Posts Tagged world war II

Hold These Truths – Play Review


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. These awe-inspiring words are among the first words in the Declaration of Independence, in the United States Constitution.  From time to time, people violate established laws that are grounded in these basic truths we accepted to hold and abide by. But it is WHEN the United States Government looks at its own people and sees the enemy, precisely when it is hardest to defend our bedrock principles and democratic values, it is then that the most courageous among us stand up and lead the way.

Image result for hold these truths, theatreworks

In “Hold These Truths,” playwright Jeanne Sakata brings to the forefront, the story of Gordon Hirabayashi (Joel de la Fuente), a young Japanese-American man, who stood up as a one man army to defend the bedrock principles of American democracy, against our very own government’s onslaught on them, after the Pearl Harbor attack, during World War II. When he noticed that amidst unfounded fear and hate towards the Japanese, instead of defending American citizens under attack, the Government issued an executive order demanding mass incarceration of all people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast, he challenged the ruling.

Image result for hold these truths, theatreworksAfter taking an impromptu decision to violate the curfew, Hirabayashi turned himself in and declared his intention to violate the exclusion order, challenging the very constitutionality of government actions. His challenge to the system caused many headaches for the system and was followed with years of court battles and even some soul searching moments on behalf of the vehement defenders of the constitution like ACLU and other organizations. Directed by Lisa Rothe, this is a masterpiece that has come on stage at theatreworks, at this juncture in history, when we most need these lessons in courage. Joel de la Fuente is absolutely awesome, in this solo performance.  Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org for this not-to-miss performance of this theater season.

Some additional information: In 2012, Hirabayashi was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Mr. Obama.  Other citizens had also defied the order. Among them was Fred Korematsu who had also challenged the executive order for eviction and internment. Justice John Roberts finally gave unequivocal opinion in 2018, repudiating former government action against him and noted in his opinion, “Korematsu was gravely wronged”. The irony is that the same Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries. Hirabayashi ruling regarding his disobedience of the curfew also continues to serve as legal precedent.  This performance couldn’t be better timed. Many Americans are concerned that currently America is not living up to its ideals and in separating parents seeking asylum from their children, and in instituting travel ban of mostly Muslim countries, American government is violating the spirit of some of the most potent and consequential words noted in the constitution, indeed in American history, about self evident truths and unalienable rights. If history is any guide to the future, it will take immense courage to show up, speak up, and resist, so that we may continue to hold close and be guided by these truths.
Tickets for this not-to-miss performance are available at www.theatreworks.org .

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The Imitation Game – Movie Review


A three-rotor Enigma with plugboard (Steckerbrett)

A three-rotor Enigma with plugboard (Steckerbrett) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Based on a series of true events, the movie tells the story of how a team of young bright mathematicians cracked the Nazi code that helped the Allies win World War II.  Prominent among them was, a brilliant, young Alan Turing, who was a British computer scientist, mathematician, logician, philosopher, marathon runner and is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.  And he was a homosexual.  A small seemingly irrelevant details about his sexual orientation, at a time in history when homosexuality was a crime, also makes this beautiful movie, a devastatingly sad one.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was recruited by British Intelligence Agency M16 to crack Nazi codes, including Enigma, which was considered unbreakable.  Turing’s team included Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Hugh Alexander (Matthew William Goode), Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), and John Cairncross (Allen Leech).

During World War II, strongest weapon of the Axis forces were their Enigma machines, which were largely unbreakable and enabled them to plan and communicate their strategy, unhindered.  Turing and his team built a machine to break the code, that allowed Allied forces to intercept Axis communications and gave them access to information that ultimately helped the Allied forces win the war.

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park - geograp...

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park – geograph.org.uk – 1591025 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The focus of the film is primarily on the time that Turing spent at Bletchley Park.  Bletchley Park was the central site of UK’s top secret, code breaking operation.  It is presumed that the “Ultra” intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years, and that without it the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.  Besides Turing’s team, there were a whole cadre of brilliant young women working on manual code breaking, and “Bletchley Circle”, a mini series, recently aired on PBS, tells the story of four women who reunite years later to track down serial killers.

