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Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney, is unsettling, vital viewing
Sydney Sweeney as whistleblower Reality Winner in Reality. | HBO The HBO film adapts the FBI transcript from Reality Winner’s interrogation into a stunning thriller. When the play that would one day become the extraordinary drama Reality premiered off-Broadway, its whistleblower protagonist was still in a federal prison. Back then, in February 2019, the show was called Is This a Room, an enigmatic quote from the show itself. An FBI agent looks into the place — it’s definitely a room — where two of his colleagues are interrogating the diminutive 25-year-old woman who lives there, and he makes the inquiry. He seems to be asking if the space needs to be searched. But it’s a strange, off-kilter query, one nobody would really know how to answer. Of course this is a room; what else would it be? It’s like asking where “here” is. Or whether reality exists. There’s an ironic vigor to Reality’s narrative, a practically allegorical sense that it was constructed by a lightly ham-fisted author with something to prove. It’s a story about truth and twisted facts, about shadows and subterfuge, and the woman at its center is literally named Reality. What makes it so strange, and so chilling, is that nobody wrote it at all. The text of Reality, like the play it’s based on, is a verbatim replica, including redactions, of the FBI’s transcript of its interrogation of Air Force veteran and NSA translator Reality Winner on June 3, 2017. Playwright and director Tina Satter pulled the transcript onto the stage, and now she and co-screenwriter James Paul Dallas have moved it — to incredible effect — onto the screen, starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis as the agents interrogating her. HBO Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, and Marchánt Davis in Reality. Reality is, quite literally, the kind of movie where people just talk the whole time. But that’s precisely why it works. The dialogue (unaltered, with a key exception, from the stage production and thus the FBI’s transcript) has that greatest of theatrical qualities: Nobody is ever saying quite what they mean, and you are riveted, trying to figure out what they’re thinking, the balance of power shifting back and forth. That it works so well on screen is a tremendous testimony to both Satter’s directorial chops and the actors’ performances. The real Reality Winner, you may recall from the headlines, was accused and convicted of leaking an intelligence report regarding attempted Russian hacking of voter rolls during the 2016 election. “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” she told the agents. Later, she told the media that she felt the government was intentionally misleading its citizens about Russia’s attempts to upend the election, and so she printed out a file and mailed it to the Intercept, which promised its sources anonymity. The government found out and arrived on her doorstep even before the Intercept published the reports. For the crime of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” she was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison — the longest ever imposed for this crime. And, incredibly, she was repeatedly denied bail, ultimately remaining there for just shy of four years, even as Congress and other government officials spoke about what she’d revealed publicly. Though she was transferred to a transitional facility on June 2, 2021, Winner never saw the show about her when it opened on Broadway that October — because she was still under house arrest. Translating play to screen results in subtle changes. When the show was still on stage, redactions in the transcripts were staged visually, the audience briefly plunged into blackness, a switch flipped that left you disoriented in the audience. As a medium, film has a little more to play with visually, so instead we see Sweeney’s image fuzz out and disappear, then reappear every time the redaction ends. There’s also context-setting by way of news clips; at the start, we see Winner in her cubicle, Fox News coverage of FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before Congress blaring from a TV on the wall. (Later, she’ll tell the agents that she repeatedly asked for the TVs to be switched to anything other than Fox News — Al Jazeera, or just pictures of people’s pets — and it greatly upset her.) Sometimes events and dates about which the characters are speaking are cut together with the real Reality’s images or Instagram posts; once in a while we see a waveform of the tapes, or hear some static, or see the transcript being typed, a way to remind us that what we are watching is not fiction. Or not exactly, anyhow. HBO Sydney Sweeney in Reality. Most significantly, some of the redactions in the play have become un-redacted in the meantime. Many of them concerned the news outlet to which Winner leaked the document; the film eventually starts saying “the Intercept” out loud, and it’s a bit shocking at first. The reasoning seems clear. In November 2021, just after the Broadway show closed, Winner blasted the Intercept for its handling of the documents, the handling of which may have been responsible for her identification by the FBI (and which became a huge problem for the publication). Visually, Reality makes the case that the Intercept screwed up. Small wonder. The question at the center of Reality is complex. When it was a play, it was an inquiry into Winner’s motives. Why would a young woman who wants, as