, told to seek out a particular item or individual, which involves traveling to the various locations and chatting to the various actors and other attendees in order to gain the information you require. Spy stuff, basically, and it's undoubtedly entertaining.

There are a few reasons why it doesn't all work as well as it should, and the main one is timing. Casino Royale has a fairly muscular two and a half hour running time, which means that the showing needs to start that much earlier. On top of this, the entire evening begins with an unnecessarily long introduction, which for some reason they can only provide to a small group of attendees at a time. As a result, entrance is gained very slowly and in batches. We arrived right at the scheduled time, and it still took us over an hour to get into the event. By the time we were through the gates, there was probably less than an hour left to explore this massive warehouse before the film screening began. It's barely enough time to complete your mission, and certainly not enough time to both complete your mission and explore the other areas. As it happened, we never had the time to even set foot in one of the four countries. I advise attendees to choose between doing the mission or exploring, you won't have time for both.

In hindsight, it's probably just as well that there is so little time before the screening, because there actually isn't all that much to do in this immersive world. Back to the Future had an entire town full of shops, fairgrounds, a school dance and other activities. Dirty Dancing had dance classes, mini-golf, arts and crafts, etc. Even 28 Days Later, another indoors Secret Cinema, had a base camp bustling with games and activities. Casino Royale, by contrast, feels strangely devoid of anything to do other than the brief assignment you are given.

And unfortunately this is not the only example of the presentation being little more than skin deep. The assignment itself is fun, but ultimately pointless, with no consequence or reward for completion. Those business cards you brought? Pointless, they just pick an actor's card for the introduction (seriously don't go out of your way to order/print anything special). That casino money? Sure it can be used at the cards tables of the casino, but there are only two tables in a room containing more than a thousand people. Unless you head straight there and spend your hour queuing up, you won't get a chance to play.

The main problem is a familiar one for Secret Cinema: too many people crammed into too spare an environment, all in the name of a desperate attempt to recoup the expenses of their increasingly extravagant projects. I mean really all the money they spent to recreate four countries' worth of settings, in which the audience ultimately spends no more than a few minutes at most, has to be one of the most absurdly indulgent wastes of money in the history of the concept. The other problem is something new for the company: paucity of ideas. And that's more worrying.

Secret Cinema's attempt at James Bond provides a fun, albeit all too brief, opportunity to live out your secret agent fantasies. The film itself is still as strong as ever, but the whole product sadly falls short of what we know the immersive entertainment industry can provide.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Created by Russell T. Davies
Network BBC
Starring Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T'Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes
Genre Drama
Running Time 55-60 minutes

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If there is one silver lining to living through turbulent and disturbing times, it is the remarkable creative output that such troubles can inspire. Years and Years serves as a timely example of this.

Russell T. Davies is cultivating something of a reputation at the BBC, credited by many for his revitalization of Dr. Who, and more recently with last year's excellent A Very English Scandal. The latter ultimately garnered a slew of awards, not least of all a Debbie on this very blog. His latest project could well see him become the first writer to win back to back Debbies, and if so it would be well earned.

The premise behind Years and Years is disarmingly droll, following the Manchester-based Lyons family over a period of fifteen years, documenting their relationships, their career tribulations, and financial troubles. But the real story of Years and Years is in its extrapolation of future events based on the trends we see today, and its stark depiction of how those events impact on the lives of not only the Lyons, but the entire country.

Far from a ripple in the calm seas of the late 20th Century, Davies sees the current climate of instability as only the beginning of a much grander process. He maps out a world of glorious chaos which starts with a Donald Trump re-election in 2020 and the continued rise of fear-mongering populism in the UK. Without spoiling too much, each mini-shockwave gradually snowballs into military conflict and financial crisis, and much more beyond.

The brilliance in this series is twofold. First is in its darkly comic tone, with a combination of great writing and audacious production creating a sense of almost breathless panic as one event leads to another with seemingly no respite (in one instance in the final episode, to highly amusing effect).

The second is in how believable everything is (in the first few episodes at least), and in particular in showing the very real ways in which national and global events can impact real people on a personal level. It makes for watching that is, in the first four episodes in particular, often terrifying and extraordinarily evocative. Above all, Davies manages depict the impact of current events in a way that never seems overly ideological or stilted, and thus holds an impressive ability to reach a wide audience on these important topics without alienating driving a deeper divide.

One also has to give a shout out to the sheer quality of production from the visuals to the sound and music. The performances are as impressive as we have come to expect from a prestige BBC project, particularly Emma Thompson's terrifying Farage-esque politician, a performance that will surely earn a BAFTA nomination.

It's not a perfect series, as becomes apparent. The last few episodes take a surprising (albeit still hugely entertaining) turn into what can only be described as Dr. Whovian sci-fi thriller territory, and wraps up proceedings with a somewhat unearned ending that feels strangely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episodes. This can't help but feel something of a let down for a series whose (devastatingly effective) initial hook is in its adherence to grounded reality.

There are also times where it feels, such is the pace of the series, that some important topics are only lightly touched on. There are brief references to antibiotic resistance and deep fakes, likely major issues of tomorrow, which are only really discussed in the most superficial of terms. Similarly, while Years and Years does hint at the larger picture of the forces behind this seeming cascade of crises, it declines to give this anything beyond the most token of acknowledgement.

But for any flaws it has, Years and Years never ceases to be anything other than hugely entertaining. When its at its best, it ranks among the most incisive and remarkable commentaries of the day. This is lingering stuff that will stick with you after viewing, and its rough edges only serve to highlight the raw power of its vision. An essential series if ever there was one.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughan
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Studio Rocket Pictures
Running time 121 minutes

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I was sceptical about seeing Rocketman. The new Elton John biopic came to within a whisker of making it onto this year’s Hot List, but ultimately I was put off by the feeling that there was something a bit cheap and opportunistic about the whole thing. I was naturally sceptical of another studio putting out a rock and roll biopic so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody’s award winning run, even more so with the unusual decision to depict a biographical film in the form of a jukebox musical, one which shoe-horns existing songs into a context for which they weren’t written. Fortunately this is one of those situations where I am glad to admit that I was wrong.

Rocketman does not officially release in cinemas until later on this week, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a preview screening, and I have to say it was one of the more enjoyable cinema excursions in recent times. 

I have already mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody once in this post. Given the similar subject matter and proximity of release it is perhaps only natural that people will make the comparison. Still, I don’t like to review things by comparison, so I will discuss it only once more, and very briefly. Rocketman is a considerably better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. From the filmmaking, to the writing, to the acting, just about every element of Rocketman on another level to Bohemian Rhapsody, so much so that to even compare the two in terms of film quality is a bit laughable. Still, it has to be remembered that despite its modest success on the awards’ circuits, Bohemian Rhapsody was given quite mediocre reviews by the critics, so I will go even further. Rocketman is not just a better film, it is a very good film indeed in its own right.