In 1939 however, this was such a top secret operation that everyone was forbidden to share any details of their work.  At the end of the war, these unsung heroes of the war, quietly went home.  The movie is also a sort of an indictment of Britain’s shoddy treatment of these heroes, primarily Turing, who was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual behavior and he accepted oestrogen injections (equivalent to chemical castration), to avoid prison.  In 1954, Turing committed suicide.  His is a story that needs to be told and kudos to Director, Morten Tyldum and Screenplay writer, Graham Moore for bringing it to the screen.  Cumberbatch has done a fabulous job as Turing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent, I rate the movie as 4.8.

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“The Monuments Men” – Movie Review


“The Monuments Men” directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, boasts a huge star power that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Boneville.  The year is 1943 and World War II is almost coming to an end.  Along with millions of lives lost in this devastating war, at risk was an incalculable loss of artistic and cultural treasures, as the Nazi soldiers were plundering millions of pieces of art and when it was not possible to haul away the loot, they were destroying them.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Brugge

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Brugge (Photo credit: Erf-goed.be)

Making his case to send in men to secure this loot, at the beginning of the movie, Clooney says, “we are at a point in history where the Nazis are trying to destroy our way of life and it is a high price, if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed”.  He asks, “Who will make sure that the statue of David is still standing and Mona Lisa is still smiling”?  One of the generals, questions Clooney, “You want to go into war zone and tell our men what they can and cannot destroy”?

Finally, six brave men undertake the task of finding the hidden treasures, of securing them, conserving and cataloging them.  This was a monumental mission.  The men tasked with the mission were not soldiers, but were art curators, museum directors, and art historians, attempting to secure literally millions and millions of pieces of art. They get only minimal support from the combat troops who considered their main mission to save lives, not art.  These men operate with minimal resources, in the absence of packing materials etc. to carefully load and transport the art they find.  And they literally are in a race for time as the new boundaries are getting drawn.  They get help from an unexpected source, a French woman (Cate Blanchett) who spied on the looting operation of the Nazis for years and carefully noted and cataloged the pieces for years.

The movie based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter and produced by Grant Heslov and George Clooney, celebrates this monumental task undertaken by these brave men and a woman. In the end, they saved millions of pieces of art, sculptures and more. In one mine alone, they found 16,000 pieces of art.  In the quest for art, they also found 100 tons+ of gold stashed by the Nazis.

The movie could have been more engaging, the story could have been better told to do justice to the enormity of the mission, where a few men are scurrying like rats through the still smoldering battle, with dogged persistence, to secure for coming generations, a link to the past, a treasure that society will only come to value in the years to come.  But this is a story that must be told and one that is engaging and uplifting.  I give the movie a ranking of 3.9 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent.

 

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The Book Thief – Movie Review


“Here is a small fact.  You are going to die”.  I wasn’t too thrilled when the Grim Reaper began narrating the story and was glad to hear the voice of death only couple of times and only in very short pieces.  This is a story based on the original book by Markus Zusak and adapted for the movie by Michael Petroni.  Movie is directed by Brian Percival.

The story unfolds in Germany, during World War II, between 1938 and 1945. Liesel’s poor mother, unable to care for her children, is compelled to give her up for adoption.  Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans indulges her and teacher her to read, while her adoptive mother Rosa is a bit distant, at first.  Liesel is a bright girl who immediately picks up the linguistic skills and relishes books.  As is the case in all autocratic rules, knowledge is often suppressed, with suppression of freedom of expression, and in Hitler’s Germany, books are burned publicly and very few books have survived.  Liesel discovers a large home library and eventually finds a way to steal books to read, though she says, she is only borrowing them.  Her best friend Rudy promises to keep it a secret but incredulously asks, “people are dying due to lack of food, and you are stealing books”?  But in the end, it is the books that bring Liesel hope and helps the young Jewish man, Max survive, who is hidden by her adoptive parents, in their home, at incredible risk to themselves.  Liesel reads to Max, when he is fighting off poor health, she tells stories when people are taking refuge from the bombs, in the shelter, and she reaches out for a book, when she seems to have lost everyone and everything, as she emerges from the rubble, created from allied bombs.