she repeatedly tells the agents, to be deployed — to get out of her dead-end position as a Farsi translator and actually use her extensive language skills — do something she knows is illegal? What “pushed her over the edge,” as one of the agents asks? But as a movie, with the attendant close-ups on faces the medium provides, the question grows. Emotional complexity, the manifold feelings her character is experiencing, and her well-trained attempts to stay cool, flash across Sweeney’s face. We start to really see what she’s thinking, and that leads to a bigger, more unnerving demonstration of the abject failure of the systems meant to protect us to do anything like that. Winner’s military record can’t save her. The fact that she speaks three languages spoken in the Middle East is called “impressive” many times by the agents, but each time the repetition is more loaded — it’s going to be used against her, we realize, to suggest her sympathies lie elsewhere (and so it was). The FBI isn’t on her side; they don’t even bother to read her Miranda rights. Well-worn gender dynamics suddenly become a factor, with Winner seemingly forced into joking about her cat being obese to pacify the men, sickeningly recognizable to women who’ve ever felt the need to play along for self-protection. After her arrest, media reports — stitched into the film, lest the journalistic outlets conveniently forget — include people saying that, for instance, Winner is “a person who had taken a key interest in the Middle East, with suspicious motives,” that she “claimed to hate America,” that she was a “quintessential example of an inside threat.” Even the news outlet that was supposed to protect her, that provided such careful instructions for leakers who wish to remain anonymous, screwed it all up, and she paid the price. Reality pulls out a sledgehammer Watching Reality marks the third time I’ve seen Satter’s adaptation of Winner’s interrogation. Each time, I’m left angry and unsettled. Like many Americans, especially white middle-class women, I was raised to believe that my government messes up sometimes but is essentially on my side. That we are the good guys, a government by the people, for the people, and that we don’t imprison people here just to make sure nobody ever dares to do something like making sure we’re told the truth about our own elections. We lionize the brave person who speaks out. When we get older, and wiser, and maybe more skeptical, that bedrock belief remains: that the truth will protect us. To that, Reality pulls out a sledgehammer, and a host of institutions failing to fulfill their own lofty promises. Is anyone doing what they’re supposed to do? If the US government is willing to impose a harsh sentence on someone like Reality Winner, what are we supposed to think? What else is false? Is reality real? Is this a room? Reality premieres on HBO on May 29 at 10 pm ET and will stream on Max.
What Erdogan’s win means for the West — and the world
Citizens wave a Turkish flag by an election kiosk for Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 8, 2023, in Istanbul, Turkey. | Aziz Karimov/Getty Images Turkey’s Erdogan ran on a nationalistic message. He just secured another presidential term. In April, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan showed off Turkey’s first drone, tank, and helicopter carrier. It was a not-so-subtle message weeks before the Turkish elections: Turkey is flexing its power, its independence, and Erdoğan is the guy making it happen. It turns out, Turkish voters seem to want some version of Erdogan’s nationalism. Erdoğan prevailed in a May 28 runoff against opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, winning another presidential term, according to unofficial results from Anadolu, the state news agency. Erdoğan is ahead with 52.1 percent of the vote, and Kiliçdaroğlu trails behind with 47.9 percent, with most of the votes counted. The outcome seemed almost inevitable after Erdoğan led in the first round of elections, despite a fairly united opposition that promised to restore Turkish democracy and repair ties with the West. Of course, it wasn’t a completely fair fight. Erdoğan largely controls the media and state resources, and he exercised those levers ahead of the election. Erdoğan’s built-in advantage, with a side of election irregularities, almost guaranteed he’d win, and he did. Erdoğan is set to become Turkey’s long-serving leader, and his reelection will have profound implications for Turkey — and the rest of the world. Erdoğan has tried to exert Turkish power in the region and beyond, pursuing a nonaligned and assertive foreign policy. He believes in a multipolar world, with Turkey as a power among others. He has reoriented Ankara away from — but not completely abandoned — the West, using his leverage tobalance Turkey’s relationships, but also to play competitors off each other in ways that benefit Turkey’s (and Erdoğan’s own) interests. These are things like showing off Turkey’s military hardware, as Erdoğan seeks to build up the country’s homegrown defense industry as a sign of its global independence. Or things like launching an operation into northeastern Syria. Or things like picking fights with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Turkey is a member, even if Erdoğan doesn’t always act like it. Or things like getting closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, buying Russian weapons systems, and continuing to buy Russian oil after Moscow launched its war in Ukraine — even as he’s selling Kyiv battlefield drones. “He wants to see the