This is, of course, the biopic of Elton John. A latter-day John in rehab forms the framing device for the singer's life story, from his early childhood to first commercial success, and ultimately his self-destructive spiral and comeback. It's the classic rock-star's parable, uniquely told through some visually spectacular set-pieces and extravagant musical numbers.

And extravagant they are. There's no faulting this film for its sense of style. This is a visual treat from its flamboyant set design and abundant use of colour to its sumptuously indulgent camera shots. Things start off somewhat slowly and more in the mould of a traditional biopic, until the turbulent events of John's childhood smash all semblance of John's grounded reality and send him into the wild journey of his career. As John's mental health deteriorates, so too does each scene become increasingly surreal and chaotic, blurring into one another until even John can't tell where he is from one moment to the next.

Of course, it helps that the music is this good. Ordinarily I find it a bit tacky when a musical forces existing songs into its story, with lyrics that clearly weren't written for the script. Mamma Mia and David Bowie's Lazarus are prime examples of this that come to mind. But for some reason it didn't bother me here. Perhaps it is because the set-pieces are surreal and abstract enough that you don't try to take them as literal depictions of narrative, or perhaps the songwriting is such that it simply better lends itself to different contexts. Whatever the reason, it works a treat here, and several moments in this film even gave me goosebumps with just how brilliantly it was all choreographed.

But above all it is the electric performance of Taron Egerton that steals the show. Egerton throws everything of himself into this role, capturing the soul and energy of his subject right down to a tee without ever resorting to impersonation. It helps that Egerton turns out to be a fantastic singer, more than doing justice to these classic tunes. Egerton is hardly a new face in the industry, but this nevertheless feels like a career making performance, one that will surely see him launched into the awards circuit and those upper echelons of stardom.

It is much to this film's credit that it does not shy away from the dark elements of John's life. Unlike other musical biopics, this is not a sanitised depiction of his life. The full gamut of John's narcotic use, psychological issues, and sexual extravagances are on full display, and the result is a story that is disarmingly honest and personal.

If there is one main criticism, it is that after spending two hours building up to John's complete breakdown, the whole mess gets resolved far too quickly. There is no depiction here of the struggle to recovery, of the misery of getting free of addiction. Falling to rock bottom was a journey, but getting back up again seems far too easy.

Similarly there are times where the psychological exploration of the film's troubled subject feels only little more than skin-deep. It is a torment that gets told primarily through decades old lyrics and figurative dance numbers more than actual analysis or discussion. Rocketman certainly doesn't shy away from the topic, but seems content to give viewers the headline and move on, rather than delving further into the detail, or more importantly, the struggle to overcome.

Ultimately these are minor criticisms that can be forgiven for the sake of artistic licence. While there are moments where you wish they would go further, Rocketman nevertheless manages to capture the bright highs and dark lows of being an artist better than most films, and does so in a way that is constantly exhilarating and ultimately hugely uplifting.

Rocketman makes for thrilling viewing. It is extravagant, outrageous and over the top, capable of beauty and brilliance, ugliness and folly. It is a mesmerising ride that never falls anything short of hugely entertaining, just like its subject.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

Manchester City champions 2019
It has been a nail-biter of an end to the season; not just in the Premier League's record breaking title race, but in the relegation and European qualification battles that last right up until the final curtain. It has been riveting stuff, and best of all since Manchester City won again, I don't even need to look for a new picture for this article!

Liverpool ultimately finished runner up with a frankly astonishing 97 points, a haul that would certainly have won the title in just about any other season. It is a testament to two highly accomplished sides, both of whom can look back on the season with a great deal of pride.

Meanwhile, a battle for Champions League qualification that featured Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United proved fascinating for quite different reasons. Each of those four teams has had an absolutely torrid end to the season, playing poorly with results to match. The fact that Chelsea, out of the running for much of the season and seemingly completely incapable of a win in the latter weeks, managed to eke out third place right at the death speaks more to the utterly shambolic form of their competitors than it does to their own performances. Time and time again Chelsea dropped points in a pathetic manner, only to be granted a reprieve by their equally dismal rivals, such that fans of the eventual victors and losers alike can only help but be embarrassed for each other.

Otherwise, it was a season of high drama, but relatively few shocks. Everton, West Ham and Leicester took their customary position in the top half of the table, yet entirely clear of European contention. Nouveau riche Wolves delivered a hugely impressive campaign as expected, whereas on the other hand noveau riche Fulham delivered a limp relegation-bound attempt at a season, as frankly few expected.

But someone had to go down, and this year that burden falls to Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield. Cardiff and Huddersfield will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone, but Fulham had been expected to make a decent go of it on the back of a £100 million pound spending spree, and there will rightly be an inquest as to what has gone wrong this season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2019:

Winners: Manchester City- Winners by a hair, and still undoubtedly one of the world's top sides. Deserved champions.

Relegated: Cardiff City, Fulham, Huddersfield Town - Little was expected of lightweight Huddersfield or the shambolically run Cardiff City, but for Fulham to have even been in the relegation discussion after spending so much money will surely go down as one of the league's great flops.

Player of the Year: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) - While his team may look increasingly unimpressive, Hazard remains the league's standout talent and he proved as much again this season by leading the league in assists whilst also achieving a new personal best in goals. No single player has been directly involved in as many goals this season.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - A second year in a row for Alexander-Arnold, undoubtedly one of the great young fullbacks in world football and a potential star of English football for years to come.

Best Goalkeeper: Ederson (Manchester City) - It has been a formidable season for the Manchester City shot-stopper, whose reliability between the posts has been a huge factor in the often narrow results that eked out the club's 1 point advantage over Liverpool.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) - A difficult choice between the top two, but whereas Pep inherited a largely title-capable side, few can discredit the singular impact that Klopp has had on transforming this Liverpool team into one of the world's best.

Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) (22 each) - Rare to share this award, even more rare to split it three ways. Last year's winner Salah may not have hit the astonishing heights of last season, but nevertheless ended up as one of the league's leaders alongside teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal's much improved Aubameyang.

Most Assists: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) (15) - See above, arguably his best season yet in a blue shirt, despite the struggles of his club.

Overachievers: Wolves - It is true that many, including this blog, had predicted this heavily invested Wolves side to be something of a surprise package in this year's Premier League, but actually going and living up to that promise is another matter. For a newly promoted side to have such a strong debut season, ultimately finishing the best of the rest outside the top six, is an impressive achievement, regardless of how much has been invested.