The casting in the movie “The Book Thief”, is brilliant.  Recently, I heard Alexander Payne, (Director of such films as Nebraska and Dependants) say that 90% of directing is casting.  In “The Book Thief”, each character is marvelously played and that includes the roles of Liesel’s adopted parents, beautifully played by Geoffrey Rush as the kind and caring father, and outwardly stern and practical but inwardly soft mother, played by Emily Watson.  Ben Schnetzer, in the role of Max (son of a Jewish friend of the family) and Nico Liersch as Rudy, are perfect.  But it is Sophie Nelisse, in the role of Liesel, who captured my heart and wowed me, with her acting.  There are many opportunities for over-acting and the story and the plot certainly might compel a less experienced actor to do just that.  However, Nelisse conveys with very simple gestures, smiles, or sometimes by simply looking away, enormous depth of emotion or seriousness of the situation.  I will certainly look for her in other roles. 

The movie has made an effort to bring to screen a best-seller, but as is often the case, it has not succeeded entirely in rising to the level of being unforgettable.  However, overall, it is an engaging plot, great story, and Nelisse’s acting is supsuperb.  I give it a 4 on 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being excellent.

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

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The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee – Book Review


The Piano Teacher is a story of British, American and other expats in Hong Kong and the local wealthy Chinese who were all caught in a tremendous struggle for survival, during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s.

Historical Background
In March 1939, Japan dropped bombs on Hong Kong territory, destroying a bridge and a train station.  Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began in December, 1941, after 18 days of fierce fighting against imposing Japanese forces who invaded the territory.  The occupation lasted for 3 years and 8 months, when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War.

All the characters are caught in a complicated struggle for survival during extremely brutal Japanese administration during the occupation.  There is a constant tug between integrity and submission, for the sake of survival.  The story is interesting and is placed in a historical context that is important and yet not a lot is written about it.  There are times when the author gives interesting insights into the characters.

Some aspects of the story emerge with clarity and are interesting.  For instance, during 1940s and 1950s, the extent to which stereotypes and prejudices played a role, in an outwardly diverse place like Hong Kong, is interesting.  “The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course.  Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors, and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses.  There were English businessmen and American bankers.  White Russian Aristocrats, and Peruvian entrepreneurs – all peculiarly well traveled and sophisticated – and of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China”.  Similarly when occupiers came, they divided the immigrant population by race and accordingly assigned living quarters and other privileges.  Author has done good research to convey the brutality of the occupiers and their impact on innocent people.

But unfortunately, there are many limitations.  The book meanders and the real plot begins only after a reader sticks through slow moving and boring beginning.  There is too much of vague dialogue that seems to be going nowhere, there are portions of the book that do not flow well.  The characters are not well developed and they lack depth.  There isn’t a single character that a reader can identify with, root for, and turn the pages to see the character survive the occupation.  This is a huge limitation in the book.  The occupiers are clearly bad, brutal, and loose in the end.  That part of the story is very clear and well developed.  Almost any reasonably well told story would have had survivors that a reader is rooting for and is eager to see them come through this horrific ordeal.   Character’s humanness and limitations would only make them more real, not distant.  But characters in the book feel too distant.  As a reader, you feel no empathy, no dislike, no hope, nothing for them.  Then there is the piano teacher.  The book has her title but she has no role whatsoever.  The story could have been told without her presence.

The story just does not grip you in anyway whatsoever.  You flip the pages and it matters little how it will end.  It is extremely disappointing.  This is a story with an exciting plot and tremendous promise that simply failed to live up to its potential.        

Japanese soldiers arrested the western bankers...

Japanese soldiers arrested the western bankers and kept them in a Chinese hostel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

   

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Syria Conundrum and the US response


Syria has presented an interesting conundrum for the US.  For over 2 years, charming Syrian dictator who is also a ruthless murderer, Bashar al Assad has laid siege upon his own people and has systematically massacred over 100,000 civilians, and millions have become refuges.  World watches helplessly.  What is a US president to do?  Welcome to the 21st century, where American mindset will prove lacking, unless we embrace complexity and uncertainty.

We in the US, like clear problems that have clear solutions.  We do not like shades of gray.  We like our leaders to be decisive, not reflective.  And we just do not understand the complexities that exist in many parts of the world, except in a perfunctory manner.  For instance, we can rattle off statistics about how many languages are spoken in certain parts of the world; we can talk about gender differences in parts of the world; we can speak about class dynamics.  What we do not understand are the underlying reasons that make it so; the stakeholders who want to preserve the status quo and why; those who clamor for change and how they are in no way different from any of us in the US, in terms of their tech savvyness, their English speaking skills, and who may be more savvy in terms of their cultural insights.  

