New Docu Asks: Is a College Education Worth the Cost

What used to be taken as generally accepted wisdom– that the path to success in our society includes a college degree– is called into question in a thought-provoking documentary, “Ivory Tower,” which asks the burning question of whether college is worth the cost.

College tuition has spiraled out of control in the past four decades– in absolute terms, it’s escalated at a rate of more than 1000% since 1978, far outpacing the cost of healthcare or any other goods and services. In another surprising statistic, student loan debt has surpassed the $1 trillion mark– more than the U.S. credit card debt.

Public universities face particularly dire straits as their funding has been drastically reduced and rising intuition only makes up a portion of the losses.

In just the latest example of the seemingly endless cost increases, the University of California Board of Regents is scheduled to vote today on whether to raise tuition by 28% over the next five years for students in the 10-campus UC system.

“Ivory Tower,” which will make its television premiere on CNN after its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, was directed and produced by Emmy-nominated filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novak.

From the hallowed halls of Harvard University to community colleges struggling for funding, the documentary examines new models for accessing higher education fueled by technological advances that portend a transformational breaking point.

It looks at how colleges struggle to balance their mission for higher learning with the need to compete with other institutions for the best and brightest faculty and students – and the pressure to pivot university funding towards capital enhancements like state-of-the-art sports facilities, luxurious dining halls and research labs that may gain prestige but do not always lead to better learning experiences.

“We were surprised at how rapidly outside forces are changing education,” said Rossi, in an interview describing his experience making the film.  “Institutional change has been at the core of almost every movie I’ve made, from the upheaval in the newspaper business depicted in ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’ (2011) to the death of grand, formal dining experienced by the Italian family in ‘Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven’ (2008) to the advent of legal same sex marriage in Massachusetts, as documented in ‘The Sky Did Not Fall’ (2004).”

Rossi says when production started on “Ivory Tower” in the spring of 2012, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs – the free, digital versions of some of world’s best college classes) were just beginning to capture the imagination of technologists and the media. Now, some colleges and state university systems are examining whether MOOCs can help broaden access to a college education while reducing costs.

“Here was a revolutionary force that could upend the ossified traditions of lecture-driven education, allowing for cost savings that might rescue future students from crippling student loan debt,” he said.

As for the solution to the student loan debt crisis, he says it must come from its constituents — informed parents and students who should demand that the current system change by being open to a broad range of choices for professional preparation, not all of which will include going to a traditional four-year college.

In the film, the complex issues of the costs of higher education are brought to life in interviews with professors including Columbia University’s Andrew Debanco, author of “College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be” and students like David Boone, who won a full scholarship to Harvard after a hardscrabble life in a Cleveland ghetto.

Yet the benefits that Boone enjoys are becoming increasingly difficult for other American university students to attain, even as Harvard continues to be the role model for almost every institution of higher learning in the United States, setting a precedent for constant expansion and improvement.

The documentary also looks at education in what are known as “party schools,” and how that that can mean that some students are shortchanged academically and do not get learning value for their tuition money.

But the news is not all bad. Rossi and Novak find that other unique programs hold the potential for life-changing college experiences.

Rossi says that overall, the landscape is shifting.

“Online courses will get better and add more to the competitive landscape that impacts tuition, and the credit bubble for student loans has to change.  The job market is not stable enough for most people to count on uninterrupted employment for an entire career.  But, we’re just at the beginning of this market disruption – we don’t know how or what the college experience will look like at the end of this transition.”

Still there are burning questions that need to be answered now for students looking ahead to the future, and after making the documentary, Rossi has some advice for them.

“Get to know what you’re getting into before you sign the acceptance letter,” he said. “Students need to think of college with a long view – what will it prepare me to do with my life?  Are there experiences I need from a particular college that are worth the debt it will cost me?  Will the school I’m considering help me get into graduate school if that’s part of my professional development plan?”

Sounds like questions that could also engender insightful answers to college admission application essay questions.

(“Ivory Tower” airs on CNN November 20 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET/PT.)

–Hillary Atkin

Who Would Want Three Sagging Breasts, Asks AHS: Freak Show’s Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett has had a long and diverse career on television and film, but there’s something she’s never been asked about any of the characters she’s played: Is she or isn’t she a she?

Until now. As Desiree Dupree on FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” that question hung in the air until a recent episode.

Bassett joined the “AHS” ensemble last year when she appeared in “Coven” as New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Most of her scenes than were with Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange. This year, she mostly plays off Michael Chiklis and Emma Roberts.

The character of Desiree was introduced to the audience as being “intersex,” something that in a bygone era was called a hermaphrodite. But while her biological and gender identity was recently revealed, Bassett says she’s still in the dark about her character’s full story arc — and also how Desiree and Marie might be linked in a larger “American Horror Story” universe, as co-creator Ryan Murphy recently alluded.

The Oscar-nominated actress spoke by phone recently to talk about her character’s evolution, the breakup of her relationship with Dell, the character played by Michael Chiklis, and the nitty-gritty details of shooting with an uncomfortable three-breast prosthetic, Desiree’s signature characteristic. Here is an edited version of the conversation:

Q: When you signed on for “Freak Show,” did you know what the part was? What was your reaction when you found out what the part was?