Underachievers: Manchester United - Last year's Premier League runner up had been expected to number themselves among the frontrunners in this year's title challenge, but that's not how it turned out. For United to have not even qualified for the Champions League will have come as a bitter disappointment. One manager has already been sacked for it, and we may yet have a second face the chop before too long.

Best signing of the season: James Maddison (Leicester City) - Making the step up from Championship to Premier League is a big ask for any young player, few succeed. James Maddison has thrived and established himself as one of the league's brightest new faces.

Worst signing of the season: Fred (Manchester United) - Every season has a big money move that fails to live up to its billing, and this year that is Fred. A £52 million fee makes Fred the 4th most expensive signing in the club's history, and yet he has only managed 10 starts in the league. Fans will be hoping for more next season.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2019:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Amy Pascal
Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Hailee Steinfeld
Studio Lord Miller Production
Running time 117 minutes

spider-man spider man into the spiderverse 2018 film oscar academy

Spider-Man is one of geekdom's most iconic superheroes, and yet it was not until the early 2000s that it received a full cinematic effort, with the Saim Raimi trilogy. Since that time, the franchise has become something of an IP football to be fought over by both Sony and Marvel film studios, which has prevented the sort of long-term continuity that has become the norm for these big superhero franchises and result in a number of disjointed reboots and interpretations.

Needless to say, when Marvel finally managed to wrest the live-action rights from Sony once and for all, it was a big deal, and Spider-Man has now joined the multi-billion dollar pantheon of Marvel's Avengers franchise. Meanwhile, Sony have been quietly working away on Spider-Man products in other forms of media for which they retain the rights. Yet for all the hype of Tom Holland and Homecoming, it is Sony that might just have come up with the best Spider-Man film yet made.

I recognise that I am a bit late to the party with this one. After all, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did just win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and receive near unanimous critical acclaim. But despite all the high praise, I came into this one skeptical. This film was coming so soon after the critically and commercially successful new live-action adaptations. In addition, there is also a certain stigma attached to animated films that means they are usually taken less seriously than their live-action counterparts. So when I began to see all the claims of greatness: yes, I was skeptical. When it fend off both Disney and Disney Pixar to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, an award that has historically been so utterly dominated by Disney and Disney Pixar that it might as well be the Oscar for Best Disney Feature, I was intrigued.

There are a lot of qualities that make this such a special film. Most obviously, the production quality is extremely high. This is a visually striking film, with masterful use of sound and music. The all-star cast contains some great talent, from Shameik Moore and New Girl's Jake Johnson to Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. The supporting roles, too, are full of big names including Chris Pine, Oscar Isaac, Liev Schreiber and Nicolas Cage. So while this may be an animated spin-off of the larger franchise, it is clear that no effort has been spared in making this something of an event picture.

But the real key to this film's success is Lord and Miller's script. It is clever, surprising, and genuinely funny. It is full of loving references to past Spider-Man films, online memes, and the wider Spider-Verse of the comics. This is not just some light entertainment for the family either. The script knows when to take itself seriously; there are several moments of real pathos and a plot that proves surprisingly poignant.

Animated or not, this is just a good film. An engrossing and original story well told and presented through a highly accomplished production. This is a film that can be enjoyed by both newcomers and die-hard fans. This really is the best Spider-Man film yet made, and arguably one of the best films of 2018 in general. Easy to recommend.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Genre Indie Rock
Label ATO
Producers Nilüfer Yanya

nilufer yanya miss universe best new debut album 2019

Nilüfer Yanya has been on this blog's radar for a while, initially previewed in our 2018 Hot List, and then again in this year's edition, not to mention a routine fixture in the pundits' hype machine of upcoming musical talent. Clearly then, there had been enough quality in the EPs and demo tracks to catch not only my attention, but the attention of much of the industry. An undoubted talent, but still probably few would have expected debut LP Miss Universe to show quite as much ambition as it does.

Beneath its deceptively relaxed musical aesthetics, Miss Universe hints at a rather more dystopian worldview, complete with amoral corporate infomercials, lyrics of helplessness and social anxiety. The result is an album that is surprisingly weighty yet with an introspective angle. The fact that it somewhat successfully manages to achieve this sophistication whilst still delivering some memorable tunes is a testament to the impressive songwriting here.

The album's second track In Your Head serves as a good example of what to expect. Musically it sounds for all the world an indie staple, but lyrically it's full of paranoia and self-doubt. These are songs that can be sparing and understated when they want to be, as with Paralysed, or soaring and anthemic as shown by probably the strongest song on the album, Angels. In her finest moments, Nilüfer Yanya's sound captures the raw energy of Amy Macdonald, the contemplative minimalism of Sampha, and the spiky lyricism of the Strokes or Pixies.

For this artist to show such mastery of her craft on the first attempt lays down a marker that she is not just another ephemeral pop starlet, but a truly original voice. This is by no means a perfect or groundbreaking album, but it is a bold and fascinating statement from an exciting new talent. We will watch her career with great interest.

Must Listen :
In Your Head

Saturday, 20 April 2019

It is another historic and deeply disturbing day in America. Two weeks ago I provided my analysis of Attorney General Bill Bar's summary of the long awaited Special Counsel report on the Trump Campaign's Russian connections and associated alleged criminality. Team Trump had tried to frame this event as a game-changer, "total exoneration", case closed. But in truth Barr's handling of the report did little to bring closure to the country, and with good reason. Today we can put much of that lingering ambiguity to rest, the actual Mueller Report has been released, albeit with some redactions.

Let's be clear, as there is a lot of misinformation out there. The Mueller Report is absolutely unequivocal: The Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

trump russia mueller report investigation criminal indictment obstruction barr collusion putin rosenstein

The findings of the Mueller Report
"Oh My God... This Is the End of My Presidency. I'm Fucked" - President Donald J Trump upon learning that a Special Counsel had been appointed to investigate his campaign.

We have long speculated as to the form the Mueller Report would take, but the time for speculation is now over. The redacted report can be found online at https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf, and it is damning. I encourage everybody to have a look and read it for themselves. Do not just take my word or anyone else's for granted. Read the facts and make your own judgement. The final document is divided into two volumes.

The first paints a picture of a campaign that is, frankly, lousy with Russian connections. Dozens of Trump associates taking hundreds of meetings and communications with members of the Russian Government. Personal, political and business connections. The report lays out evidence of a campaign that was in near constant communication with the Kremlin, which was the subject of numerous overtures with regards to conspiring to influence a Federal election, and which frequently held itself out as completely receptive to those overtures. Mueller concluded that there was insufficient evidence to make a criminal case for any of this activity, but caveated this conclusion with the clear assertion that the obstructive behaviour carried out by Trump's associates had a material impact on that fact. These obstructive actions were, of course, themselves crimes, and some 40 persons have been indicted with 200 criminal charges between them.