President Obama has been criticized for the “zig-zag” nature of his policy, in response to Syria.  I will however, go out on a limb, and say that this is exactly what we need from our leader in the new, global, multicultural world fraught with enormous complexities and serious challenges; a world that does not present clear problems and one that is much less ready for clear, decisive solutions.  This is not a world where one sentence rhetoric that says, let us capture Bin Laden “dead or alive” will work.

In fact just to make my point with clarity that the Americans so love, I am going to quote some Bushisms below.
“Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency, it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., March 12, 2008
“Wait a minute. What did you just say? You’re predicting $4-a-gallon gas? … That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Feb. 28, 2008
“Let’s make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times in our economy.” — George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 2, 2008
“Oftentimes people ask me, ‘Why is it that you’re so focused on helping the hungry and diseased in strange parts of the world?'” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 18, 2008

The thing is that world is not so strange to a lot of people who not only have stepped out of their homes and their comfort zones and traveled places and mingled with people vastly different from them.  Additionally, with technology people can make little google guy on street view walk and go places for them and people do research on wikipedia and they use skype, telepresene, go to meeting, webex and other technologies to bring the world closer and there are no far-away, “strange” places.  The thing is that removing any dictator or an abuser of human rights is neither a fully right decision and nor is it a completely wrong one.                                                                                                             

Consider the competing priorities that the President of the US must manage.  In this new world, the US cannot act as a cop and neither can the US remain a helpless bystander.  The US President, commander-in-chief of the armed forces cannot simply ignore Assad’s blatant refusal to follow the rules previously agreed upon by 190 odd countries, regarding the ban of chemical weapons.  But neither can the President of the US ignore the fact that Americans are tired with war and they do not want their leader calling them to make sacrifices, especially in the face of so much uncertainty.  The US cannot ignore the moral imperative to intervene; if the US does not escort the moderates now than it is less likely we will find them later.  Nor can the US ignore the national interest argument of Assad gone mad and his people pouring into the neighboring regions; more countries and groups may stockpile such weapons and use them and someday they could be used against the US.

President Obama’s considered response – actually responses, his willingness to come forth and present the argument to the American people, his reluctance to jump into war, his willingness to get support from the Congress, his flexibility to change the course of military action, all this is precisely what we need in a leader who must weigh the competing complexities, not just once, but on a daily and hourly basis.  And despite this, the President is neither waffling, nor has run out of options. 

President Obama has warned the Syrian dictator, over and over that the world is watching and keeping track of his human rights abuses.  Assad was warned regarding the use of chemical weapons.  The president has gone and discussed with the world leaders; though the countries do not want to intervene, there is tremendous tacit support in the world, and huge disapproval of Assad’s actions.  The president has gotten solid evidence of use of chemical weapons by Assad, has sought approval from the Congress for military strike, and the president has explained to American people and ensured us that there will be no boots on the ground, that we will not be called upon to make significant sacrifices, when we have our own priorities and challenges to deal with.  And now, another dictator, Vladimir Putin has come forth, to help the process of negotiation and Mr. Obama has also entertained that.  At this point Mr. Obama has built the most solid case that if he uses military might, it will only be after he has tried every other option and the objective will be to strike strategically Assad’s control and command posts, with an objective to weaken him, without putting boots on the ground.

Now let us also answer those who say that military strike to weaken Assad is an action that is too little, too late.  Middle East is a complex region.  There are many voices, many stakeholders; there are many who suffer deeply and there are many who bestow deep suffering onto others.  Going into that region with an idea to fix something, to take a dictator out, to support a friend, to hurt a foe, to broker a peace, will never have intended consequence because every action from outside, generates equal and opposite reaction from inside.  However, what we can do is to give a blow to anyone flaunting violating an agreed upon treaty, a few precise air strikes that send a strong message that you can get away with only so much before the world will take notice of your actions and send a punishing message.  This action, while conveying a message to Assad, also would convey a message to the rebels that if they stay focused and disciplined than the world will not completely forget them and they have friends outside who are committed to seeing the atrocities stopped.  It is nice to have moderate friends in that region.  It would give a psychological boost to the rebels and we would hope that some of them are moderate.  Strategically, it would keep the situation from spiraling completely out of balance, a situation where Assad’s side could get so powerful that they may completely wipe out the other side from every raising its head.

