Programming the Slammer Film Festival

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
July 5 2005 1:19 PM

Programming the Slammer Film Festival

Readers choose the most enlightening fare for Judith Miller.

The "Entertaining/Educating Judy" contest has opened two different cans of worms. But if you look closely, you'll see that the worms of both cans are commingling freely. (Let's discard this metaphor, shall we?)

The first issue is Judith Miller's role as a dupe if not an outright co-conspirator with Ahmad Chalabi and her other opportunistic or neocon pals in providing the rationale—the nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction—for an invasion of Iraq.

Then there is Judy's current role as a martyr for free expression, fearlessly declaring she'd rather go to jail rather than identify a source—even if the source, as Steve Chapman neatly summarizes in the Los Angeles Times, "blew an American agent's cover for political revenge." That source, in other words, is a felon who sought to take advantage of Ms. Miller's well-known sympathies to deliver potentially lethal payback. One could even argue that a responsible journalist would have made that the story, but Judy was unlikely to expose her friends and allies in Bush Gardens.

Which brings us to our contest—how best to pass Ms. Miller's days and nights in jail. The Slammer Film Festival, as T. Disonte has dubbed it. First, it's worth noting that a few of you offered films like High Noon that celebrate heroism in the face of social and political pressure. No, no, no, no. Wrong contest. Others sought merely to entertain and/or unnerve her with women-behind-bars movies. A nice thought, but we really need to make those hours count.

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And now, folks: The winner and Opening Night film of the Judy Miller Slammer Film Festival is: The Siege, as nominated by SSG Terry Welch of the Kansas National Guard.

While, in most cases, there's little correlation between CIA agents and journalists, I think Judy would easily be able to identify with Annette Bening's character. She's no spook, but Judy is supposed to have some expertise in the field of Middle Eastern politics and national security, yet still she got taken for a ride by a liar with whom she had a far too close relationship. Just like Annette!

Judy might also take from the movie the lesson that fear can cause even the noblest of missions to go horribly wrong. She can think about how her reliance on the awful, self-interested info fed her by Ahmed Chalabi helped sell a war that led to the Bruce-Willis-in-the-stadium-like torture of some Iraqis.

I would like to think that this would help Ms. Miller, but I keep wondering: Can she be taught?

Incidentally, I forwarded this letter to one of the producers of The Siege, my frequent Slate pen pal Lynda Obst, who responded: "Love it! And I think [it's] right."

Before we go on, a word from Washington attorney Alan Naftalin: "Has it occurred to you that making this game is in really bad taste?" Yes, it has. But taste seems irrelevant, doesn't it, when every day another American and, proportionately, 10 more Iraqis die?

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The next slot, of course, should be filled with our most popular entry: Absence of Malice, starring Sally Field as an ambitious reporter who, "as the dupe of some smarmy ambitious DOJ types" (Harry Barlow), smears Paul Newman. "Maybe by identifying with Field's character," writes Greg Scott, "she will be able to see how the press can be manipulated by leakers both in and out of government and how even truthful, factual reporting can be misguided and damaging." John Kuhn adds, "It might have some valuable advice to give her regarding the consequences to real people's lives when reporters act irresponsibly."

Here are some nominees for the other slots, beginning with more films about corrupt or misled journalists:

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The Sweet Smell of Success: "Amoral press agent shops around a fabricated piece of gossip in order to destroy someone's reputation, ends up destroying everyone involved."—Ben Zimmer

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Meet John Doe: "Barbara Stanwyck, a cynical ace reporter for an increasingly profit-minded newspaper, makes up a story that gives birth to a national political movement. Fascistic politicians move to harness it. Will Barbara grow a conscience, keep the nation free and save Gary Cooper?"—David Fellerath

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Mother Night:"Nick Nolte's character is far more sympathetic than [Miller], but the film is essentially about a reporter who allows himself to become a propaganda tool and a secret agent, and enters a moral twilight zone. Perhaps it will give her something to be thankful for: at least she's not on trial for war crimes. (Now, if only we can get everyone in the administration to watch Lawrence of Arabia, or better yet, read Col. Lawrence's memoir.)"—Ed Noon

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "What better way for Judy to learn about the ability of the press, whether through silence or action, to affect political reality? Plus she gets a much-needed refresher course on democracy (the people's will—good, strong-arm tactics and threats—bad) via John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, and some of the best the West has to offer."—Jared Moshe

Valerie Michaels offers good reasons for three more related movies:

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The Third Man: "A shady profiteer sows tragedy in post-war Vienna, abetted by a fawning dame who really ought to know better. When the nefarious Valli walks by the heroic Joseph Cotten, her eyes burning with resentment, the viewer sympathizes with her plight but knows full well that she is no hero. That's our Judy.

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"Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, in which a slimy, sycophantic writer follows a vicious outlaw around, penning a heroic novel about his misdeeds. The writer is then forced to confront the horror of real violence and his own rank cowardice. Judy might learn a valuable lesson about what can happen to journalists who fraternize with the 'Duke of Death.' "

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"The Man Who Wasn't There, in which a brassy dame falls for the phony war stories and corrupt schemes of a rich chickenhawk, then gets locked up for a crime someone else committed. Perhaps Judy will come to understand that her fate is poetically just, even if it is not legally just."

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Care for a little espionage? How about Three Days of the Condor? "It explores what happens to a CIA operative when his cover is blown" (John W. Royal). Bryn Lewis writes, "It captures the same era as [ All the President's Men ] but also portrays sinister government motivations and manipulations in the name of international relations and oil. Sample line: 'What is it with you people? Do you think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?' "

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Probably Miller needs a hopeful film to keep her spirits up. Many readers suggested The Shawshank Redemption, in which prison "makes you a better person."—JP Davis

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Farther afield, but fun to consider, is Splendid IREny's suggestion of Being There: "It has more in common with the mid-70s post-Watergate mentality than films of the late 70s. Of course, [director Hal] Ashby's spin was to topple the corporate powerbroker and replace him with a simpleton, Peter Sellers' Chauncey Gardiner. What satisfaction or empathy would Miller draw from this film? Compare Chauncey's mantra, 'I like to watch,' " with Miller's self-defense: 'Just because I don't write it doesn't mean that the New York Times doesn't write it.' "

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Trish Stetson argues for looking at the bigger picture with The Usual Suspects: "As any good investigator knows, sometimes the person telling the story is the story."

Thanks to everyone who e-mailed—I could have cited you all. Now, here's my choice for closing night of our Slammer Film Festival, as suggested by Steve Mirkin:

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The Killing Fields: "Roland Joffé's 1984 film has always felt like a didactic exercise. However, if we're talking about something to educate Judy Miller about a New York Times reporter who really, really, really had a good reason to protect a source, this is a pretty dramatic example."...10:20 a.m. P.T.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.