Angela Bassett: I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, what it might encompass, when I signed on. I just knew I had a great time the previous year, and if that was any indication, it was going to be a wild ride. I think it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to come down to start shooting that I got the hot off the press script. I sat down to read it to see and I remember wondering, “Now, how am I going to know who I am?”

Then you read the stage direction, “African American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts, and a ding-a-ling.” You’re like, oh, my gosh. You immediately close the pages, and have to walk around, and process that for a minute. You’re thinking, “What does that mean?” If they thought I was crazy demonic last year, what are they going to think this year? I just knew that it was absolutely going to be something that I had never done before. What does an actor crave, but new challenges? This certainly was going to be one of those.

Q: Do you feel like the “American Horror Story” cast is sort of a family of performers, and do you feel like more of a part of that now that this is your second time on the show?

AB: Absolutely. I feel like it is a traveling troupe of performers. This year I feel more a part of the family. You know, having been here before, having established those relationships, not the brand-new girl. We’ve got some other new faces. I feel like I’ve been around the block at least one time with them. I feel more comfortable. I was excited. I’m still excited, but I feel more a part of the family this year, most definitely.

Q: How does it feel to try on another character? Is there a learning curve? Is that the challenge within itself?

AB: As an actor you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else, doing your research, working on that. I think what I found most challenging about television and shedding one character and having to come up with another is that there’s this lag time before I get to actually see what the characters are looking like, or sounding like, or how they’re coming across. We start filming in July and the first episode is in October. As an actor who wonders if you’re getting it right because you don’t have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet — that’s the little caveat. I can’t say it’s a real crazy frustration. If there were something that you had to call that, that would be it for me.

Q: Now that we know Desiree is 100% female, is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?

AB: No. I don’t think it’ll change how I approach or how she acts. I think she’s comfortable with who she is, by and large. I think she’s just had to find a way to work and survive in a world that she’s always been reaching for what she calls normalcy, to have a family, a real family, and children of her own. I don’t think it’s going to change and make her more feminine or whatever it might be. They might write her so differently, so I’m open, but I don’t anticipate it’ll change the way that she behaves. I think what influences that is how she’s treated, how she’s treated by others.

Q: Do you think she might demand a different kind of treatment now, especially from Dell?

AB: Well, she’s walked out on him. She does demand a different kind of treatment. I guess honesty. Honesty for one, but that’s just not a desire of her as a freak, it’s just desire for her as a human being.

Q: How does your character view Michael Chiklis’? Do you think that she really sees the good in him in spite of his being kind of a bully, and a monster?

AB Yes. I think that there was a time when he was kind, and good to her, and believed in her, and made her feel valuable and special. I think that there have been moments over those years when they’ve been together where he’s crossed the line with her in the things that he says. He’s begged for forgiveness. It’s that same old thing, sometimes it happens, when people are abusive physically. I think there’s been maybe some emotional abuse throughout the years, but … never crossing the line, and completely crossing the line, or she’s weighing, if I give this up, what do I lose? Can I move on from this? Can we move on from this? Can we remain together?

I think there has come a point where he crossed the line of no return. She thought she knew who he was, but she found out she was living with the enemy. There’s something about him that was dishonest and disloyal. They were there for each other. They told each other their painful truth. I think he crossed the line. Sometimes that happens and you can’t go back. You can’t make yourself go back.

Q: What’s the process that turned you into Desiree? How does she get that third breast and how long does it take to put on?

AB: Well, I go into my regular makeup artist. She applies the appliance to me, so that it’s there basically. Then I go over to the special effects trailer where her husband makes sure the edges and everything sort of blend seamlessly. From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. … They spray it on. They’ll start with the brown. They’ll go to the red, and yellow, and green. It’s amazing these colors and undertones that they claim you possess. You’re like, oh, those are weird, weird colors. Then he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own and based on that he’ll maybe go in, and do so more painting, and carry on.

It takes maybe from start to finish about an hour, just enough time to check out a Netflix episode of “Orange Is the New Black” or something.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you first tried on the prosthetic?

AB: Well, I was glad it wasn’t on my face. I’m claustrophobic. The initial appliance was extremely heavy. I think it was made of silicone. It started out fine, but after about hour number 12, it became hot and heavy. I believe it started sagging, which I’m like, what is the point of having three sagging breasts? No, this is not good. They reworked it and made it out of foam, which I was so, so pleased about because it’s the difference of night and day. Still, after about 12 hours of that internal heat, you begin to sweat. You begin to itch. You can’t really provide relief because you can’t get to yourself. You’re scratching foam. It’s much lighter. It’s much more bearable. I guess I’ve grown accustomed.

(“American Horror Story: Freak Show” airs on FX Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

Redmayne, Jones Reach for the Stars in ‘The Theory of Everything’

As we move deeper into the heart of awards season, you will be hearing more and more about British actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for very good reason. In “The Theory of Everything,” both are equal parts spellbinding, charismatic and heartbreaking as they portray the time and space of a relationship that not only shaped two individuals and their families but the entire universe of astrophysics.