We know what happens in situations that spiral out of balance.  The examples are many and they are heartbreaking – Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks, after World War I; rape of Nanking, China, by the Japanese in 1937; atrocities against the Jews in Nazi Germany, before the end of world war II; civil war that wiped out its entire educated population, in Cambodia, in 1970s by Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge; Muslim genocide in Kosovo in 1990s, under the leadership of all too powerful Slobodan Milosevic; genocide and slaughter of the Tutsis by the powerful Hutus in Rawanda, in mid-1990s.  Atrocities committed by Assad regime are nearing that kind of epic proportions.  And he has one chance now to deliver and destroy his chemical weapons.

Vladimir Putin has also made a mockery of human rights in Russia.  And now he has an opportunity to emerge as a politician of some stature, not just by sending in an op-ed piece, obviously written by someone else; but by bringing value to the table in getting Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles over to the international community.  Syria, better pay heed, that the country that cherishes democracy, seeks to stop human rights abuses, embraces the weak, and the children, is not soft at its core; it has mettle and is committed to its principles and it will not sit idly watching this ruthless man massacre innocent children.  And as for us, to operate more effectively in the complex, smaller, new world, we better learn to become comfortable with lack of certainty, fuzziness and shades of gray; we’d better learn some flexibility and adaptability; and we’d better understand that we live in a global community.  If TB and Bird Flu can travel across countries with great speed, so can chemical and biological weapons, and there is a reason that most of the world has made a pact to banish such weapons of mass destruction. 

An enlargeable map of the Syrian Arab Republic

An enlargeable map of the Syrian Arab Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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“Minefields of the Heart” by Sue Diaz – Book Review


“War is hell”.  Most of us know this however, from a certain safe distance, except those who are in it; in the physical hellishness of war.  Towards the end of the book the author discusses another book “Black Hearts” by Jim Frederick, an account of one platoon’s descent into madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.  Diaz says, he writes a factual and fair account of “lonely outposts, insurgent safe-houses, cold canals, farm fields crisscrossed by enemy fire, and streets as dangerous as they were dusty”.  This is the physical hellishness of war that despite being gruesome, is, for most of us, at a certain geographical safe distance.

Minefield maintenance Marines stack mines for ...

Minefield maintenance Marines stack mines for disposal. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is clearing it’s minefields of outdated mines in accordance with President William Jefferson Clinton’s directive. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But in this book, Minefields of the Heart, Diaz writes about the heart wrenching mental anguish that obliterates the distance between those serving in the war and their loved ones, seemingly living ordinary lives, among other ordinary people.  For the loved ones of those serving in a war, war is not just hell but it is a hell with a power to bring back wonderful memories (of a child drumming to a different beat, of a hug, of a kiss, of a stroll), yet with no ability to influence the future course of outcome.  Though this is a story of the author and her son and family, in many ways it also celebrates the bravery of all of our young men and women who serve in the war and the resilience of their loved ones.  Diaz writes the story of the hell that she as a mother and her family lived in for four years, when her son Roman, who became Sergeant Roman Diaz, served on the tour of duty in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.  It is so clearly written from a mother’s heart that I cried at almost every page, even though my son had only mentioned once, his desire to join the army.  As a mother, I felt Diaz’s pain, her anguish, her worry.  But as a critic, I also appreciate the candor, an honest account of things as they were.  I also enjoyed her sweet sense of humor and the letters from SpongeBob (Roman’s favorite tortoise).  The account of her family and friends was heart warming, to think that there is a village that supports each of our sons and daughters who serve in the war.

The beautiful human portrait of Roman Diaz that emerged was sweet.  It is an honor to know such a fine young man behind the uniform and also a reminder that behind each uniform there is a family, perhaps a wife, a mother, a husband, a sister, a child.  They are in service as well, waking up at nights, answering the door bell with a deep sense of dread, glued to the TV for news; in the absence of their loved ones, only half celebrating the holidays.  When their loved ones do not return, their hell lasts, in some ways, forever.  When their loved ones do return with trauma and other injuries, their hell also lasts in some ways, for a long long time.  Wars impact families, relationships, the very fabric of our society, on a scale so large, create craters of anguish so deep, that very little might justify being engaged in one and that little ought to be immensely carefully considered.

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