Watch like Doc: “Viking” (Викинг)

Related imageThe 2016 Russian production “Viking” was screened today here in Pittsburgh at the Russian Film Symposium.  Much like yesterday’s “Battle for Sevastopol,” it sticks out a bit like a sore thumb, a Russified version of a Hollywood blockbuster among more traditional art-house films.  I’m still not quite certain how it made the grade, so to speak – a two year old movie with a monstrous budget (by Russian film standards) wandering around a field of much newer, much more independent films.

The movie was introduced to the audience as “an absolute mess of a film.”  This was arguably not the most fair description of the film, but considering the speaker’s primary angst revolved around the film’s lack of historical accuracy, the pompous attitude might be understandable.  The attitude was further underscored when the speaker, in all seriousness, stated that the movie’s toying with history was a dangerous move, considering the fact that “literally everyone knows the story of Vladimir the Great and his conversion to Christianity in 988 AD.”  I would suggest that a reconsideration of how we define the words “literally” and “everyone” if this is to be taken seriously.  Let’s have a quick virtual show of hands of all those readers who are familiar with that chunk of Russian history.

Image result for vladimir the greatSo that is what we are presented with.  Vladimir, who would become Vladimir the Great, was one of three sons of Prince Svyatoslav who scattered to relatively remote corners of Kievan Rus for their own rule.  Boys will be boys, and when Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk  murdered his other brother Oleg, Vladimir got the hell out of Dodge…well, out of Rus.  Chilling in Sweden, Vladimir seeks to avenge Oleg (or at least look less like a milquetoast for running away) by amassing a horde of rough fellas to take back Novgorod after doing about two cinematic hours’ worth of pillaging, killing, and raping.  Along the way, hostages are taken, Roman words are misunderstood, and a siege on Helm’s Deep is thwarted.  The movie concentrates on the murdery and rapey bits, along with relationships being explored between – possibly – the same five guys throughout the film.  I only say this because, with all the mud and muck and blood and hair covering the actors, they all start to look pretty much the same.

You look like you need photographic proof.  You’ll have to take my word for it.

The saga ends with a thread of religion crawling through the film finally catching up to Vladimir; after a number of questionable signs from above, he succumbs to the belief that Orthodox Christianity is for him.  The rest is history.

The movie is not really bad; it is a decent effort to translate a saga from Russia’s earliest history onto the big screen that would actually be watched (instead of, say, a documentary relying on illustrations of princes being dunked in a baptismal font).  Because it features a good deal of mud, blood, muck, and hair, the actors recognize there is no real need to articulate their words.  There seems to be an unwritten rule that suggests fighters running into a fight scene must roar an incoherent string of vowels like a constipated ox seeking fecal relief.  At one point, I was hoping for at least one of the actors barking out “For Gondor!” because this whole film really carries a Lord of the Rings sort of feel.  In fact, at times, you would swear there are shot-for-shot replications of fight scenes from that series of films.  If George Harrison had filmed this, he would be sued by the Shirelles.  Instead, it’s enough to say it’s merely a nod to a superior director.

Image result for gandalf fightingThat might have been uncalled for.

I could excuse the grunting and bellowing of the fighters (who has time for comic book dialogue when you’re lopping off the legs of an opponent’s horse?), but when we see Vladimir’s efforts to shove a ship down a mountain (honestly, don’t ask) and see it miraculously only take out the evil Pechenegs who are in close combat with Vladimir’s followers, I decided enough was enough.  I had wanted to explore how the film was using history to try to make sense of contemporary political and religious issues, how it was forcing us to determine whether or not it was drawing a favorable or negative comparison to Russian society and the Putin regime, but instead, nah.  I think the director, the very capable Andrey Kravchuk, simply wanted us to sit back, enjoy the sex, enjoy the violence, and walk away with the sense that the Russian Orthodox Church is really keen.

Image result for александра бортич викингWhat did I learn?  That instead of whitewashing history, sometimes a film has to dark-wash it.  And that a man in full stride will run another three steps when his head is lopped off by a handsome iron sword.  And that some women, no matter how filthy everything around them might be, can still have lustrous, bright shiny hair.

Doc was entertained by the film, but mostly for the wrong reasons.  For that reason, I’ll toss this one a B-.

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Doc Reviews “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney

cfDoc finished reading “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney several nights ago, and have been trying to put into words enough thoughts on the book to make a somewhat coherent review. Doc’s struggle comes from the fact that the Carney is not only a convicted spy, but also someone with whom Doc worked and, at one point or another, may have had a beer or two. True story. So I finally gave up trying to be coherent in the review, and will simply offer my thoughts. It’s still a review, of sorts. You know how Doc can be.

Bottom line up front: This is a well-written piece of historical fiction. In the book, Carney writes down his version of his life, from his formative years growing up in Ohio and Florida, to his enlistment in the United States Air Force, through his decision to illegally cross the border into East Berlin and begin a career spying for the MfS (what most of us know as Stasi) in East Germany. He details his arrest (“kidnapping,” in his words), his trial, and life while incarcerated at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth. There’s also a very brief glimpse of life after Leavenworth.

