Friday, August 19, 2011

Jack, Nikita & some nukes

I don't remember when we learned about the Cuban missile crisis in school. Probably in 8th grade, likely in the final 10 minutes of the hour-long class, perhaps after the 11 minutes spent on the Korean War. The teacher likely left us with a message of, "And tomorrow, we'll cover Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage ordeal."

The story always fascinated me, even when I only knew the broad strokes and simplistic version: Dastardly Soviets sneak nukes onto Cuba; U.S. discovers it; John F. Kennedy appears on TV to tell Americans they'll all die; generals want to invade the island; blockade; Soviets back down; America wins; USA! USA!

Learning about the crisis nearly 30 years later made it impossible to really understand what it must have been like in the country during those days. It was laughable thinking about my parents hiding under school desks as a mushroom cloud rose outside of Fulda - "True, these shoddily made desks collapse under the weight of our heftier students, but they will shield our youngsters from a thermonuclear device." Kids still feared nuclear annihilation, primarily because of the TV movie The Day After. But the Soviet Union's eventual collapse meant there was no longer an ever-present enemy waiting to hit the button and send us scurrying into bunkers or under desks. We had 30, 40 years of living with Mutual Assured Destruction and most people felt confident leaders for both countries really did understand the theory. Students felt scared because of what happened to Jason Robards on TV, not because of what nearly happened in real life three decades earlier. At that stage, America seemed protected, isolated from danger, if not the world.

Certainly September 11 changed that view. But even in the aftermath of the horror of the worst day in the country's history, I didn't ever feel - and I don't think the majority of people did either - that the entire country was in danger of total destruction. In so many ways the danger was more terrifying than the Cold War, because it was random, unpredictable, and could seemingly happen anyplace, and at anytime. Even with that, there wasn't the fear that the entire country - the whole world, for that matter - could be brought down in the matter of hours, with just a push of a button.

That was what I imagined life was like in the early '60s, as the United States and Soviet Union escalated their arms battle and it all came to a (war)head in Cuba. But still I only knew the children's book version.

Several years ago I watched - and thoroughly enjoyed - the movie Thirteen Days, though I was somewhat surprised to learn Kevin Costner (or at least his character, Kenneth O'Donnell) had saved the world back in 1962. For the most part, the movie received praise for its accuracy. There were a few notable exceptions, the main one probably being that O'Donnell, who served as Kennedy's special assistant, didn't have much of a role during the two-week drama, even if he had a big one in the subsequent two-hour one that came to theaters.

Still, entertaining flick.

But now I finally feel like I've read the definitive account of the crisis. Michael Dobbs' One Minute to Midnight came out in 2008 and has been called "extraordinary," "fast-paced, suspenseful," and a "welcome introduction to that perilous time." Those were some of the official reviews and I can't add much to those. The book filled in any missing gaps I had and shed new light on old issues I thought had been settled long ago. It's literally a minute-by-minute account of the crisis. Half of the book focuses on one day - Saturday, October 27 - when the world really did come close to witnessing a nuclear exchange between a pair of superpowers who would have been anything but in the aftermath of another world war.

Dobbs' book puts the reader in the moment. Now I feel like I do know what it was like and why it was so terrifying, even though the most frightening aspect of the book isn't necessarily the fact the world came so close to the brink, but how it came so close to destruction.

One of the primary strengths of the book is it tells the story from all perspectives - American, Soviet, Cuban. Dobbs gets into the heads of Soviet soldiers in Cuba and leaders back in Moscow. He takes you inside the cockpit of a U-2 and into the White House. He explains Fidel Castro's motivations and the obsessions of the politicians who were determined to eliminate him, seemingly at any cost.

The book opens with some amazing anecdotes, which any conspiracy theorist would read and exclaim, "Told ya so!" On the first pages, Robert Kennedy meets with a group focused on eliminating Castro. These were the folks who brainstormed the idea of using "chemical agents to destroy Castro's beard, so that he would become a laughingstock among the Cuban people." It's not known if a night of heavy pot use prompted that idea. But Dobbs reports on how far the U.S. was willing to go to rid itself of the former baseball player turned ruler:

"The State Department drafted plans for the sabotage of the Cuban economy; the Pentagon came up with a scheme for a wave of bombings in Miami and Washington that could be blamed on Castro." Fake bombings blamed on a stooge? Okay.

RFK was meeting with that group when the missile crisis started. From there, Dobbs meticulously documents why events escalated, culminating in "Black Saturday," when nuclear war seemed possible.