As the legendary, brilliant scientist Stephen Hawking, Redmayne brings to cinematic life the time before he was struck with Lou Gehrig’s disease– and given just two years to live. Playing Jane Wilde, a fellow student, Jones vows to be by his side throughout the unknown challenges that lie ahead, and puts marriage to him and having children into hyperdrive. The rest, as they say, is history.

In reality, Hawking has survived for half a century with the disease, and was married to Jane for 25 years before each moved on to other relationships.

This beautiful film, with stellar performances from its leads, serves to make their lives even more inspirational.

The Foo Fighters’ Road to Musical Discovery, Sonic Highways

What would a multiple-Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum record-selling band do to mark its 20th year in the music business? Well, put out a new album of course.

But if that band is the Foo Fighters, the concept was to create it in an entirely different way. Yes, it involved taking a road trip–not to tour in front of sellout crowds, but to discover the heart and soul of America’s musical identity by exploring eight cities across the country, each with a unique cultural environment, social and musical history and artistic legacy.

Those elements, in turn, inspire songs for the band’s eighth studio album that are written and recorded in each of the cities at recording studios that have been integral to each place’s musical identity and character, past and present.

The journey is documented in an eight-part HBO series, “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” directed by the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, on the heels of his acclaimed feature film documentary “Sound City.”

As the band hits the road in the opening scenes, Grohl narrates in a voiceover. “We’ve been all over the world, but never in one place long enough to really see it. For our 20th anniversary we wanted to make the creative process new, to do something we’ve never done before. We wanted to find out what inspires studio owners, musicians and producers. This is a musical map of America.”

First stop: Chicago, midway philosophically between the coasts and a mecca for music going back decades to the heyday of Muddy Waters, the blues musician who was a magnet attracting and inspiring other talented musicians.

That eclectic list of artists who got their start or made their home in Chicago includes Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, the group Chicago, Wilco, Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun, Smashing Pumpkins, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West.

Guy, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, is interviewed extensively about the city’s musical history. “I was looking for a dime, I found a quarter,” he said about moving there from the South in 1957. Those lines are later incorporated into the lyrics of a new Foo Fighters song, “Something from Nothing,” which is performed at the end of the episode.

Guy reminisces about making instruments from buttons and strings in his early days of abject poverty. Then, footage is shown of him receiving an award at the Kennedy Center Honors two years ago, one of multiple honors, including six Grammy Awards that he has received in a career that stretches more than 50 years.

“We’ve all made something from nothing,” Grohl remarks in the documentary. “The inspiration for the first song is coming from all these people.”

It’s thrilling to watch the creative journey fueled by the stories of other musicians as Grohl and bandmates Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear along with longtime Foo Fighters (and Nirvana) producer Butch Vig set up shop at the Windy City’s legendary Electrical Audio studio. The studio’s owner, producer Steve Albini is also there, and a key part of the Chicago story.

Grohl has close ties to him, and bittersweet memories. Albini produced Nirvana’s third and final studio album, “In Utero,” released in 1993. The episode features clips from several Nirvana music videos, with Grohl on drums, bassist Krist Novoselic and the late Kurt Cobain front and center.

As with 2013’s “Sound City,” Grohl’s passion for music and the inspiration for its creation fuels honest and trusting exchanges amongst the people in the studio, where local legends become part of the creative process and some of whom participate in the recordings.

The journey continues with upcoming stops along the sonic highway in Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

(“Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” premieres on HBO Friday, October 17 at 11 p.m. PT/ET with 7 additional episodes slated for subsequent Fridays in the same time slot. The “Sonic Highways” album drops November 10 on RCA Records.)

 –Hillary Atkin

Makers: Women in Hollywood Traces 100 Years of Film & TV History

Fifteen women. One hundred years. That’s the terrain covered in 52 minutes in “Makers: Women in Hollywood,” a new documentary produced by Rory Kennedy and co-produced and directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, airing on PBS and available in an extended version on AOL.

The film, second in the “Makers” series, is narrated by Julia Roberts and showcases showbiz women from the earliest pioneers of the silent film era to today’s power players in television and film like Kathryn Bigelow, Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham.

Kennedy and Knowlton interviewed a group of women whose talents lie both in front of and behind the camera including Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Sherry Lansing, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marti Noxon, Alfre Woodard, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Callie Khouri, Ava DuVernay and Linda Woolverton.

Viewers will also see some of women who played groundbreaking roles on television in the 1960s and 70s, including Marlo Thomas, Diahann Carroll and Valerie Harper.

Through them, a history of their impact on the industry emerges as does a landscape where women are still vastly underrepresented as directors and writers, the creators who shape not only the business but lasting images of American life and culture that are exported around the world.

AOL, which provides the major funding for “Makers,” sponsored a preview screening Monday night at the AMC theaters in Century City, followed by a panel moderated by critic Anne Thompson with key participants in the documentary.

“It was interesting to look back on history and to find that women were instrumental in the silent film era but were basically thrown out when talkies came in and huge amounts of money followed,” Kennedy said.

In the 1920s and into the 1940s, there literally was only one female director in the movie business—Dorothy Arzner, for whom the organization Women in Film gives out a directing award annually. The film shows that she dressed like a man and smoked cigars, a trailblazer who stood alone during the era known as the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system.