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Before getting into the details of the book, let me offer two observations that are apparent from the start. Jeff is a very good writer; I believe the book has not been ghostwritten – there is no indication in the book or by doing a thorough Internet scrub; I believe these really are his words, and he’s got a really good style for getting his writing to come off the page. This includes sprinkling his pages with some pretty dark but often brilliant humor. Describing one of the Special Agents from the USAF Office of Special Investigations during his trial, in which the SA appears to be rather full of himself and tries to project his importance by deepening his voice, Jeff describes the SA as reacting with surprise at how his voice sounds, comparing it to a dog hearing itself fart out loud for the first time. In the middle of a grim scene, this line just jumped out, and I laughed. There are comparable lines throughout.

Another observation is that this book was in desperate (and unrealized) need of a good editor. No, even a so-so editor would have done. Based on the lack of evidence of a publisher’s name on the copyright page, you can tell this isn’t even a “vanity press” publication – it’s self-published, and I am assuming that, back in the day, it was rushed to publication just a bit in order to cash in on the Manning and Snowden frenzy, which carried along with it the misguidedly gullible audience that believes these two people are somehow heroes. Perhaps I’m taking too great a leap. Regardless, the misspellings and awkward grammar can sometimes be forgiven, but punctuation errors gallop across the page like a gazelle with its ass on fire. You’re welcome for that visual.

For the most part, Jeff only uses first names and last name initials. Those who worked in Berlin during these years will no doubt recognize a lot of names and personalities. The dialogue Jeff provides, like narrative bubbles in a comic book, do not ring true, but that can be written off simply as poetic license. There are others (not co-workers) whose last names appear – I’m not sure why that decision was made, but it tended to slow me down, as I wondered if there was an agenda I was missing. No idea. For what it’s worth, Jeff has nothing overly negative to say about his Berlin or Goodfellow Air Force Base co-workers on an individual basis, at least for this publication.

ceA final observation on the publication before diving into the text: a number of sections, we are told, were redacted by intelligence agencies during the standard counterintelligence review to ensure no sensitive or classified information makes it to publication. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the redactions – Jeff leaves black spots where the cuts were made, and the majority of information represented by these spots are painfully obvious to those who worked with him. Cutting out the word “Tempelhof” or “TCA” or “Marienfelde” seems trivial and silly. I’ve seen this review process in action, and I don’t doubt that they honestly were the result of the review of a number of agencies, as Jeff says; these reviews rarely make much sense, and it’s not unusual to see the exact same information that had been redacted on page 122 to show up in all its glory on page 126. It can be distracting for the reader, but it can also be a bit of fun to try to figure out what puzzle piece goes in the blank.

Jeff’s account portrays him being raised by a sadistic bully of a father and a simpering victim of a mother, afraid to leave the brute she married for a number of reasons. Jeff eventually escapes after a series of episodes that, if true, are astonishingly tragic – even more so, since he is unable to rescue his two younger brothers from that nightmare of a household; he is able to enlist in the Air Force, and in short order finds himself enjoying the needed structure of basic training. Get used to that concept of “structure”. It pops up again and again throughout the book.

Once in the USAF, Jeff seems to settle into a regime. His modest German skills allow him to move ahead in his training, and his sharp observations on life during tech school (English class, target language training, and his arrival to Goodfellow for his final round of training before his first field assignment) bring back a lot of memories for Doc. His description of his arrival in Berlin is similarly well-handled and allowed me to reminisce.

There are a lot of inconsistencies between Jeff’s recollection of events in Berlin and how they actually went down, especially when it comes to timelines. We both got to Berlin around the same time (I arrived the day before he did), and while a lot of events aren’t exactly chiseled in the stone of my memory, I still have a good grasp on the timeline and the outcome of most of them. There is no point in Jeff having made stuff up with the events in question, I think he may have either a) a faulty memory or b) simply shifted things around to tell what he thought was a more compelling story. Either option is not what you look for, however, when you’re reading a non-fiction book in search of facts or, for that matter, motive when it comes to little things like espionage. Still, I will give him a pass on this.

Searching for real motives is a tricky effort with Jeff’s version of events. In his words, he wanted to make sure that neither side had the advantage over the other in the race to destroy the world and everyone living in it. His work as a linguist in a classified facility helped keep the Warsaw Pact at bay, and the only way he could make sure the playing field was level was to engage the other side. There’s also a lot of “I was always misunderstood” and “my work and efforts are unappreciated” (along with, by his own admission, too much beer and self-pity) that strengthened his walk through Checkpoint Charlie.