The American generals were eager for some action. General Thomas Power told an aide to defense secretary Robert McNamara, "The whole idea is to kill the bastards." If there were "Two Americans and one Russian" left alive at the end of the war, "we win." Dobbs writes that McNamara's aide replied, "You had better make sure the two Americans are a man and a woman." And, preferably, attractive ones.

At the time, the United States did possess an advantage in sheer number of nukes. We could have blasted the Soviets and "won" a war, while losing tens of millions of Americans. And, terrifyingly, some in the military seemed all right with that proposition.

Looking back, it's frightening to see how a little thing could have led to a big war, whether it was the Soviets shooting down a plane in Cuba or an American spy plane accidentally venturing into Russian airspace. Imagine WW3 starting because of a befuddled pilot. It's absurd. And was completely possible. Fortunately, John Kennedy also spent time looking back during those crucial days. He reflected on how World War I started because of "mistakes, misunderstandings and miscommunication" and how that unleashed "an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences."

If nothing else, Dobbs' book is a great reminder about the benefits of civilian control over the military. Support the troops? Sure. But make sure you oversee their leaders. Their job is to win wars, but it's the politicians who have to be trusted with knowing when they should begin.

And that goes for the Soviets too. Nikita Krushchev, like Kennedy, fought to control a situation that had first spiraled out of control because of his own actions. For eventually pulling the missiles out of Cuba, Krushchev was basically labeled the loser in the event, by people on both sides. What a wimp! Didn't have the guts to go through with a war! Actually, he helped save the world, after almost helping destroy it. Just like Kennedy.

Dobbs writes:

"The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all. In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Krushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash. ...Something more than dumb luck was involved in sidestepping a nuclear apocalypse. The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962."

We should all be thankful for Krushchev? I think we missed that part in school.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Update: New post on TVFury, new post coming here

Today on TVFury, we had an interview I did with former SJU quarterback Tom Linnemann. As always, Linnemann was extremely entertaining and very willing to share his opinions on a wide range of subjects. Check it out here:

The Fury Files: An Interview with Tom Linnemann

Later Thursday night I should have a new post up here on shawnfury.blogspot. Nothing too long - probably not 4,000 words on basketball movies from the '70s - but a little book review about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It'll be just like history class!

And Friday on TVFury, we'll have our links post up - The Tapes - and perhaps my podcast with Terry Vandrovec.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Robby Benson, a tutor, a basketball, and a red-hot poker

Any child of the '80s who dreamed of becoming an NBA star, or even only fantasized about hitting a game-winning jumper in the state tournament while under the guidance of a crusty old coach who just got off a boat, surely watched Hoosiers dozens of times. It remains the standard-bearer of all sports movies, and is certainly the best hoops movie ever made.

But another basketball film, released a decade earlier, probably maintains a spot in the heart of those same future hoop stars, especially if those players were a bit more mature — and a lot hornier.

One on One starred a young, floppy-haired Robby Benson, who also co-wrote the film (his dad, Jerry Segal, was the other writer). Last night, after midnight, just as I was headed to bed, I stumbled upon the movie on NBA TV. Despite having to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, I stayed up until 2, watching Robby overcome tough odds, an abusive coach, disdain from arrogant hippies, bullying teammates and his infatuation with a red-headed tutor.

The movie came out in 1977. When I was younger, One on One always seemed to pop up on TBS about once a year, usually on a Saturday afternoon, probably before a 4:05 Braves game. Back then, I felt frustrated at the lack of basketball scenes in what I thought was a basketball movie.

Instead, Robby's character, Henry Steele, spends his time on the bench, riding the pine while pining for his tutor, played by a fetching Annette O'Toole. Watch the trailer again. How would anyone even know the movie focused on a basketball player? It looks more like young Mr. Steele stumbles upon a swingers compound. If the movie is a porno, he certainly seems to have an appropriate name for such a role. "The story of a winner." A winner in what?

Benson attends the generically named "Western University" and struggles to adjust to the large campus. He doesn't help matters by speaking in a voice that's one level above a whisper. What kind of guidance did the director give Robby before his scenes? "We need you to speak like a frightened 11-year-old girl. All the great guards, from Maravich to Robertson, do this. Not only is it great with the ladies, but it's a fine way of inspiring your teammates as their floor general."

Yet he becomes something of a ladies' man. At one point an intoxicated older woman gives him head while Robby drives a car and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, he never loses his head, creatively bribing a police officer who had pulled him over for speeding by offering up a pair of tickets to the big Notre Dame game. It's the last time anyone was excited about Notre Dame basketball.