One of the threads that runs through the documentary is that women have more opportunities when less money is at stake, which is why there are infinitely more complex female characters on television and in low-budget films than there are in blockbuster motion pictures with $250 million budgets.

Producer Judd Apatow, the only man interviewed in the documentary, talks about how it’s easier to blow things up and make stupid– and expensive – movies than it is to come up with original ideas.

For Woolverton, a screenwriter who re-imagined the traditional Disney princess by making Belle in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” a self-possessed, strong-willed young woman, it’s all about the original ideas and focusing on the story.

“I want to write the best story possible,” she told the audience in the packed theater. “I want to show all sides. We can be bitches and horrible things can happen and you can still come back from that.”

Noxon, who rose to acclaim for her work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and has worked with Rhimes on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” said that TV is better because of women. “In cable there is tolerance for flawed feminine characters that is greater than in broadcast,” she said, while saluting broadcast shows like “Scandal” and “The Good Wife” for their complex female characters.

“Our mothers may have paved the way, but they couldn’t have the careers their daughters did,” she said about the increased number of female executives in television and film. “There was this idea that we had to surrender our femininity, like Arzner, who dressed like a dude.”

“There’s a corporate mentality in Hollywood, more so than being creative and taking risks,” Kennedy said. “Yet I haven’t experienced sexism in documentary, because it’s low-budget.”

(“Makers: Women in Hollywood” airs Tuesday, October 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS stations. Check local listings.)

–Hillary Atkin

 

Gracepoint: Moody Murder Mystery Premieres on Fox

Devotees of the acclaimed British crime procedural “Broadchurch” will want to get used to a different version of the way English is spoken when ”Gracepoint” takes to the airwaves on Fox for a 10-part murder mystery series.

It’s not unusual that a successful international format is remade for American television, but the distinct throughline between “Broadchurch” and ”Gracepoint” is not only its creator, writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall, but its lead actor, David Tennant.

In “Gracepoint,” Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver, a seemingly take-no-prisoners kind of guy who has just arrived in a small, idyllic Northern California coastal town to join its police force–when a 12-year-old boy is found dead on the beach.

The tragedy quickly becomes a high profile murder investigation and touches off a media frenzy and turns neighbor against neighbor as Carver leads the charge to find the killer, while navigating a rocky relationship with fellow detective Ellie Miller.

Miller, a lifelong resident of the town and a cop who was promised the job that went to Carver, is played by Anna Gunn her first leading role coming off of her vaunted performance in “Breaking Bad.”

The supporting cast includes the boy’s parents and sister, the local priest, a small town newspaper reporter and his editor, an aggressive big city reporter, an old fisherman who rents kayaks (Nick Nolte) and a haunted-looking woman who lives in a trailer, played by Jacki Weaver.

Without revealing much else about the storyline, the tagline, “Small town. Big secrets,” says a lot, as does a promoted hashtag, #SuspectEveryone.

Fox and Shine America in conjunction with Film Independent and the New York Times premiered the first two episodes to a full house at LACMA’s Bing Theater Tuesday night.

The screening was followed with a panel led by Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell, who discussed the drama with Chibnall and all of the major cast members who took the stage after the final credits rolled.

With the obvious exception of Tennant, most of the cast had not seen “Broadchurch,” which is set on the Dorset coast of England and aired in the U.S. on BBC America beginning in August 2013 after an original run in the U.K. earlier that year.

“From the very first page of the script, my imagination was gripped. It was great writing, story and the characters were rich,” said Gunn, who recently won her second Emmy Award for playing Walter White’s wife, Skyler. “I was looking for a character with color, facets and duality. She’s strong and forthright but vulnerable and insecure and I loved having that duality.”

Tennant is duality personified, not only with his character—who has a mysterious past with one of the reporters–but the fact that he’s going back to playing Detective Alec Hardy in Season 2 of “Broadchurch,” with production starting the same day as “Gracepoint’s” American broadcast premiere.

The characters have different names and obviously different accents, yet playing both detectives back-to-back is a challenge that Tennant has obviously thought through.

“The danger is setting out to be outrightly different,” he told the crowd. “The thing is to try to react to the things in front of you. We have the Rolls Royce of casts here and you must be in the moment. They are different worlds, on different continents and the stories take you on a different journey– but I wouldn’t want to do both at the exact same time.”

Weaver, who has been nominated for two supporting actress Oscars in the past few years, and called herself “a theater animal,” pointed out the many different versions of plays like “Uncle Vanya,” “Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“There are many quality versions of these productions and you bring your own thing to it,” she said, referring to “Gracepoint.” “Only one percent of all Americans saw ‘Broadchurch.’ The others deserve to see it.”

All of the actors eventually watched “Broadchurch” to prep for their roles, some taking character cues from their British cousins.

“Jodie Whittaker’s work was revelatory,” said Virginia Kull of the actor who plays the boy’s mother in the U.K. “But we are all unique, even if I had copied her. I’m grateful for her example but happy to bring my own version of the character.”

“The opportunity for ambiguity as an actor is rare,” said Kevin Zegers, who portrays the small town newspaper reporter. “Usually characters are so defined. We are all detestable at some point. It’s good to have the other side. I like that – even in the course of one episode. You think you know a character–and then you don’t.”