Let's not mince words, this is collusion. Mueller's findings reveal a vast web of co-ordination and quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The Trump campaign knew that Russia were helping them win the election, and in turn made numerous and frequent assertions to the Kremlin that they would implement favourable policies, particularly with regards to Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions. The bottom line is this: Donald Trump knew the Russians were attacking America and said nothing because he knew they were helping him. This may not be a crime, but it is certainly unethical and disqualifying for office.

And it goes beyond this. The "fake dossier", that alleged Trump was compromised by the Russians, that Trump and his fanatics have spent so long deriding is corroborated on a number of details here. The Mueller report reveals for the first time that the Russians threatened Trump with "compromising tapes". The Mueller report reveals that Manafort assured his fellow indictees that Trump would pardon them all if they stayed loyal. Senator Richard Burr is shown to have been leaking evidence from the Senate investigation to the White House. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders admitted to Mueller that she lied to the public on numerous occasions. Mueller confirms that Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort shared polling data with the Russian Government, and adjusted campaign strategy accordingly.

There are so... many... details like this. The story being told here is of far more than just collusion. It's a full accounting of a regime that is so fully compromised, so rotten to the core, so totally bereft of morals. All of this behaviour is wrong. It's all inappropriate, it's all unethical, and it's all blatantly unpatriotic. This is corruption at the very highest level, a revelation of just how murky the Trump swamp truly is. The trouble is that this collusion is not necessarily criminal, and where it may have been criminal ended up being too difficult to prove.

Let's also be clear about this. Many of the Trump campaign's interactions were explicitly identified as potentially criminal. Mueller's report methodically examines each instance and explains why criminal charges were or were not pursued. Many of these incidents only avoided prosecution by the skin of their teeth. The report explicitly states that a key reason for the lack of prosecution on collusion is due to obstructive efforts staged by Trump's various associates, many of which themselves led to prosecution.

But it's the second volume of this report that is the most damning. This is the volume which deals with whether or not the President committed criminal obstruction of justice. In this case Mueller declines to make a prosecutorial judgement (more later on why), but rather lays out the evidence in meticulous detail and defers the question for further consideration.

We already knew many of the key events from media reporting, but Mueller provides new details that suggest Trump really was behaving in nefarious ways - deciding to fire Comey but then asking Rosenstein to say he came up with the idea, and asking Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself specifically to end parts of the investigation. In other instances, Trump's obstructive efforts appear only to have failed because members of his team talked him out of it, or flat out refused to follow orders. Perhaps the single most striking part of the report is how directly and plainly Robert Mueller states that Trump intended to hamper the investigation.

There are a few other key points to note with respect to Mueller's obstruction findings:

  1. Mueller clearly and explicitly recommended the question be resolved by Congress, not the Department of Justice. On no fewer than four occasions Mueller stated in no uncertain terms that Congress has the authority over this matter;
  2. Mueller explicitly declined to make a conclusion due in large part to the the Department of Justice policy on not indicting a sitting President;
  3. Mueller explicitly states that the President may be indicted upon leaving office;
  4. Mueller was so comfortable that he had all the evidence needed for an obstruction charge that he declined to subpoena the President, as he felt it was not needed in order to prove mens rea;
  5. Mueller explicitly states that he believes a thorough FBI investigation would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal intent on the part of the President.
In Robert Mueller's own words: "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgement."

The Trump Administration has spent the last several weeks spinning the lack of an obstruction indictment as an indication that the matter was inconclusive. But a reading of the actual findings show this clearly not to be true. Mueller makes abundantly clear that he chose not to make a prosecutorial judgement due to the unusual circumstances of the case, in particular the DOJ/OLC rules on indicting a sitting President. He also makes clear that there is a case to be heard, and that Congress, not the DOJ, has the authority to conclude that case. There is a real case to obstruction, and Mueller in effect has laid out a road-map to investigation and probably impeachment for Congress to follow.

Bill Barr can no longer credibly lead the DOJ
While the report his highly damning on the President and campaign, equally disturbing is what it reveals about the conduct of the Attorney General of the United States Bill Barr. While the Attorney General is a political appointee, it is historically a role that the holder seeks to perform apolitically for obvious reasons. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Mueller Report is the extent to which it makes clear that Barr has not been conducting himself in such a way.

If the country was skeptical of Barr's initial summary, it was downright alarmed by his behaviour since then. During his Congressional testimony he parroted the President's much derided conspiracy theories about being "spied" on (numerous courts have already ruled that investigators did nothing inappropriate) and blaming a conspiracy of media witch hunts and "illegal" leaks. It is impossible to interpret Barr's press conference on the day of the release of the report, in which he did little but regurgitate his previous summary and storm out under difficult questioning, as anything other than a political PR stunt. Such brazenly political conduct from the nation's top law enforcement official is unbecoming of his office, but following the release of the Mueller Report his behaviour appears even more insidious and disturbing.

There are a number of stark and material differences between Barr's summary and subsequent comments on the Mueller Report and the actual findings of that report. Most significantly, Barr claimed that Mueller's refusal to prosecute on obstruction was due to a lack of evidence, and not because of the rules regarding indictment of a sitting President. Mueller explicitly contradicts this, stating in no uncertain terms that a core reason for not making a prosecutorial judgement is the OLC policy. Barr also claimed that Mueller did not indicate any preference for Congress to take up the obstruction question. Even putting aside the patent absurdity that the Special Counsel, appointed specifically to allay concerns that the DOJ would not investigate itself objectively, would defer back to that very DOJ, Mueller makes clear on numerous occasions that Congress does have authority in this matter. Perhaps most significant is Barr's declaration that Mueller concluded that Trump would shielded from facing obstruction charges upon leaving office, something which is expressly refuted in the report.

Some of the discrepancies can be charitably described as misleading or partial descriptions, but other statements were flat out false, and provably so. Was Barr lying about the contents of the report? At a minimum it is clear that he sought to misrepresent Robert Mueller's findings, and when combined with his hagiographic press conference and constant use of propagandistic non-legal language it paints a very worrying image of a Justice Department that has been politicised far beyond anything this country has seen before.

More to the point, one of the reasons the Mueller Report looks so damning is because of how unfavourably it compares to Barr's summary. While it is undoubtedly bad, it arguably would not have seemed too catastrophic some two months ago against the pre-Barr summary expectations. Barr's clumsy attempts at spin instead served to lower expectations, and may ironically have made the actual report seem even worse than it might have done.