birth of the Turkish Empire, the belief that Turkey is destined to be a hegemon, regionally, but also a global power in [the] 21st century,” said Asli Aydintaşbaş, visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “There is a bit of a new imperial sentiment, obviously, but he has convinced the Turkish public that this is the course Turkey should take.” Erdoğan uses this nationalistic vision for his domestic political advantage. He did so before the election, and experts said, he is unlikely to reverse course now, even if his power is secure. For Erdoğan, said Sibel Oktay, associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, “foreign policy is not just about prioritizing national security, but also ensuring that whatever you do at the foreign domain somehow strengthens your hands at the next election.” Even if Erdoğan’s nationalism have shielded his popularity, the crises that came close to unseating him in this election are not dissipating, and are likely to get more destabilizing. Turkey’s economy is in shambles. Parts of the country are still recovering from a catastrophic earthquake earlier this year. Erdoğan has built the state around himself, dismantling democratic institutions and institutionalizing corruption and self-dealing. Erdoğan will have to deal with these crises, even as he seeks to assert Turkey’s influence around the world. Tumult at home might force him to temper his ambitions — or it could fuel them, as he seeks success abroad to avoid what he cannot, or will not, fix at home. “He’s just won a mandate from voters who have made it very clear that they support Erdoğan — despite everything that’s happened to the economy,” said Nicholas Danforth, editor at War on the Rocks and senior non-resident fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. It is a very nationalist voter base, Danforth said, that “appears very willing to pay the economic price that they think — and that Erdoğan insists — is necessary to follow his foreign-policy vision.” Erdoğan is probably not going to become a great ally all of a sudden Erdoğan’s belief in a multipolar world means he doesn’t quite buy into the Western-led order. Turkey is a longstanding NATO member, but Erdoğan has tried to forge a more independent foreign policy, one that weens Ankara off its Washington dependence. In doing so, Erdoğan tapped into a anti-Westernism in Turkish society and supercharged it. His hostility toward the United States, in particular, intensified after a 2016 coup attemptagainst him. Erdoğan blames Fetullah Gülen, a cleric who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, for orchestrating the power grab. Erdoğan has insisted the US extradite Gülen, which it has not done, saying Turkey lacks evidence. (Gülen denies involvement.) The rift has deepened from there. Turkey detained an American pastor on trumped up terrorism charges in 2016, which led to a lopsided trade spat until the pastor’s release two years later. In Syria, the United States partnered with Syrian Kurdish fighters to battle ISIS, which Erdoğan sees as an existential threat because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group. In 2017, Turkey brokered a deal with Russia to buy its S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, which came amid warming ties between Ankara and Moscow. The United States warned Turkey that a NATO ally probably shouldn’t go off and buy Moscow-made military stuff, but Turkey did it anyway. The US imposed sanctions on Turkey, and kicked it out of its fighter jet program. Other issues have driven a wedge between Turkey and the West, but Erdoğan’s do-what-he-wants foreign policy has really been on display during the Ukraine war. Turkey has not gone along with other NATO allies to sanction Russia, and has been scooping up cheap Russian oil. Most significantly, Turkey has held up Sweden’s NATO membership, over what Erdoğan claims are Stockholm’s lax policies toward the PKK and other groups that Turkey deems terrorist organizations. Erdoğan dropped objections to Finland joining the allianceearlier this year, but he hasn’t yet budged on Sweden, saying it needs to extradite dozens of so-called terrorists, though Stockholm claims they don’t even know who the people are. But it was a politically popular position, and something Erdoğan wanted to rally supporters around during elections. NATO wants Sweden a full member by the time of its big summit in July, so Western officials are hoping that Erdoğan’s win will make him a little more amenable. But it seems very likely that the United States will probably have to sweeten the deal by allowing Turkey to buy F-16s again. The Biden administration has signaled it’s ready to let Turkey buy upgraded equipment, but it ultimately needs Congress’s approval. Although nothing is guaranteed with Erdoğan. As experts said, it’s not that Erdoğan wants to fully break with the West, he just wants to do things his way. “He sees this election as an opportunity for the West to reset relations with him, on his terms,” Danforth said. Erdoğan isn’t alone in envisioning a more independent foreign policy in a more multipolar world. Other countries, like India, or Brazil, are trying to maintain ties to Washington where it serves them, but seek strategic distance where it doesn’t. They have also sought balance between Russia and the West on the Ukraine war. The difference, though, is that Turkey is a NATO member, and the rest are not. “[Erdoğan] is transactional, but not irrational,” Aydintaşbaş said. “Essentially, I think he’ll want a new bargain with the West, and the terms of that