After noting that guilt seemingly informs everyone’s character, as does the variance between their public and private selves, Mitchell asked Chibnall about his original inspiration for the story.

“I live in a small community,” he said “I wanted to write about community and grief with a prime narrative to get into each of the characters in an ensemble. That’s the fun of the genre.”

(“Gracepoint” premieres on Fox Thursday night at 9 p.m. PT/ET, 8 p.m. Central)

–Hillary Atkin

 

Dangerous, Dirty & Dysfunctional: The Ed Koch NYC Years on PBS

Those who lived in New York City during the Ed Koch years will have a visceral reaction to a new documentary about the man once called America’s Mayor in a Time magazine cover story.

For everyone else, the feature-length “Koch” will give a fascinating look back at a time in American history when crime ran rampant in its largest city – which had teetered on bankruptcy – minorities struggled to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed, graffiti and filth marred its subway system and gay activists launched protests to combat the sweeping AIDS epidemic.

More than that, the film, part of PBS’s POV series and directed by Neil Barsky, gives viewers a warts-and-all look at the man who ran the Big Apple during what the first-time director called dangerous, dirty, dysfunctional but magical days from 1978-1989.

Like many things about New York during his three terms, people either loved or hated Koch, emblematic as he was of the city’s brashness, bluntness, combativeness and shrewdness — but most heartily approved. In 1981, he was reelected with a staggering 75% of the vote; in the second reelection, the margin rose to 78%.

In a signature tactic which became almost cliché, he would stand on street corners and asked passersby, “How am I doing?”

So we asked Barsky, who had unprecedented access to the still-active former mayor for a year and a half until shortly before he died in February 2013 at the age of 88, about Koch’s legacy— just how did he do. Overall, he credits Koch with planting the seeds of New York’s recovery, leading it to become the overwhelmingly safe and prosperous metropolis it is today.

“He did a phenomenal job of restoring the city’s fiscal condition as well as injecting New York with a much needed boost of adrenaline and morale building,” said Barsky, who lived in NYC during the Koch years as a student and then a newspaper reporter, although he did not cover City Hall. “His greatest achievement was a $5.5 billion dollar program to rehabilitate and build housing for low to moderate income people, which reshaped the city. However, he was thrown out of office because of his inability to relate to many communities who turned on him.”

Throughout his public life, Koch was dogged by questions about his personal life, specifically his sexual orientation. It was widely thought that he was closeted gay. But when asked about it in the 1980s, he said he was heterosexual and late in his life when questioned by Barsky, he said, “It’s none of your fucking business.”

In the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary that had pitted Koch—who made appearances with former Miss America Bess Myerson at his side– against incumbent Abe Beame, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, signs were posted that said, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” They were disavowed by the Cuomo campaign and quickly taken down, but the damage was done.

“It was a very potent accusation. At the time, you could be gay or mayor but you couldn’t be both,” Barsky said. “There was an ugliness to it, and it was the root of his anger toward Cuomo– even though towards the end of his life, he endorsed Mario’s son Andrew for governor of New York.”

Despite the fact that Koch pushed through an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in 1986– revolutionary at the time – the LGBT community held him responsible for not doing enough to fight AIDS.

“The backlash to his reaction to the AIDS crisis obscured and overwhelmed his achievements on the civil rights front,” said Barsky. “I think it goes to empathy.  All he had to say was, ‘This is a tragedy of epic proportion.’ He did eventually. He didn’t show the leadership. If you interview members of the AIDS activist community, he is reviled. Larry Kramer, author of ‘The Normal Heart,’ was very tough on Koch. Eventually the city caught up, but it took too long.”

The black community also turned against Koch after several incidents that created large street protests– the closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem and the 1989 murder of a young black man, Yusef Hawkins, by a group of white teenagers.

“He could’ve said it was a travesty and tragedy and mourned with the family, and he would’ve been reelected,” Barsky said. “Instead he said not to march through the neighborhood where it happened. Each of these times, he was not able to relate to people on a human level.”

Also in his third term, a municipal corruption scandal, including the suicide of one of the accused, Queens borough president Donald Manes, rocked the administration– although Koch himself was clean.

When Koch ran for a fourth term in 1989, he was defeated by David Dinkins, who went on to top Rudy Giuliani in the general election and to become New York’s first black mayor.

But as viewers will see in the film, which was released theatrically last year on what turned out to be the day he died, Koch did not ride off quietly into the sunset after he was denied a fourth term.

The lifelong Democrat who had served in the Army during World War II remained politically active, endorsing candidates– including Republicans Rudy Giuliani and later Michael Bloomberg for mayor of New York — appearing as a commentator on talk shows, lecturing and writing books.

“Once we started shooting the film, it became clear just how personally compelling Koch—then 87—still was,” said Barsky. “He tirelessly hopped from campaign stop to campaign stop, from speaking engagement to speaking engagement. He bared his teeth at anyone who challenged him in a public forum; he still shined brightly when he was the center of attention. And he could not walk down a New York City street without being approached by an admirer.”

The energetic Koch, who apparently planned never to retire, was a partner in a law firm, an adjunct professor at NYU and a visiting professor at Brandeis University, served as the judge on “The People’s Court” from 1997-1999, hosted a highly-rated radio program and an online movie review show called “Mayor at the Movies.”