A vindication for the media
So the report looks pretty bad for just about everyone involved, but there are some clear winners, not least of all in the media.

For years we have heard this terrifying populist spiel about how the media are "fake news" and "the enemy of the people". Dangerous, dishonest rhetoric designed to poison the public against the legitimate and independent fourth estate so as to blunt its ability to shed light on corruption. Now that we have the Mueller Report, one of the most striking realisations is just how accurate a lot of the reporting has been.

The report has corroborated numerous incidents that the administration had dismissed as fake news, and really there were surprisingly few revelations that had not at least been discussed in the media. There is absolutely no doubt about it, this was a huge vindication for the media.

At the risk of sounding awfully self-serving, it is also something of a vindication for myself and this blog. Look again through my write-up of the Barr summary, and it's striking just how much of what I wrote has in fact been borne out in the actual fact of the Mueller Report. I know some people took exception with my analysis on the basis that it did not coincide with the messaging their chosen team was trying to put out, so hopefully this can serve as an important reminder to all of us to follow fact and evidence rather than trying to make something as fundamental as the rule of law into a partisan contest.

What happens next?
This is a historic moment in this country. There is so much in this report that is of significance.

Even aside from the headline findings, all the unexplained Russia connections, the fact that the President may have criminally obstructed justice. There is also the apparent confirmation that Russia attempted to manipulate the President by threatening him with compromising materials. It's been bizarrely overlooked in comparison to the potential criminality, but even the fact that the report has documented admission from the Trump administration that they just lie to the public continually. There is so much in this report that portrays this administration in a devastating light.

The report is also quite clear on what should happen next. Robert Mueller referred some 14 investigations to other teams in the Justice Department, and the vast majority of the Mueller Report's redactions appear to concern ongoing matters. The redactions appear to have predominantly been made to sections concerning Wikileaks and the election hacking portions of the report. In addition there are a number of notable absentees from the "why we declined to prosecute" section like Jerome Corsi, Carter Page plus others. You can make what you will of that, but it implies that a number of the concerned individuals may either be cooperating with or the target of ongoing investigations.

Most significantly, the report makes clear that Congress alone has the authority to continue and conclude on the question of obstruction of justice. As holders of the majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party now has a constitutional obligation to see this through. The Democrats should initiate hearings on obstruction of justice immediately and subpoena all necessary evidence. Depending on where that leads, they should then consider the question of impeachment. There is absolutely no ambiguity that this is what SHOULD happen, but the truth is it is very unlikely.

The reality is that Donald Trump is up for reelection next year. He has abysmal approval ratings and this report will not have done him any favours. The Democrats have zero political incentive to impeach him, rather they have every incentive to let him keep doing what he's doing, and use his unpopularity to drive another election victory in 2020. The Democrats are highly unlikely to impeach Trump unless something comes along that is so dramatic it is impossible to ignore.

I want to be clear on this. These are political considerations, and I do not support this approach. In my view the rule of law is paramount, and if Trump did commit a crime then Democrats are obligated to provide oversight and enforce those laws. If they fail to do so then I would consider that a damning indictment on the Democrats' ability to govern seriously. If Trump did commit a crime then he needs to be made an example of, if for no other reason than to show the country that we are a nation of law. Allowing him to finish his term and lose at the ballot box would be tantamount to normalising unacceptable conduct, and sets a terrible precedent that the law only applies selectively.

For everyone else that is reading the Mueller Report and this article, I think there is one key take away that I would stress above everything else. We now have the facts before us in print, there is no longer any ambiguity. It is time for all of us, Democrat, Republican, and myself included, to put aside the silly political gamesmanship and biases and face reality.

It is far past the time where anyone can credibly say with a straight face that this is all some kind of hoax or political stunt. It is far past time where anyone can claim that nothing happened and this is all just business as usual. This all really happened. This is a damning report, illustrating a web of widespread and ongoing misconduct in Government. And you know what? It's a Republican this time, but once one party gets away with it, the other party will just do the same. None of us should find this acceptable.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Directed by Lynette Linton
Written by Lynn Nottage
Starring Stuart McQuarrie, Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins
Theatre Donmar

sweat donmar trump theatre 2019 pulitzer

This blog recently reviewed Shipwreck, and commented that it was a perfect example of how not to write political theatre. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sweat.

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play forms a timely and nuanced account of life among America's "forgotten people", in impoverished rust-belt country. Based on a series of extensive interviews with real life factory workers, Sweat gives us a stunningly real insight at economic displacement, the loss of blue collar jobs, and a fear of immigration and trade.

The production is wonderfully brought to life by director Lynette Linton. The set is atmospheric and the performances without fault. McQuarrie and Plimpton are utterly spellbinding.

So why does Sweat work so well? Ultimately the answer is that the story comes first, and is not merely a vehicle for a political lecture. This is a story that would be worth telling in any age, gripping in and of itself. The political viewpoint is neither agenda driven nor laid on too thick, just purely insightful, and all the more powerful for its honesty.

The characters are well written and feel like real people. They don't talk like caricatures or condescending mouthpieces for the author. The story that you see here rings true, and even if it is not strictly based on actual events it undoubtedly gets to the core of a very real situation. While the play wisely never mentions Trump by name, this tale nevertheless makes for essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand his appeal, or the desperation which has motivated many to buy into his rhetoric. That this play was written in 2015 only serves to make its words more prescient. It's rare that a play finds me speechless at final curtain, and I really can't recall the last time theatre has left me with such an impression.

I saw this production at the Donmar this spring, but Sweat will now transfer to the Gielgud starting June. For anyone who has not yet seen it, I can not recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Anne Washburn
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Fisayo Akinade, Raquel Cassidy, Adam James
Theatre Almeida

shipwreck almeida trump anne washburn burns twilight zone rupert goold comey

Anne Washburn is proving to be somewhat hit or miss as a playwright, and sometimes both in the same play.

Washburn's playwriting style is essentially the anti-Stanislavski (the pioneer of naturalism), with stories that are not intended to be taken as a depiction of actual events, but an exploration of concepts, and characters that are not intended to represent real people, but act as mouthpieces for the various points of view she wishes to explore. It makes for theatre that can be as intellectually provocative to critics and drama students, as it is grating and stilted for regular patrons.

This was very much the case with a recent play of Washburn's, Mr Burns. The concept here was a post-apocalyptic world in which stories and bits of pop culture become valued commodities traded between communities. As a high level concept it's not bad, but the way in which Washburn wrote it was so grating; long, drawn out scenes of the most boring and repetitive dialogue, like that one friend of yours who always repeats the same joke from a TV show until it stops being funny. Her new play Shipwreck is written in much the same way.