The “impact” of one of the more telling episodes that he relates is brought up a couple of times in the book. He points to an example of what, in actuality, was standard operating procedure back in the day on the part of both Soviet and American military border “showdowns,” as well as those Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. In Jeff’s version, this was a massive one-off exercise on the part of the American cowboys in the White House and DoD that he knew would very likely trigger nuclear war; his breathless account of how he spent the day after his mid shift (when he learned of the exercise) trying to alert his handler is entertaining reading, and perhaps it really did go down the way he described it, but I can’t help but wonder why his handler didn’t laugh in his face at the information.

There are a number of timelines in his story that I was looking forward to reading in the book, considering I only had my own point of view as a frame of reference. When I got to those sections, Jeff did not disappoint.

cgFirst, the way he went about his espionage activities while assigned to Marienfelde. A lot of rumor (and some interesting OSI briefings) pointed those of us who worked with Jeff in the right direction, but the level of detail he’s able to provide (even with redacted parts) was impressive. Someone in my position cannot help but feel at least a little anger when reading the casual way in which he got away with his activities, and the pride with which he details their accounts, but at some point the mature reader has to set aside personal emotions and look at it, if nothing else, from a counterintelligence aspect and use it as an exercise in “lessons learned”.

Along the same lines, his work for the MfS at Goodfellow was also well-documented, including trips to meet with his handlers. It was nice to read of some of his intelligence failures, as well – the effort to replicate highly classified documents on microfiche is one example. Along these lines, the section detailing his circle closing in on him at Goodfellow, along with his desertion and arrival back in East Germany, was worth reading as well – he doesn’t provide specifics that explain why the lead-up events in Texas occurred, but he lets the reader in on the fact that he had obviously been acting in a manner that had his supervisors so concerned that he had been scheduled for a battery of psychological evaluations.

Another section of the book I was looking forward to was the run-up of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impact that those events (along with reunification) had on his life in East Germany. It was at this point that Jeff reveals that he felt almost as betrayed by his bosses as he himself had betrayed his co-workers and country years before. He conveys the true sense of panic he must have been feeling when he realized he was headed down a rabbit hole, that he needed to give up everything he had been working for with the MfS and find a new home, a new organization that could use his skills. But with freedom sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time, his options were obviously quite limited.

The events leading up to Jeff’s capture are not accurately told, but it’s probably the official version that Jeff was given; this keeps a lot of good people from having their names published. The true story of his discovery and capture are probably classified, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, his capture and subsequent movement to the US, and inevitable incarceration, all make for an intriguing read. The structure provided by his incarceration, in very different ways at the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force levels, also helped him keep moving forward and helped him survive. The book’s afterword (a Berlin-based dialogue between him and his son, after his release from prison) appears to be a contrivance, but I suppose I’ll never know if that’s the case. Either way, it’s not a bad couple of pages of writing, and its purpose is to cement your understanding of Jeff’s desire for a world free from the threat of nuclear holocaust.

When I closed the cover, I thought back on what I might have learned from reading the book. What stood out to me more than anything was Jeff’s sense of self-worth. I don’t doubt that he was viewed as an important figure to the East Germans, but I got the feeling that he viewed himself as the sun, the moon, and the stars to their intelligence collection efforts. I suspect that is far from the case, for a number of reasons. In addition, whether intentional or not, Jeff portrays himself as pretty much a prick. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is there, and that his emotions carry a hair-trigger – he explodes in fury when his concerns are dismissed or when he feels he is not being treated properly or in accord with his imagined sense of self-worth.

I think Jeff expected a lot more attention from the publication of this book than I imagine he’s gotten here stateside. I can picture him waiting for interviews from the major news outlets (he’s been interviewed on German television, but I expect Wolf Blitzer hasn’t had a chance to return his calls), and that the American public, once they hear his side of events, would be understanding and actually consider him a bit of a hero for keeping the world safe from nuclear war – but, to be fair, the American public hasn’t heard ANY side of events, not so much because the government wanted to protect all the damage from revealing the stuff he sold, but because he’s really not that big of a rat in the lab of espionage. He is not Ames, Hansen, Walker, Manning, or Snowden, not by a country mile.

Finally, I think he realistically knew that his former co-workers would not be lining up to tell him “Whoa! Now I get it! All’s forgiven.” He alludes to this a number of times in the book. The true betrayal in all of this was to the folks who worked with him, and whom he never gave a true chance to be a part of. But in one of his prison interviews with the military’s counterintelligence folks, he offers that if someone, anyone, had just reached out and said “Hey, Jeff, is everything okay?” that could have been the turning point, and he wouldn’t have turned out the way he did. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think that’s a nice convenient cop-out. Laying the blame on co-workers, even partly, is not only disingenuous, it’s chicken-shit.

Doc would recommend this book be read with an open but sharply-focused eye. And Doc recommends finding a library or otherwise free copy, because Doc doesn’t condone funding the chest-thumping of spies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being shabby, 10 being snappy, Doc awards this book a B-.  It’s well-written, poorly-published claptrap disguised as non-fiction.