“New York loves to see itself the center of the world, even if it’s not,” said Barsky. “But to us New Yorkers, it’s the world capital, and it tends to attract larger-than-life characters. Ed Koch’s story is in many ways the story of the city. To this day, I cannot think of a New Yorker as popular or as polarizing.”

(“Koch” airs Monday, September 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on PBS stations. Check local listings.)

–Hillary Atkin

Crime, Corruption and Cockiness: The Whitey Bulger Story

His name was once second on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, right after that of Osama bin Laden. But even with notorious gangster Whitey Bulger captured, convicted and behind bars for the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary, the families of those he mercilessly killed are not convinced that justice was done.

Every aspect of Bulger’s life is over-the-top dramatic, from his beginnings as a young thug in South Boston, to a stint at Alcatraz for bank robbery, to his decades-long reign of murder, extortion, racketeering and drug dealing as leader of Boston’s infamous Winter Hill Gang, to his capture by the FBI after living an apparently ordinary life in Santa Monica, Calif. with his decades-younger girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

Inside the rent-controlled apartment, where the couple had lived under the names Charlie and Carol Gasko, authorities found $822,000 in cash and 30 weapons hidden in the walls.

Bulger had been on the lam for more than 16 years, fleeing Boston on the eve of an indictment after being tipped off by an FBI agent he had apparently bought off.

The circumstances were so dramatic that Bulger’s 30 years as an organized crime kingpin were the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in the 2006 Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” In another star turn, Bulger will be portrayed by Johnny Depp in a Warner Bros. film called “Black Mass” scheduled for release next September. Boston natives Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are also reportedly developing a feature film.

But it is the real-life drama of what transpired after Bulger’s takedown in June 2011 that runs through the new documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” from CNN Films, directed by Joe Berlinger and produced by Berlinger and Caroline Suh.

It chronicles the sensational 2013 trial in Boston federal court in which Bulger stood accused of 19 murders and 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, narcotics distribution and weapons charges.

Berlinger was in the courtroom for what promised to be the most explosive Boston trial since the Sacco-Vanzetti armed robbery murder case in 1920.

“It was an amazing experience, 30 years of history converging,” Berlinger said in a phone interview. “A lot of observers were disappointed that there was not a deeper inquiry into what made Bulger possible. It was a foregone conclusion on guilt, but my overwhelming feeling was that to go through the trouble and expense of trying an 83- year old, there should have been a fuller, deeper probe into corruption. The families deserve to know why he wasn’t taken off streets earlier.  It made me realize not to do a bio of him, but to raise questions of corruption in law enforcement that enabled him.”

As the film opens, we hear a Boston liquor store owner describe the violent extortion Bulger visited upon him and his family, coming to his door and threatening to take control of his business and kill his children.

Bulger operated in Boston’s criminal underworld for three decades without encountering even a single indictment or misdemeanor prosecution, a crime lord who until his arrest and transfer back to his hometown had not seen the inside of a prison cell since 1956.

“Bulgerʼs story represented to me a nexus of the two major thematic threads that have dominated my documentary filmmaking endeavors – true crime and institutional corruption,” Berlinger said. “As a storyteller, I was also fascinated by the uniquely mythic status that Bulger has obtained in the public consciousness. Despite being accused of pathological brutality, he was also celebrated by many as a folk hero – a ‘good’ bad-guy. A Robin Hood of sorts, helping the poor and elderly and keeping his Boston neighborhood of Southie clean of drugs –myths that would later be debunked in the trial that is the subject of this film.”

One of the most remarked upon elements of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically earlier this year, is that the audience gets to hear Bulger’s voice for the first time.

It happens in a phone call to his defense attorney, who allowed Berlinger’s crew to tape the conversation, the notorious gangster’s first-ever media interview. In the time between the verdict and his sentencing, Bulger discusses his relationship with investigators, his negotiations with prosecutors and his proposal to plead guilty in exchange for absolving his girlfriend of any charges—and he professes his love for her.

“The goal of including Bulger in the film was not to take sides or to diminish his crimes. Generally, we have never heard his point of view. Now that he’s in the custody of the federal government, no one will have access to him,” said Berlinger. “Bulger is a brutal killer and deserves to be behind bars. However, the families of the victims deserve to hear why Bulger was allowed to kill with impunity.”

The general consensus was that Bulger was an informant for the FBI, instrumental in helping the G-men take down leaders of the Italian Mafia in Boston, all the while being allowed to freely operate his criminal enterprises and murder at will. Yet Bulger claims he was never an informant and that law enforcement– Massachusetts State police, Boston police, the ATF and the FBI gave him information in exchange for money.

“I took care of everyone, in cash, $25-$50,000,” he said in the taped interview, and claimed he had a deal of immunity with the U.S. Attorney’s office because he protected a key official from Mafia retribution.

That viewpoint was never allowed to be presented in court – the judge nixed it before the trial began, thus Berlinger said, cheating the citizens of Massachusetts out of an opportunity to hear the whole truth fully aired.

The documentary raises questions that are not definitively answered, like how Bulger could be an informant if he never got paid, and if he was, why was he allowed to kill instead of being targeted and prosecuted?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the law enforcement fixation on the Italian Mob while looking the other way at the Irish gangsters.