Shipwreck ostensibly follows two separate narrative strands: one in which a group of friends make a retreat to a remote cabin, and become embroiled in the world's most tedious political discussions; the other a series of monologues which explore the struggles of an American midwestern couple raising a refugee child. The latter of these two strands is actually competently written and does lead somewhere satisfying in the end, however it composes probably no more than 10% of the production, with most of the rest being dedicated to the former.

Don't get me wrong, politics in 2016 is a topic that is ripe for source material, and many plays have attempted politics and pulled it off successfully. Shipwreck contrasts these efforts as a golden example of how not to do political theatre.

These scenes in the cabin invariably feature some (and I say this as someone vehemently anti-Trumpist) pompous jackass regaling everyone with the latest Trump outrage that they heard on the news ("Can you believe how much Trump lies?!", "Have you heard how he fired Comey?!"). There is no subtlety here, as with a play like Albion. It's literally just a group of stilted mouthpieces for the author repeating Rachel Maddow zingers, and ranting at the audience as if the author feels some need to edify the ignorant masses.

The main problem here is twofold: Firstly, there is no story or point to these scenes that justifies what we're watching. Most of us go to the theatre to see a story or some worthwhile artistic expression, not just some person's Twitter thread adapted to script. Secondly, the writer has nothing particularly insightful or interesting to say beyond simply "Trump is awful, why aren't you angry?!" (and again, I say this as a notably outspoken critic of his regime). The references in the dialogue are banal and superficial, and yet they are dissected at an excruciatingly glacial pace with all the smugness of someone who is under some misapprehension that they are privy to some great wisdom that they must impart to the rest of us.

The result is that anyone who is knowledgeable about politics will find  this all trite and laboured, and anyone who is not will find it condescending. If Washburn is legitimately trying to edify her audience, then she is nowhere near as clever or insightful as she thinks. If she is ironically trying to show how annoying people are when they talk politics, then well done, but either way it doesn't make good theatre.

The saving grace of Mr Burns was its final act, in which all the hitherto superficially explored themes were brought together in a dazzling and visually striking setpiece which saw a classic Simpsons skit reinterpreted as some horror thriller, complete with a Greek chorus, full band, and incorporating elements and details from all manner of different pop culture sources. It certainly didn't justify sitting through three hours of tedium, but it showed that Washburn is capable of some truly original, visionary work. Shipwreck pulls the same trick with two spectacular scenes, one at the end of each act and for which I have awarded this play one star each.

The first expands on one of the Trump lies that forms the focus of much of the first act, that he was some firebrand anti-war activist fighting tooth and nail against the Bush administration to prevent the Iraq war. What follows is a depiction of a dashing, young and idealistic Trump (reinterpreted as some Tony Stark-esque figure) whose power and popularity so threatens the establishment that then President Bush visits him in Trump tower and begs him to back down. A hilariously schlocky battle of wits ensues, resulting in a slow motion bare knuckle mano-a-mano for the soul of the country. It's well-staged, tightly written, and hilarious.

The second of these scenes imagines the now infamous meeting with James Comey in which Trump asked then FBI Director Comey to pledge personal loyalty to him. Here, Trump is reimagined as some mad Aztec God-Emperor, prancing about the stage in absurd looking robes and headdress, while he is flanked by ghoulish masked cultists who obey his every whim. It's an astonishing bit of theatre, and actually one of the better analogies I have yet seen for this administration.

And so we end with his paradox of a playwright. Someone who is clearly capable of breathtaking vision and finely honed writing, and who nevertheless pads her plays with 90% pure tedious dreck. I suspect that the answer is that this is a play intended more for critics and students to analyse than for anyone to actually go and enjoy. The best plays manage to be both.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Well it finally happened. The Office of the Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III has completed his investigation into alleged connections between the Russian government and the Presidential campaign of then candidate Donald Trump. To call this a seismic event would be an understatement. This is easily the most significant Federal investigation into a President's conduct since Watergate, and concerns charges that if proven would be unlike anything seen before in American politics.

Sadly, as with pretty much everything else that has happened under this administration, this story has been spun, obfuscated, and just generally muddied up to the point where practically no one can tell what is actually going on, least of all those in the media upon whom falls the responsibility of informing the public. So for those of you who are rightly confused at this time I have compiled the following analysis, which hopefully will provide an easy to understand summary of what has happened, what it means going forward, and with a little of my own perspective as a lawyer thrown in for good measure.

trump russia mueller report investigation criminal indictment obstruction barr collusion putin rosenstein

The Mueller Investigation
Before we dive into the findings of the investigation, I think it's important to provide a quick summary.

The Special Counsel investigation was initiated in May 2017 by Rod Rosenstein, the Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Comey accused Trump of firing him after he had refused to stop an FBI investigation into Trump's national security advisor Michael Flynn, a claim which was inadvertently lent extra credence by Trump himself, who stated on national TV that he had fired Comey to end "the Russia thing".

Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to find the answer to two questions: 1) whether there is credible evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly aided or co-ordinated with the Russian Government to influence the 2016 election, and 2) whether Donald Trump's conduct in office might constitute obstruction of justice.

The President has called the investigation a "witch hunt", but over the course of two years Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" has found an awful lot of witches, indicting some 40 people, with a total of 200 criminal charges. This includes almost a dozen members of Donald Trump's inner circle, including his Campaign Chairman, his personal attorney, his chief national security advisor, amongst several others. This makes it the second largest Special Counsel investigation in history in terms of indictments, behind only Watergate. This is in spite of it being among the shortest such investigations. A lot of criminals have been put behind bars by this investigation. It has been an unmitigated success in this regard.

In addition, Mueller's investigation has led to the spin off of as many as seventeen investigations being carried out by different departments. Mueller's initial investigatory phase may be complete, but these investigations continue.

Key findings and conclusions
Summarising the key findings of this much anticipated investigation is difficult because, well, we don't really know what the investigation found. Despite the investigation being complete, and the full 400 page report being delivered to the Attorney General, no one outside of his office has seen a single word.

Instead, all we have to go on is a description put out by the Trump administration itself. That alone should set off alarm bells. After all, in what other situation would the subject of an investigation be permitted to write up the conclusions of that investigation? Donald Trump's new Attorney General Bill Barr, who replaced Jeff Sessions ostensibly just so he could take control of this investigation, has provided a four page summary to Congress. In Barr's own words, the report "does not exonerate" the President.