would be: accept me as I am, including what I do domestically, including what I do regionally. And then we can talk.” The promise and peril of Erdoğan’s balancing act Erdoğan is not irrational, which means he also understands something fundamental about Turkey’s NATO membership: it’s part of what gives him his clout. “Turkey’s power very much stems from the fact that it’s in NATO,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey program director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. That power is partially about sway with other members within the alliance, of course, but also outside of it. Specifically, with Vladimir Putin. Turkey and Russia have deepened their cooperation in recent years. A lot of this is situational: they are dealing with each other more in places where they have competing interests, like in Syria and in Libya. Even as they are not always working toward the same aims, they have kept the lines of communication open. Erdoğan has used his relationship with Moscow to try to play both sides — not fully befriending Russia, but playing footsie enough to irk the West (a tension that also serves Russia interests). How successful Erdoğan has been at pulling off this balancing act probably depends on the eye of the beholder. For his supporters, this is Erdoğan exerting his influence in that multipolar world he envisions. For his critics, he’s a wishy-washy partner whom few fully trust. Ukraine is also an example of how Erdoğan has attempted to play all sides. When it comes to Russia, Turkey has tried to distinguish itself from much of the rest of the NATO alliance. “We are not at a point where we would impose sanctions on Russia like the West have done. We are not bound by the West’s sanctions,” Erdoğan told CNN recently. “We are a strong state and we have a positive relationship with Russia.” Turkey continues to welcome Russian businesses, also a small lifeline for Turkey’s struggling economy. At the same time, Erdoğan has kept communication open with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and has repeatedly recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Turkey has sold Ukraine military hardware; the Ukraine battlefields have become a showcase for the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones. Erdoğan also helped broker the UN-backed Black Sea grain deal, which has allowed for the transport of Ukrainian grain out of otherwise blockaded ports. All of that puts Turkey in a pretty unique position, especially when Kyiv and Moscow get to the point of wanting or needing to talk. “Turkey has a real chance, and Erdoğan specifically, has a real chance and willingness to broker this,” Oktay said. At the same time, Erdoğan is sort of sitting on the sidelines, rather than trying to influence events. “I think from the Western perspective, having Turkey act as a reliable ally, putting more pressure on Moscow to end the war sooner, would be a more valuable contribution than having itself available as a moderator,” Danforth said. This is the good and the bad of Erdoğan’s balancing act: it really is all about Turkey. That brings Turkey prominence, but it also risksoverestimating how much he can actually influence global events. Still, Ukraine could potentially be his chance to leave that historical mark, if he wants it. “I think Erdoğan might think of this as his opportunity, as his sort of crowning achievement in his last term, and making him a historic figure in international relations,” Oktay said of Ukraine. “He’s already become a historic figure for Turkish politics.” The world Erdoğan wants to create — and what’s standing in his way The Erdoğan who went into these elections is the Erdoğan who will emerge from them. And, as experts said, he may use his victory to try to make a more lasting change in Turkey’s international posture. “Turkey of today is a Turkey that thinks of itself as a pole in itself, as a country that should negotiate between different power centers in a multipolar world,” Aydintaşbaş said. Or as Tahiroğlu put it: “His foreign policy vision is entirely about making Turkey great again.” The question, really, is whether Erdoğan can execute this vision, and what that might actually mean for Turkey. Erdoğan will have real challenges after this election. The economy is on the verge of crashing, and he did it no favors by doing things like pumping money into the economy ahead of the elections. This means real pain for ordinary Turks, including those who reelected him. Erdoğan’s weak economic stance may give the US and Europe — a key trading partner — a little bit more leverage over him, too. And though Erdoğan won, the fact that this election went to a runoff shows that many Turks are disillusioned with his reign. That sentiment isn’t going anywhere, and that opposition could get stronger as Turkey faces economic turmoil. Those realities may hamper his ambitions, regionally and globally. That does not mean Erdoğan’s influence will fade entirely. He did to Turkey’s foreign policy what he has done to Turkey’s state: taken it, reshaped it, and put his agenda at the center. What that looks like depends, again, on a lot on how you see Erdoğan. His supporters see him see him reestablishing Turkish influence and power, a visionary leader in the Muslim world. His critics see him as an unreliable ally — somehow making Ankara more isolated as it tries to extend its influence everywhere. “Erdoğan’s been more successful than a lot of his critics predicted,” Danforth said. “And he’s been a lot less successful than his own propaganda would have you believe.”