If it all unraveled, the government would lose all of its Mob convictions—upon which many careers were made– and be held liable.

“In Boston, the Mafia generally hired Bulger’s gang to do their assassinations. The defense maintained that Bulger made a deal in exchange for not being prosecuted,” Berlinger said.  “That’s exactly the issue, the government picking winners and losers. They shouldn’t be in that business if someone is a killer. The importance of the Bulger saga is how he was aided and abetted by the very same institutions that finally brought him to justice as an 83-year-old man who lived his life to the fullest.”

“What makes this trial extraordinary – and really crazy – is the defense is defending him from an assertion that he was in an informant, even though it is not a charge,” said David Boeri, senior reporter for Boston’s WBUR radio, one of many Beantown journos who have been on the Bulger beat for years. “It’s not about guilt or innocence in this trial. It’s about his legacy, of wanting to establish that he wasn’t a tout, a rat, an informant.”

It should be noted that two of the three prosecutors in the case (Brian T. Kelly and Fred M. Wyshak, Jr.)  worked for two decades to bring Bulger to justice, and Berlinger said they deserve tremendous credit for fighting against the institutional resistance that prevented this indictment from moving forward in the early years of Bulger’s reign.

“In many ways, they are heroes,” he said. “But the prosecution in this trial also seemed to be simultaneously turning a blind eye to the deeper and troubling questions that have yet to be answered about the nature and extent of the government corruption that may have surrounded this case.”

Bulger did not take the stand in his own defense and later called the entire trial a sham.

For Berlinger, the most searing memory of the trial was the fact that the victims’ families took the side of the defense and not the prosecution. “They were angry that the prosecution was limiting the scope of the trial and therefore rooting for the very guy who killed their loved ones.”

(“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” premiered on CNN September 18 and will encore Saturday, September 20 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m ET.)

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

Ken Burns Gets Intimate With the Roosevelts on PBS

Just as “The Civil War” and “The War” before it, master documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” is turning out to be a massive blockbuster for PBS.

The sprawling documentary chronicling the lives of Theodore, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt began Sunday night with the first of its seven, two-hour episodes, which garnered a 5.8 rating and an average audience of 9.06 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, Live + SD.

Before the first chapter aired, more than 200,000 views of trailers for “The Roosevelts” foretold the strong demand for the series.

Burns, whose other recent documentaries include “Prohibition” (2011) and “The Dust Bowl” (2012), said that releasing a film is like having a conversation with your closest friends and family. If, of course, they number in the millions of people.

“I’m always struck by the thoughts and comments and how engaged the American people are,” he said. “The fact that such a large audience tuned in the first night is all the more rewarding. We hope more people have a chance to watch on all of the platforms PBS has set up to share the work.”

In addition to the broadcasts which run through September 20, the 14-hour series is streaming at pbs.org/theroosevelts, PBS stations’ digital platforms, Roku and Apple TV– and will be available through September 29.

“The Roosevelts,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, spans more than 100 years, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, vividly bringing to life the history of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies, Prohibition, the Depression and two world wars.

With never-before seen photographs and vibrant but silent film, the first chapters chronicle the life of Teddy Roosevelt, born into a world of privilege, who became America’s 26th president in a term that began 113 years ago almost to the day, on Sept. 14, 1901, after President William McKinley was assassinated.

He was, at age 42, the youngest person to become president. Overcoming severe asthma as a youth, the ambitious Roosevelt had already made a name for himself as a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president.

His cowboy persona, epitomized by forming the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and his large ego were legendary. His most famous slogan, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” resonates to this day. Other catchphrases, indicative of his boundless energy, were “Bully!” and “Dee-lighted.”

Roosevelt ate a dozen eggs for breakfast every morning, drank coffee from a massive mug and dictated 150,000 letters in his lifetime, which the Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, ND is trying to get all online.

But as Burns does so well, and with Roosevelt brought to life in his own words by the voice of Paul Giamatti, viewers get a detailed, insightful, 360-degree version of Theodore—including his battles with depression, his tragic loss of both his first wife and his mother on the same day and an assassination attempt—which contribute to a greater understanding of one of the most prominent leaders in U.S. history.

As the docu-series moves on to the era of Franklin and Eleanor, Theodore’s distant cousin and his niece, viewers will hear them come to life, voiced by actors Edward Herrmann (who played FDR in the landmark 1976 miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin”) and Meryl Streep.

The stories of the more modern-era Roosevelts, well-chronicled as they have been for decades, are even more captivating on Burns’ canvas, with images and video so clear they feel almost contemporary.

(“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” airs on PBS stations at 8 p.m. PT/ET, 7 p.m. C through September 20.)

–Hillary Atkin

Carnage and Courage in HBO’s ‘Terror at the Mall’

We have just commemorated the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yet many people may not realize that September marks another such tragic milestone. It’s been one year since an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group based in Somalia attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving 71 people dead and hundreds wounded.

A new documentary airing on HBO and then on CNN, “Terror at the Mall,” takes a harrowing look inside the siege by Al-Shabaab militants at the upscale shopping center known as Westgate, which lasted for a staggering 49 hours before the situation was brought grimly under control.

