Let me be upfront by saying that I had distinctly mixed feelings about Michael Wolff’s last book, Fire and Fury. While it was, admittedly, tremendously entertaining and dreadfully (one might even say sinfully) readable, I ultimately felt that I had not really learned anything. It was mostly just a rehash of existing information, with a few gossipy bits thrown in for spice.
I had many of the same feelings about Siege, the sequel. Very accessible, gossipy, and more than a little soapy, it shows a President, and a White House, always on the brink of utter collapse.
Siege moves along at nothing short of a lightning pace, taking us through the familiar hallmarks of the Trump Presidency: gross incompetence, constant staff infighting, paranoia about the Mueller investigation, etc. However, that very speed is one of the book’s most significant weaknesses, as it denies Wolff the chance to really dig in deep into the material that he usually covers only glancingly. Sometimes, I had the feeling that Wolff was just rather bored with the whole affair and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
As readable as the book is, however, there’s not much in this book that we haven’t already encountered elsewhere, either in traditional news outlets (which I generally find more reliable than Wolff) or in the numerous leaks that seem to be such a hallmark of this administration. This deprives the book of much tension, and by the end I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything new. More distressingly, what new information there is–most notably Wolff’s claim that Mueller had drawn up an indictment against Trump–has been called into question. It doesn’t really inspire confidence in Wolff’s journalistic ability.
My more major complaint is that Wolff relies entirely too much on Steve Bannon. I find this repellant for a host of reasons, but two are particularly important. Firstly, it remains unclear why, exactly, Wolff relies so much on Bannon’s (profanity-drenched) commentary about Trump and his administration. The obvious answer is that Bannon is one of the few people who will still talk openly to him, but that still leaves one to wonder why Wolff seems to think that he can offer any significant insight on the administration or its doings. Secondly, Wolff commits the crime of elevating Bannon into a status that he most definitely does not deserve, as some sort of oracle that possesses the key to both Trump and his voters. In addition, Bannon just comes across as a grouchy old man who likes to swear a lot and has a very high opinion of himself (one which Wolff clearly shares).
Structurally, the book doesn’t ever quite seem to have a sense of what exactly its governing principle is. There is rarely a sense of cohesion between one chapter and the next, and it sometimes feels as if Wolff is merely jumping to whatever subject seemed to catch his attention at that particular moment (a phenomenon not dissimilar to what Trump himself does). One gets the feeling that this book was a bit of a rush job and, in my opinion, it could definitely have done with some more time to be sculpted into a coherent narrative rather than a series of simultaneously hilarious and alarming vignettes.
Where the book succeeds, arguably, is in its ability to get into Trump’s psychology (as much as any work will ever be able to do so). Wolff has a keen eye for the foibles that make Trump tick and that remain key to his persona. Throughout Siege, Trump emerges as a very paranoid and inept figure, one whose confidence comes from his extraordinary good luck and his ability to survive the sorts of stumbles that would be the end of any other politician (or other public figure). And, of course, the real best thing about the book is that, like its predecessor, it will no doubt get under Trump’s skin.
All that said, I will assert the same thing that I did about Fire and Fury. If even a third of what Wolff asserts is true about Trump’s state of mind, we are in very deep trouble. But, as the bookshop clerk responded when I said this to her: “I think we’re already in a lot of trouble.”
As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.
To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan Nadel. I’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.
Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.
However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.
Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.
Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.
Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.
If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.
Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.