The Barr Summary states that the Mueller Investigation concluded that the Russian Government did indeed interfere in our election in order to elect Donald Trump, but that Mueller was not able to "establish" that members of the Trump campaign actually co-ordinated with the Russians in support of this interference. The summary states that Mueller found numerous instances in which the Russians had attempted to work with the Trump campaign, but that it does not establish that the campaign ultimately did so, at least not in a way that meets the threshold of criminality.

On the second charge, Mueller's findings were far more alarming. The Barr Summary states that Mueller concluded that the President's conduct may have amounted to criminal obstruction of justice. The Special Counsel laid out the evidence for and against this charge, and then declined to draw a final conclusion, deferring the matter for further consideration. The Trump Administration then took it upon itself to decline further consideration, and conclude a lack of criminality. If the previous thing set off alarm bells, this one should have steam shooting out of your ears.

And now for a few of my own impressions and outstanding questions on this developing story:

1. No collusion? No conclusion
First of all let's be clear what we are talking about when it comes to "collusion". Collusion is not a criminal charge, and in the context of Donald Trump that word has been used to describe all manner of activity with the Russian Government. In the context of the Mueller investigation, that word has a much narrower meaning.

Robert Mueller, it has now been revealed by the Barr Summary, was looking very specifically into whether members of the Trump campaign co-ordinated with the Russian Government to illegally interfere in the 2016 election. Thus it is clearly erroneous to try and draw any conclusion over the broader question on Trump-Russian relations based on what Mueller has found. That being said, we know that Mueller has referred many cases to other investigators, and it is entirely possible that these may include other forms of collusion.

We also don't know precisely what the Mueller investigation found with respect to this very specific form of collusion. The Barr Summary states that the investigation "did not establish" that members of the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election, but it's not clear whether this is Mueller's conclusion, or just Barr's interpretation of his findings. Based on how the obstruction question was handled (ie Mueller just laid out the evidence and Barr made a judgement) one can reasonably assume that these may be Barr's own words, in which case the question is still very much open.

Even if we give Barr the benefit of the doubt and assume his conclusions accurately correspond to Mueller's own conclusions, as a lawyer I find his choice of words interesting. It is significant that Barr did not say "found no evidence of" but rather "did not establish that". This is very specific and careful language which clearly implies that there is in fact some evidence of this collusion, just not enough to rise to the standard of criminal prosecution (ie beyond a reasonable doubt).

To be clear: "collusion" doesn't necessarily mean there is a crime. There is no reasonable question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. We already know from court filings that prosecutors believe there to have been collusion between Russia and at least some members of the Trump campaign (see Manafort providing polling data, Trump Jr's meeting, Roger Stone's Wikileaks contacts). The question is how much of this activity was actually criminal, and in the context of the Mueller investigation, specifically how much of this activity sought to criminally interfere in the 2016 election.

Based on what little we know of the investigation's findings, it appears that sufficient evidence has not been found to bring criminal charges in this specific area of collusion, although it would probably be premature to reach that conclusion until independent eyes have seen the underlying findings. It would certainly be premature to conclude that all forms of criminal collusion have been ruled out, and flat out delusional to conclude that collusion of any sort between members of the Trump campaign and Russian Government has been effectively ruled out.

2. On obstruction, the investigation must continue 
Even by the Trump Administration's own words, Mueller explicitly did not exonerate the President on this issue. Rather, the report apparently lays out the evidence on both sides, and concludes that the matter is close enough that the Special Counsel did not feel it within his remit to make so determinative a judgement. According to the Barr summary, the Special Counsel declined to conclude on obstruction, and suggested that further consideration was required.

Let's be clear. From a legal perspective, this is by far the most significant detail revealed in the Barr Summary. It has been frustrating to see the media obsess over the collusion question (itself potentially left ambiguous as discussed above) while completely ignoring the actual conclusion that the President may have committed serious criminal offences.

Two things to say about this. First, when so serious a criminal charge has been left unresolved, it is obviously wrong for the Trump Administration to legally exonerate itself. This is an absurd situation. No matter what your political beliefs or ideology, clearly the accused should not have the power to be their own judge and jury. If this question has been left open, it must be concluded by an independent body, by Congress, or both.

Secondly, even if an appropriate body does take this matter into further consideration and rules a lack of criminality, the very fact that it can't be ruled out is still significant. The standard for criminal indictment is beyond a reasonable doubt. If your threshold is 95% certainty, and you conclude that the matter is borderline, that's still pretty alarming.

3. The Mueller investigation appears to be much narrower in scope than expected
If we can divine one new revelation about the Mueller investigation from Barr's summary, it is that it was clearly far more narrow in scope than people might have realised or hoped.

The investigation has been notable for its opacity and complete radio silence. At no point has it even been clear precisely what Mueller was investigating. Inevitably, this has led to great speculation.

There have been a great many allegations of Trump-Russia connections in the media since the start of this Presidency. Allegations of kompromat, the Don Jr Trump Tower meeting, decades of shady business dealings, the perjury charges over Trump Tower Moscow, to name just a few.

A lot of people had expected, perhaps out of hope, that the Mueller investigation would cast a blinding spotlight onto all of this activity. The revelation that Mueller was, ostensibly, only looking into one small aspect of this relationship will be a disappointment to many, and the answer to these burning questions appears no clearer in its wake.

4. Mueller is done, but the investigation continues
Fortunately, the apparent narrowness of the Mueller Report does not necessarily mean that these questions have been ignored, or are not being addressed elsewhere.

The Barr Summary makes clear that Mueller has referred many open threads to other investigators. It is reasonable to assume that many of the unresolved issues, for example Don Jr's meeting and the as yet un-indicted allegation that Manafort provided RNC data to the Russians (as stated in Mueller's court filings), may still be under investigation by other departments. There were already as many as seventeen known ongoing investigations, but following the conclusion of Mueller's evidence gathering operation, it is likely there could be dozens that remain open.

Indeed, while the Mueller investigation may be in the process of handing off cases to other investigators, and does not expect to make further indictments, this does not mean the Special Counsel's work is complete. After all, there are still ongoing court proceedings to be handled. Even this week, after the investigation apparently wrapped up, the Mueller Grand Jury was said to still be continuing robustly.

So if it was not obvious before, it is now quite clear that the Mueller report represents only the opening phase of this investigation.

5. Did Trump fire Mueller?
One question which has been surprisingly overlooked is whether the Mueller investigation had, in fact, run its course, or whether the Trump Administration forced it to end prematurely.

We already know that Trump has tried, or at least considered whether to fire Mueller in the past. He very publicly criticised his previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not being able to step in and shut down the investigation, and declared his own Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein a traitor. Ultimately, Trump did fire Sessions, and appointed Barr in his place. Within days, the Mueller investigation was brought to an end.