Directed by Dan Reed, who also helmed HBO’s 2009 Emmy-nominated “Terror in Mumbai” and 2003’s BAFTA-nominated “Terror in Moscow,” the film recalls the horror of the attack and the courage of ordinary citizens who were caught in the middle of a murderous rampage of civilians–people who had been going about their daily lives on a typical weekend afternoon.

“Somehow, it really got to me. It’s a universal location meant for all of us, and this is a mall looks like any other in Europe or America,” Reed said in a phone interview. “It was a Saturday lunchtime, people doing what they’re doing, walking around with their kids, shopping. There was a generic significance that made it chilling.”

The London-based director started working on the film right after the attack and made five trips to Kenya, using footage from more than 100 security cameras, which recorded hours of surveillance video, along with extensive photographs taken during the siege. He tracked down and interviewed many of the survivors and some of the rescuers, who reflected on what took place, why it happened the way it did and how their lives have changed in the interim.

“We recorded 82 interviews but met 150 people involved,” Reed said. “My film tries to create an account of what it was like to experience the attack. It was designed to be a claustrophobic experience. These are important events for us to understand and that’s why I try to have material that gives you an incredible inside view and allows you to piece together a complex event that unfolds in a rapidly changing scenario.”

The terror began out of nowhere at 12:30 p.m. when a shopper passed through a security check to enter the mall, heard a loud explosion, which turned out to be a grenade, and then saw the guard who had been searching him fall to the ground. Witnesses recalled that gunfire quickly erupted and footage shows patrons in a restaurant diving for cover or being knocked to the ground.

As the security camera videos dispassionately reveal, chaos engulfed the mall, with frightened shoppers running for their lives, unsure of the origin of the attack. Many tried to find hiding places within the shopping center, including under display tables, while literally hundreds of terrified people fled into a giant two-story supermarket, Nakumatt.

There were four terrorists responsible for the rampage. Two of the gunmen made their way toward the supermarket while two others headed for the mall’s rooftop, where a children’s cooking competition was underway.

A 15-year-old girl who was shot in the stomach, thigh and foot clearly recalled one of the terrorist’s chilling battle cries. “The only thing he said was that we are here to kill. You killed our people in Somalia. We normally don’t kill women and children but you kill ours in Somalia and so we are here to take revenge.”

In October 2011, Kenya had marched into Somali to combat Islamist jihadists who had been kidnapping Westerners in its border region, but Reed said there was little evidence of Kenyan civil rights abuses of Somalis during the incursion.

Meanwhile, inside the supermarket, 20 people had hidden behind the meat counter when the terrorists started shooting them, letting some go who said they were Muslim. One woman who was protecting her young daughter and son was shot through the pelvis.

Outside the mall, 45 minutes after the shooting began, Kenyan security forces tried to decide how to proceed, as time ticked away for the wounded waiting to be rescued.

“We laid there for very long time,” recalled one woman who was trapped on the upper level. “You would expect to see a lot of armed soldiers coming up the ramp. Maybe that’s what we were expecting, but that didn’t happen.”

It’s painful to watch the injured struggling, but as the security forces dawdled, a handful of plainclothes police and civilians decided to act—seven in total—going into the mall and rescuing seriously wounded people who had been clinging to life amid the carnage.

The obvious question arises. Why were Kenyan forces so impotent in stopping the attack, preventing further carnage and rescuing the victims?

“It’s not that easy to compare the response to what the American or British response would be,” Reed said. “The institutions in Kenya, sadly, are very dysfunctional. The military and the police are not oriented toward saving lives. The long and short of it is the priority was not to save lives–people were basically covering their asses not wanting to take a risk,” he said of the security forces.

Some of the most graphic and gut-wrenching security camera footage shows one man being repeatedly shot at close range just inside the mall’s entrance, seemingly as he is about to escape. He had been a driver for an American charity. Reed interviewed the man’s daughter.

“He didn’t realize there were two pairs of gunmen. He thought the terrorists were behind him and mistook the two other armed men for cops before they casually shot him at point blank range,” said Reed.

Part of the process in producing the documentary involved much forensic work, analyzing imagery and investigating obscure elements that can lead to useful conclusions.

“As we’re confronted with these hugely impactful events, it’s important to understand the cruelty and brutality but also the astonishing courage and selflessness of people who worked together to survive,” Reed said.

He points with admiration to three women who were there with their children. “It gave them the ability to focus on survival that they wouldn’t have had if they had been there alone,” Reed said. “It supercharged their senses and really helped them to survive. That’s something that gives me hope, a redeeming side of the story. I find that a reason to be optimistic about the human race.”

This may also be a fitting conclusion to the horrifying story of terror at the mall. On September 1, Ahmed Godane, the leader of Al-Shabaab and the apparent mastermind of the Westgate attack, was killed in a targeted U.S. military airstrike in Somalia.

(“Terror at the Mall” premiered Sept. 15 on HBO and has a number of rebroadcast dates lined up on the pay-cable network, including Sept. 18, 21, 23 and 27, with additional screenings on tap on HBO2. The program will also run on CNN Sept. 26 at 9 and 11 p.m. ET.)

–Hillary Atkin