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17 Cannes movies worth watching for
Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City. | Focus Features The buzziest movies we saw at the festival, from blockbusters to world cinema epics. The Cannes Film Festival is the world’s most prestigious, and serves as a launchpad for some of the most important films of the year, from Hollywood blockbusters to masterpieces from filmmakers all over the globe. This year’s Cannes, which concluded on May 27, is no exception. It’s impossible to see every film at Cannes, of course, but what I saw was mostly great. Here’s a list of films worth watching for, culled from the sample I saw at the festival — a feast of riches from around the world. About Dry Grasses In a remote village in the Eastern Anatolian steppes, Samet (Deni̇z Celi̇loğlu) teaches art to schoolchildren, pursues a girlfriend and a transfer to a better locale, and is shocked to find that he and his fellow teacher Kenan (Musab Eki̇ci̇) are the target of accusations from several girls in their classes. The story unfolds over a languid but engrossing 197 minutes, with the eminent director Nuri Bilge Ceylan exploring Samet’s misery and unlikeability with a wry and even generous eye. It’s a gorgeous film, in Ceylan’s typical naturalistic style, and one that follows the novelistic impulse, complete with a self-absorbed antihero at its center. How to watch it: About Dry Grasses is awaiting a US release date. Acid In the very near future, climate change and environmental degradation have left the world terrified of a roving cloud of highly acidic rain. But this threat is in the background for much of Just Philippot’s thriller Acid, in which a teenager and her divorced parents find themselves thrown together in a race to survive. It’s climate-change fiction, and thus it’s bleak; this is the kind of thriller without a heartwarming moment, instead reminding us that a future in which humanity is slowly exterminated by an unfeeling outside force isn’t one given to generating heartfelt Hollywood moments of connection and solace. In Acid’s future world, you can’t hide, and you sure can’t run, either. How to watch it: Acid is awaiting a US release date. Anatomy of a Fall Justine Triet’s courtroom drama stars the great Sandra Huller as a writer whose son discovers his father lying on the ground outside their chalet near Grenoble with blood seeping from a head wound. What happened here? That’s the question, and the film slowly peels apart its layers, exploring how truths and facts become fictions in the retellings, whether they’re told in a courtroom or in a novel. Nothing is as objective and straightforward as our enlightened modern legal systems like to pretend, and our cultural prejudices about gender, emotion, and memory are all part of the story we tell. Anatomy of a Fall turns that fact into a scintillating, provocative thriller. How to watch it: Anatomy of a Fall will be released in the US this year by Neon. Asteroid City Wes Anderson’s style (recently an internet fixation) is on full display in Asteroid City, which is ostensibly a background look at the production of a play about a group of people who accidentally end up stranded in a remote desert city around 1955. In actuality, it’s a movie about grief and the ways we try to process it: through anger, through acting, through magical thinking. But it’s also a movie about space, both outer and inner, and how and why artists keep trying to explore it. Anderson isn’t for everyone — frankly, he’s not for me — but this is a movie for the Wes-heads, and Jeff Goldblum’s role alone makes it worth watching. How to watch it: Asteroid City opens in theaters on June 16. The Breaking Ice The Breaking Ice sneaks up on you, a drama about three young people — a finance worker (Liu Haoran), a tour guide (Zhou Dongyu), and a local who works in his family’s restaurant (Qu Chuxiao) — who find themselves spending a weekend together in a Chinese village near the North Korean border. As they roam and see the sights, they discover they have more in common than they expected. Anthony Chen crafts a meditation on trauma and depression, the kind that comes from deferred dreams, lost love, and an evaporated passion for life. The film borders on the sentimental, but never grows too cloying, in large part due to its light touch and charming performances. How to watch it: The Breaking Ice is awaiting a US release date. Close Your Eyes Fifty years ago, the venerable and venerated director Victor Erice made his debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, perhaps the greatest Spanish film in history. Close Your Eyes certainly feels like his way of bidding goodbye to the medium. It’s the story of Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo), a filmmaker whose last production was abruptly halted when his friend and lead actor suddenly disappeared without a trace. Now, after years of living in a sleepy seaside village, he has set off on a quest to figure out what happened, and the result is a moving mediation on existence, memory, and cinema’s potential to preserve them both. How to watch it: Close Your Eyes is awaiting a US release date. Club Zero Strange things are afoot at an exclusive prep school, where a new teacher (Mia Wasikowska) has been hired to teach a course on “conscious eating” to a group of teens. But as the students fall under her sway, the “conscious” eating rapidly turns disordered and things get extremely culty. Jessica Hausner’s mannered, deadpan film buries body horror inside a satirical facade, using smart ideas about disordered eating — that it’s frequently a response to lack of control rather than about body size — to tell a story about grasping for transcendence in a frightening, confusing world. A few gross-out moments and its generally off-putting demeanor make it not for everyone, but it shouldn’t be ignored. How to watch it: Club Zero is awaiting a US release date. How to Have Sex Mubi Mia McKenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex. The title of Molly Manning Walker’s debut film is bleakly ironic. How to Have Sex starts out as a freewheeling party movie about three English girls on holiday in Crete, but it takes a gutting turn when a fun encounter with a cute guy becomes something much darker. The blurry lines of consent, and the way that “good guys” manipulate them, is the subject of How to Have Sex. But it avoids simple didacticism with Walker’s kinetic direction and appealing performances, particularly from lead Mia McKenna-Bruce, whose pain is easily shared. How to Have Sex is all too authentic and believable, and it’s a terrifically assured first feature from Walker, too. How to watch it: How To Have Sex will be released in the US by Mubi. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (review) Harrison Ford’s famously adventuring archaeologist returns for a fifth and almost certainly final installment — Ford turns 81 this summer, after all. A pleasantly goofy plot anchored by Ford and his wisecracking goddaughter (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) explores aging, the passage of time, and regret, in a film that feels like an at least sideways commentary on Hollywood’s age of IP recycling. There have been better Indiana Jones movies, but it’s good to see one more romping send-off for the character. How to watch it: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in theaters on June 30. Killers of the Flower Moon Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from war in the 1920s to an Oklahoma farm owned by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), a kingpin of a sort. Burkhardt marries Mollie (an exceptional Lily Gladstone) and lives among the Osage, who have been made fabulously wealthy by the discovery of oil on the lands the US government shoved them onto years earlier. But then Osage people start dying, one by one, and nobody seems to be able to figure out why. For Killers of the Flower Moon,Martin Scorsese adapts David Grann’s stunning work of historical nonfiction with his own particular touch: This is in part a movie about how the bootstrapping American ethic lends itself to organized crime among the enterprising, and in part an uneasily self-reflective questioning of turning people’s real-life trauma into entertainment. It’s magnificent. How to watch it: Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters on October 6. May December Todd Haynes tells you early on that May December is camp, but the kind that conceals a queasy heart. He loosely bases the story on the infamous case of Mary Kay Letourneau; here, Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton, who went to jail after having sex with 12-year-old Joe Yoo at the pet store where she works, then had his children and married him. Now, 20 years on, they’re still married, but their life together — marked by Gracie’s insistence that she never really did anything wrong — takes a strange turn when an actress (Natalie Portman) who’s going to play Gracie in a movie visits to do research and gets interested in Joe (Charles Melton). It’s sort of a movie about guilt, sort of about conscience, sort of about exploitation, but Haynes’s wrapping it in camp trappings reminds us that this is the stuff of tabloids, and the lightness of touch makes it entertaining and uncomfortable all at once. How to watch it: May December will be released in the US by Netflix. Monster You can’t really guess where Monster is going. Ultimately a story about a Japanese pre-teen who feels disconnected from the world around him, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lyrical film comes at the tale from different directions, building out a world where the child’s mother, teacher, school principal, and friends are all oblivious to some degree. Kore-eda is a master of directing children’s performances, so it’s no wonder that Monster is at its best when there are no adults onscreen, the children living in their own world of fantasy and adventure and emotion. Yet the world of adults — the language they use, the unthinking labels they apply — seep into children’s consciousness; Monster asks whether there’s ever an escape. How to watch it: Monster is awaiting a US release date. The Mother of All Lies Asmae El Moudir grew up in Casablanca, in a house full of secrets, and she is not really sure why. For instance, why are there no photos of her in her parents’ house except one, and she’s pretty sure that’s not even her in the picture? The Mother of All Lies is El Moudir’s documentary attempt to make sense of her family’s web of falsehoods and myths, anchored by her grandmother. To get at the real stories, she constructs with her father a miniature puppet-sized replica of her childhood neighborhood and coaxes family members into telling the real tales, but the truth is not easy to hear. How to watch it: The Mother of All Lies is awaiting a US release date. The Nature of Love (Simple comme Sylvain) Metafilms Magalie Lépine Blondeau and Pierre-Yves Cardinal in The Nature of Love. Monia Chokri’s limpid and charming comedy plays like a rom-com, until it’s not. Sophia (Magalie Lépine Blondeau), a 40-ish philosophy professor, lives with her longtime partner Xavier (Francis-William Rhéaume) in Quebec. She loves him, but the spark has gone out. Then she meets Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the handyman repairing their vacation home, and sparks fly. But The Nature of Love — sprinkled with Sophia’s lectures on various philosophers’ ideas about love — never quite promises a happily ever after. Instead, it leaves Sophia (and us) wondering about what love is, how it persists, and whether our search for it is simply an exercise in constant self-delusion. How to watch it: The Nature of Love is awaiting a US release date. Strange Way of Life Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke star as two cowboys, Silva and Jake, in this hotly anticipated 31-minute short directed by Pedro Almodovar. They haven’t seen one another in decades, since the two months in which they were passionate lovers in Mexico. In the meantime, life has gone by; Jake is now a sheriff who is, coincidentally, trying to hunt down Silva’s son, who in turn murdered Jake’s sister-in-law. Silva turns up and sparks fly again. Strange Way of Life is not really a very good film; Hawke and Pascal deliver the mannered lines with discomfort, and there’s not much to grab onto. But the film was financed by fashion house Yves St. Laurent, and the cowboys wear