It's Robby's on-court life that proves to be a nightmare for much of the movie. He fights for playing time. The intensity bothers him. During one practice, his friend gives him speed. As a "Say No To Drugs" performance, it ranks up there with the famous Dragnet episode about the dangers of acid. Robby acts like a cokehead as his embarrassed teammate, who provided the drugs, realizes perhaps he should have first introduced the small-town rube to pot. Once he gets back on the court, Robby continues his out-of-control ways, just the type of performance you'd want from a point guard. It does give him a bit more quickness, but at what cost?

Veteran character actor G.D. Spradlin has the best role in the movie. Spradlin portrays the old-school coach, Moreland Smith. Throughout his long career, Spradlin — who worked as an attorney for an oil company before getting into acting - specialized in playing ruthless, uncaring, occasionally evil men. He was the sleazy senator in The Godfather Part II, the leader of an assassination attempt against the California governor in Nick of Time and a corrupt sheriff in the classic Tank.

In One on One he mentally abuses Robby. He allows the other players to do it physically.

To his credit, Robby refuses to back down. He's Henry Steele, damn it, and that means he's strong. Sure, he looks like a 98-pound weakling out on the court with the men - and probably weighed 108 pounds in real life - but he will not allow coach Smith to break him, even as he's occasionally breaking down.

Another classic scene. Weirdly, this is the same speech my junior college coach, Mike Augustine, gave to me. Making it even stranger? We didn't even have scholarships.

In the end, of course, Robby/Steele wins the girl and the big game.

About that game: Overall, the hoops scenes in One on One are to basketball what the kiss between Norman Dale and Myra Fleener was to romance. In the final game, the one where Steele comes in off the bench in the final 3 minutes to rally Western to a rousing victory, the opposing team hits approximately 23 consecutive layups in the final moments. It's shocking to see an intense coach like Smith lead a team that plays defense like the 1991 Denver Nuggets. Steele scores, opposition gets a layup. Steele nails a jumper, opposition gets a layup. Steele dishes, opposition gets a layup. Yet somehow Western narrows the deficit, although they still trail by 5 with less than a minute to play. After Steele slices it to 1, Western again steals it and gets the ball on the sideline with four seconds left. Steele hits the winning layup after an improbable series of events leaves him wide open under the hoop, a sequence that could have only been accomplished in four seconds if the timekeeper from the 1972 Olympic gold medal game manned the scoreboard clock.

The basketball scenes are at least played on a real college court, in a real arena at Colorado State University, unlike so many TV shows and movies, when the action is compressed onto a 30-foot court that makes the athletes look like oafs.

Young Henry feels pretty cocky after those three minutes of stardom. Three minutes. To that point he'd shown next-to-nothing, other than an inability to hold his uppers. His jumper still looks shaky, he needs a year in the weight room or a week with BALCO, and he falls for any girl who looks him in the eye and says hello. But like he was back in his Colorado hometown, he's now the man. And he tells coach Smith what he can do with that scholarship, in probably the best part of the movie.

The first reviews are fun to look back on. Take the one in The New York Times, which says the ending includes a "smashing basketball game." Well, that is one opinion, especially if a British reporter wrote it.

It's impossible - at least for me - to watch One on One, or any basketball movie, and not think about Hoosiers, even if one movie was more about getting laid than layups.

Compare Henry to Hickory star Jimmy Chitwood. On the court, there's not much comparison. While Henry plays for a Division I school and we only see Jimmy at little ol' Hickory, Jimmy is the superior player. There's a decent chance he eventually landed at Indiana, or perhaps Purdue. Better jump shot, better basketball build, smarter player, moves without the ball much better, underrated ball-handler. Off the court, though, Jimmy probably would have dreamed of having Henry's life. Beer! Car! Speed! Chicks!

Both guys labored under a tutor. But while Jimmy studied the War of 1812 under the angry, bitter eyes of Myra Fleener, Henry learns about the origins of World War I from Janet Hays, who wants to explore the finer parts of anatomy while also discussing history. I remain convinced that Jimmy never kissed a girl, much less got lucky with one. Who knows, maybe he flamed out once he landed at Indiana - or Purdue - when he, like Steele, discovered women. Steele proved he could balance women and ball. Jimmy still hasn't.

One on One attempts to show some of the corruption of big-time college athletics, but someone watching this movie 30 years after its release has been desensitized by sports scandals, whether it's money in the mail, point-shaving, payouts, abusive coaches or...tutors who do everyone's homework - but don't hook up with the players. One on One has a message and a good one, but a message never trumps an underdog story, especially one that's still referenced every March anytime a plucky club upsets a superior foe.

One on One is no Hoosiers. In some ways it's hardly a sports movie. But it's a good film for anyone who loved hoops, girls or hoops and girls at the same time.

If you don't agree with that? You can take this blog, find a red-hot poker and, well, you know.