It seems difficult to come up with any other explanation for why the investigation would end when, by the Barr Summary's own words, a final conclusion had not yet been reached. It is even stranger that the investigation would willingly wrap up while court proceedings are still pending, or while the Special Counsel is as we speak fighting in the Supreme Court for a subpoena against a mystery foreign company. As recently as just two weeks ago, Mueller asked for an extension for sentencing Rick Gates due to the fact that he was still assisting the Mueller investigation, and the same has been done for Michael Flynn. Barely a week before submitting his report, Robert Mueller requested additional funding.

This begs the obvious question: if the Mueller's investigation was close to completion, then what were Gates and Flynn still cooperating on? If Mueller is still collecting evidence from this mystery company, then how can they declare now that there will be no further indictments? These very recent actions seem to suggest quite strongly that Mueller was expecting to continue his investigation for the foreseeable future, so what changed?

This is all highly suggestive of an investigation being rushed to a conclusion. People had reasonably speculated that Sessions was fired and replaced specifically to bring about an end to the investigation, and ostensibly that is exactly what has happened.

6. This is not the first time Trump has wrongly claimed exoneration
The Trump administration has been predictably direct in its response. "Total exoneration", "case closed". In Trump's view, the end of this investigation means that all other ongoing investigations must end, and all those in Government and the media who investigated him must themselves be investigated and locked up.

A few things here. First, the fact that a sitting President would even dream of suggesting using the Department of Justice for revenge and political imprisonment is grotesquely corrupt. It's the sort of thing that would have been unthinkable in America a few years ago. The fact that a politician can propose such a thing and not be forced out of office the next day is a shocking reminder of how far this country has fallen in recent years, and a warning of just how easily democracy can shift toward authoritarianism and lawlessness.

Second, quite why Trump chose the one word that the Barr Summary explicitly states that the report does not do (exonerate) is a baffling mystery, and only serves to exacerbate doubt as to the veracity of his statement.

But the key point to note here, is just how meaningless such a statement is. After all, this administration has claimed exoneration at every step of this investigation, regardless of what the facts have shown. This is, after all, a President who when his personal lawyer testified under oath that the President directed him to break the law, tweeted: "Totally clears the President!". This administration has constantly attempted to dismiss the ongoing criminal investigations through obfuscation and noise, and this situation is no different. This is simply another attempt by the administration to confuse and mislead, and much like the story of the Boy who Cried Wolf, at a certain point you just stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

7. Is Bill Barr covering for Trump?
Let's not beat around the bush. The timing of this whole thing is highly suspicious. Trump spent months attacking his own Justice Department for not shutting down the Mueller investigation. He ostensibly fired Jeff Sessions for this reason, and appointed Bill Barr as his replacement. Almost immediately after that appointment, the Mueller investigation ended.

The administration's actions since have done little to allay these suspicions. The fact that Barr has so far refused to release the underlying report, as well as the flagrantly dishonest narrative coming out of the White House, have only served to sow further doubt in the minds of the public.

If the intention was to close the case and let the American people move on, they are going about it entirely the wrong way.

8. The Barr Summary might be both accurate and a cover up
One possibility that should not be discounted at this point is the idea that the Barr Summary can be both entirely accurate, and still a cover up.

From what we know, it seems the Mueller investigation has conducted a comprehensive investigation of Trump's connections with Russia. It is entirely plausible that Mueller's report may contain findings which, while not necessarily criminal, are politically embarrassing to Trump. For example if Mueller's report shows that Trump is financially indebted to the Kremlin, as he is alleged to be, that might not be a crime in itself but it would clearly be significant, and would hurt him politically. It may also convince suspicious Americans that he is, in fact, guilty of a crime, even if the investigation did not find enough evidence to formally charge him.

Bill Barr's recent letter to Congress seems to indicate that this may be the case, stating that the longer summary awaiting release will be redacted to remove embarrassing information.

This raises a tricky question. In such situations Justice Department protocol rightly states that the privacy of persons not charged with a crime must be protected. After all, if an investigation does not charge someone with a crime, releasing details of that investigation could nevertheless prejudice the public against that person and harm their reputation. There are, of course, allowances for deviation from this policy where it serves the public interest.

The question then becomes, if the investigation found that Trump is politically or economically compromised, should that fact be disclosed to the public, or is Trump entitled to keep all non-criminal dirt a secret? This is tricky ethical and legal ground without an obvious answer. Does the President have a legal right to lie to the American people so long as it is not criminal, and is the Justice Department obligated to protect that right? It may be that the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean that it is morally correct.

9. What should happen next?
Whatever the findings may be, and whether not this has happened appropriately or illicitly, it is clear that this first phase of the investigation is complete. The question now is what next?

In an ideal world where justice is carried out without political bias and where Government functions as it should, the next steps are obvious. The open question of obstruction would be taken up by Congress, as recommended by the Special Counsel, and brought to conclusion one way or another. This entire situation makes abundantly clear just how important it is to have independent oversight over our leaders, if for no other reason that to afford Americans the peace of mind that they are not being deceived. Sadly we do not live in that world, and it seems likely that this matter will be never be resolved apolitically.

The Trump Administration is clearly trying to use the Barr Summary draw a line under, not only this investigation, but all ongoing investigations. It also seems disturbingly likely that Trump will use the prospect of "revenge" investigations and political indictments as a core part of his 2020 campaign.

At this point, there is only one thing that seems capable of bringing this matter to a definitive end: releasing the full Mueller findings to Congress, and letting them do their job and provide appropriate oversight. Clearly some people will have concerns about whether the Democrats in charge of Congress will do this without political bias, but the whole point of referring the matter to Congress is that it will be public and transparent. That way, if the Democrats do behave inappropriately, people will be able to see it. For any concern that one might have with Congressional oversight, this is clearly a better situation than the current one, where the accused has exonerated itself and hidden all underlying evidence and findings.

This last point seems to be the key takeaway going forward. Whatever the investigation has found, the Trump Administration's handling of it's conclusion carries the clear whiff of corruption and cover up. This appears to have been the conclusion of the American people as well. A clear majority say that Trump has not been exonerated, while barely a third believe that he has been. An astonishing 75%, including a clear majority of Republicans, want the Mueller Report to be released in full. On top of this, Trump's approval ratings have barely budged, and YouGov even showed a slight dip this week.

Whether fair or unfair, it is clear that the public has not been convinced by the Barr Summary. People want transparency, and so far this administration has refused that. They want justice to be independent and apolitical, and yet currently the administration appears to be content to exonerate itself without external scrutiny. This impression may yet turn out to be undeserved or unfair, but the administration has only itself to blame when it acts without transparency or independence in this way.

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