the designs of designer Anthony Vaccarello, which helps to explain why it exists. They — the men and the clothes — are, at least, very nice to look at. How to watch it: Strange Way of Life will be released in the US this year by Sony Pictures Classics. Youth (Spring) Wang Bing’s extraordinary documentary, which runs over three and a half hours, captures the lives of migrant Chinese garment factory workers in their late teens and early 20s. They flirt, fight, eat, dream, and sew at a remarkable speed, turning out fast fashions and then negotiating rates with the factory owners, who put them up in barely livable conditions and demand long hours with little room for life. This is less a social-issue documentary and more about an extreme existential poignance, encapsulated in the title: These are young people in the prime years of their lives, but without the means or mobility to move forward, living years of monotony without a break. That doesn’t mean their lives can’t be rich, but it does call into question the rapacious appetite for cheaply made clothing and the system that enables it. How to watch it: Youth (Spring) is awaiting a US release date. The Zone of Interest (review) A24 A scene from The Zone of Interest. The year’s most terrifying horror film comes from Jonathan Glazer — his first feature in 10 years, since the eviscerating Under the Skin. This film, loosely adapted from the late Martin Amis’s novel, is the story of a family living in blissful tranquility right outside the walls of Auschwitz, where the father is commandant. Glazer keeps the family’s home life in the frame, but it’s everything going on just beyond that wall that nauseates the audience, and the film never lets you forget it. It’s formally brilliant in its evocation of the mental distance the family has put between themselves and the atrocities, making the audience feel that discomfort and terror. The Zone of Interest is undoubtedly one of 2023’s best films, and instantly ranks among the greatest films about the Holocaust. How to watch it: The Zone of Interest will be released in the US by A24.
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Why don’t more voters care about the debt ceiling?
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to reporters outside his office at the Capitol following a meeting with President Joe Biden on May 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Even with a possible debt ceiling deal, the US has come perilously close to a default. No one seems to care. Though there are reports that an agreement is near, a lot could go wrong if congressional Republicans and the White House are unable to work out a deal to raise the debt ceiling by late next week. At some point in the next few weeks, checks from the federal government would stop going out since the country wouldn’t be able to pay its bills. Interest rates would rise, the stock market would fall, and the country would likely enter a recession potentially resulting in millions of job losses. But do most Americans know this? And who would they blame for the economic calamity that would ensue? The answer to the first question is easy: Most Americans don’t seem to view the debt ceiling threat as that big of a deal, or they don’t seem to view a potential default on debt as a crisis. The second question is more complicated and will depend on just how badly the economy craters if a deal isn’t reached in the next week. The chaos could start as early as June: A little more than a week remains until we hit the June 5 “X-date,” when the Treasury Department has said the US would begin to be unable to pay its debts and could have to prioritize which bills go unpaid. The debt ceiling is the legal limit on how much the US can borrow in order to pay for a large portion of government spending. The US, in fact, hit the debt ceiling in January; The Treasury is using “extraordinary measures” to keep the government afloat, but those will soon be exhausted as well. Congressional Republicans and the White House remain in negotiations. Though members of Congress have already left the capital for their Memorial Day weekend break, recent reporting suggests that a deal might be in sight — but the most conservative members of the House don’t seem to like some of the details. (House Democrats, for their part, also don’t seem thrilled.) Most public polling shows a core challenge for Biden and the Democrats: The majority of Americans don’t seem to understand the technical details of the debt ceiling, or what a default would mean. Many voters view the future of the debt limit as contingent on some kind of spending cuts, and many seem willing to consider a default if Congress does not cut some spending. That voters see a connection between spending cuts and the debt ceiling is already a huge win for Republicans — the White House and House Democratic leadership’s opening position had always been to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase, keeping debates over budgets and spending separate. Democrats were partially counting on Republicans never getting on the same page with their list of demands; but since House Republicans passed their own debt ceiling bill last month, Biden and Democrats have had to engage on spending cut negotiations. Now that Biden and Democrats are negotiating, a default would likely not be viewed as the fault exclusively of Republicans’ demands: Most recent polls show nearly even splits in blame for both parties. A Marist poll from last week, for example, shows 45 percent of Americans would blame Republicans, 43 percent would blame Biden, and 7 percent would blame both. These polls also show a related problem for Biden and Democrats — Americans might not get the severity of a default. CNN’s most recent polling from last week, for example, shows that only 26 percent of Americans see a default as a “crisis.” That same poll found that only 24 percent of Americans think Congress should raise the debt ceiling no matter what — while 60 percent of Americans want to see spending cuts before Congress raises the debt ceiling. A recent Economist/YouGov poll shows something similar: Half of Americans see a default as either a minor or major problem, but not a full-blown crisis. In other words, as it stands, Americans don’t seem to understand that the stability of the global economy and the imperative for America to avoid a recession are different issues from the political debates over the government’s budgeting and spending priorities. House Republicans’ cuts-or-default strategy includes calls for more than $4 trillion in reductions to government spending. Republicans want to claw back unspent Covid relief money, rescind money meant to modernize the IRS, cancel student loan debt relief, and implement work requirements for certain food stamp and Medicaid recipients — which could leave millions without health insurance. This confusion — and general voter apathy on the issue — has complicated Democratic groups’ efforts to try to keep pressure on House Republicans and avoid blame shifting onto Democrats and the White House for the political brinkmanship happening in DC. “We’re talking about real draconian cuts to benefits that people in my rural community depend on,” Santos Garcia, the mayor of Madera, in California’s agricultural breadbasket, told me recently during a rally organized by the anti-MAGA Republican group Courage for America. “That’s why I’m trying to get the word out.” Garcia told me that his constituents have a hard time understanding the stakes of a default, and of the cuts that Republicans are trying to implement, because a lot of news coverage tends to cover these negotiations as standard political debate that happens on Capitol Hill. Regular folks, he said, don’t understand the severity of these deliberations until you start to talk to them about the things that might be lost if the country defaults — and also if Republicans’ proposed spending cuts to social programs like Pell Grants for low-income college students. “So much of the news and the media don’t talk to people in a way that they’ll understand. These issues get so partisan, and people tune them out on that part,” Garcia said. When he gets back to the Central Valley, currently represented by Republican Rep. John Duarte, he said he’s going to tell his constituents “to pick up the phone and talk to their congressman about passing a bipartisan bill to eliminate any notion of a default or these drastic cuts. We need to pay our bills, so that the federal government does not default.” Maryam Idowu, one of Garcia’s constituents who joined him in DC for the rally, echoed some of that theory for how “real America” is feeling: “Some people are in tune to [the threat of default] but it just kind of depends on ‘how much is something going to affect me?’ And some people — they don’t think they’re going to be affected.” That distance from DC deliberations has also complicated outreach efforts for some of Courage for America’s partners, including influencers like Carlos Eduardo Espina, a law student from College Station, Texas and a Spanish-language creator. He posts frequent news updates about immigration along with his own analysis, but has noticed a difference in how his 6 million TikTok followers and 360,000 Instagram followers engage with his posts about the debt ceiling — they simply don’t understand the issue. “Even for myself, it’s a very complex issue and that’s even with me completely understanding English,” he said. “I think that the closer it gets to the actual deadline to find a solution, we’ll start getting a lot more interest.” And as voters get more informed and feel the effects of a default if it happens, it’s likely that they’ll want to assign blame to everyone in DC — but they’ll likely especially blame Joe Biden. The president doesn’t have the same good will Democrats had the last time a debt limit default nearly happened in 2011, or was threatened in 2013. A Fox News poll from this month shows that more Americans are willing to blame Biden (47 percent) for a default than were willing to blame President Barack Obama in 2011 (32 percent). In fact, Biden seems to be the focus of more blame than Obama ever was in 2011 or 2013, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake. There are a few possible explanations for this difference. While Americans were generally sour about the economy during the 2011 and 2013 debt ceiling fights, the country was recovering from the Great Recession, the economy felt like it was improving, and inflation was low. In 2023, voters in both parties are sour about the economy. And even if unemployment is historically very low, inflation remains high and Americans mostly blame Biden and Democrats for the economy. Forty-one percent of Americans say their views on the economy align closer to Republicans, compared to 29 percent who align with Democrats, according to a March CNN poll. Neither party really benefited from the debt ceiling fights of the last decade — but Republicans stand to gain a lot politically if the economy unravels under an unpopular Democratic president right before an election year. Brookings Institution fellow William Galston is one outspoken proponent of this theory. There’s pretty good evidence the budget disputes that result in government shutdowns tend to hurt Republicans politically, but the same isn’t true of defaults, since the country has never defaulted. It did come close in 2011, when the US’s credit rating was downgraded and the country came within 72 hours of defaulting. “The actual economic effects of a government shutdown are almost nil on the public — but no one thinks that would be true about a debt ceiling breach,” Galston told me. “I’m convinced that, were a debt ceiling breach to have measurably negative consequences on the American public, President Biden would be negatively judged.” During the 2022 midterms, Biden and congressional Democrats were largely able to resist one of the basic rules of politics: that American voters punish the party in power for negative economic conditions. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate, won key governors races, and minimized Republican gains in the House. But in presidential elections, voters hold presidents responsible for the economy. “Since the New Deal, whether rightly or wrongly, presidents have been held principally liable for the state of the economy,” Galston said. “If we do tip over, I don’t think people are going to like it at all.”
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