Friday, February 3, 2023

Why I think that Argentina 1985 is not a very good movie

Now when the passions have receded a bit after I got an incredible number of critiques and insulting emails because I did but think that Argentina 1985 is a very good movie I would like to explain my reasons.

First, let me say that the critique of a film or a book is totally separate from whether we think the events that are described in a film or a book are important and worth describing. There are many mediocre books or films about extraordinary events.

So I fully understand the importance of the trial. It is even more impressive than Nuremberg trials (with which both the movie and several people on Twitter compared it) because Nuremberg was done by foreign military powers and the Argentine trial was done by the domestic tribunal.

I also understand that some people may not care about the quality of the movie so long as many people in Argentina and elsewhere like it, and get emotional about it. It may be also politically expedient, as a person mentioned, to make it at the current time. Or it may be useful for Argentina’s perception in the world as the events of the trial become better known internationally.  All of these are valid points, but none of them has anything to do with the quality of the film.

Before I explain what I do not find appealing in the movie, let me dispense with two points. First, when I wrote that the movie is “predictable”, clearly I did not mean that it is predictable in the sense it should twist historical events which happened and which are obviously known.  Any film that deals with historical events has to stay within these historic events. It does not make sense to write “La chartreuse de Parme” where Napoleon wins at the Waterloo. What I  meant, and clarified in the second tweet, is that the character development in the movie is entirely predictable. And it is predictable because it is based on well-known clichés. Thus anyone who has seem these clichés applied before knows exactly what to expect.

The second point is rather absurd. I was told, “el gringo de mierda”, that if I did not understand the movie I can go and watch Hollywood Mickey Mouse movies. But my critique was precisely that Argentina 1985 is entirely Hollywoodesque and that this is its weakness. It is a gringo movie, if you will. In fact, had Steven Spielberg been asked to make the movie about the Argentinean trials, he would come with exactly with the movie as was produced.

What are the clichés and what is the problem with the clichés? There are at least four (and I listed them already in my Tweet). A reluctant prosecutor who is really not sure whether to take the case or not but when he does he becomes a hero to his family and country and his fundamentally honest nature is revealed. This is the cliché of a reluctant hero. Each of us is really a hero: we just fail to discover that.

There is next the cliché of the young enthusiastic assistants who come from well to do families that were, in one or another way, involved with the dictatorship. The young assistants reject their family values, but the movie finds it too hard to drive this point to its logical ending (where for example the family would disown the son) because it needs to show that even “bad” families are fundamentally good. Hence the mother’s phone  call. That a person who knew of the atrocities, but (as most of us would do) would either  ignore them (“this does not concern our family”) or justify them (“they are the subversives, they want to destroy the country, family and nation”, “no punishment is too strong”) would, based on a single testimony, change the  opinion, widely held in her social circle—family, relatives, husband—probably from the time when she was born, stretches credulity. Here is the next cliché: even seemingly bad people are really good. We can all, from one day to the next, overcome dozens of years of socialization. There are no moral or class issues because fundamentally we all agree.

A final –extreme—cliché takes place at the end of the movie when all the mothers, after the first one puts back her scarf, do the same and show their solidarity in dignified silence. The scene has been played and replayed hundreds of times and its obvious objective is to elicit applause from the public at the end of the movie and to make everybody feel righteous. To be brutal, I would say it is a cheap thrill.

All of these are clichés from central casting. They are not naive though. Their objective is (as in Hollywood movies going back to the original Westerns) to avoid asking two hard questions: what are the social underpinnings of every dictatorship, and what are the difficult choices that people must make under a cruel system? Argentina 1985 avoids asking either of these two questions. This is why we are treated at the end with a picture where only 6 or 7 admirals and generals, villains about whom we know nothing but who must have been intrinsically evil, have kept a whole nation in thrall for a decade. They had no accomplices, no social base, no nothing: everything in reality was so simple.

This makes Hollywood movies, and movies like Argentina 1985 popular. It makes them popular because they avoid difficult questions, and allow us to go home feeling convinced that we too would have made right ethical choices. Even more, that it is not difficult to choose. Between us and  happiness stand only 7 cardboard villains.  

The movie makes us happy. Justice triumphs. But to be a good movie, it should make us unhappy. It should make each of us wonder what are the decisions we would have taken.  And how hard this would have been.  



Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Madoff enigma

            I watched a four-part excellent documentary on Bernie Madoff’s “scam of the century”. (The series is not exactly a documentary because most scenes are re-enacted, but this is done in a very good, and rather discrete, way, combining the actual footage with the enacting, so that we can still call it a documentary). The film has several professors of finance and Wall Stret specialists explaining very clearly the mechanism of the fraud (I liked in particular Diana Henriques who is the author of a book on Madoff).

            But the movie never comes close to explaining “the why” of the scheme. We know “the how”, but not “the why”. The banal explanation that Madoff did it in order to steal the money does not work, and the movie—to give the producers credit—never tries to push it. The explanation does not hold for at least two reasons. The outstanding amount of the scheme at the time when Madoff’s was apprehended was $65 billion. His possessions that are highlighted a few times in the four episodes are minute compared to that amount: a penthouse in New York, a villa in Southern France, and a house in Florida. Readers can probably check on the Web the values of these properties but it is unlikely that the are worth more than $20-$30 million all together. Compare $20-30 million to $65 billion. Second, Madoff had all the time run two businesses: a highly successful legitimate business, and two floors below the shadowy Ponzi shame. His legitimate business generated huge income; surely more than enough to buy the three properties. So he did not need the Ponzi scheme to be rich.

            The payments to the other people who were involved in the “secret” business on  the 17th floor were small too. For example, the pay for one of the assistants in the scam was a paltry $60,000 per year and Madoff was nickel-and-diming her. Thus nothing in the secret scheme smells like big money—for those who did it: for Madoff and his helpers.

            But not so for these who invested. There, the movie shows, the four major investors, who each had billions (yes, billions) invested with Madoff, and given that they received steady annual returns of 10%, who, in turn, made billons out of Madoff’s scheme. One of the four big investors, the movie rather persuasively claims, realized that the whole thing was a big scam rather early on, but his interest was that the scam continues as long as possible, that is as long as he continues to receive exorbitant returns. At one point when Madoff is in serious trouble, this big investor deposited billions that Madoff needed to pay off people who, as the stock market tanked, began to withdraw money. The big investor did this to help Madoff survive the panic, and of course, to continue the Ponzi scheme. That investor was later about to be indicted as co-conspirator but rather conveniently was found dead in the pool of his Florida house.

            So why did Madoff do it? The reason, just slightly alluded to in the movie, might have to do with Madoff’s need/desire/wish to be loved, even adored and –yes- to achieve that devotion by delivering to his friends incredible presents, in terms of money returns they could never obtain elsewhere. The cause of the fraud thus lies in the psychological domain: it does not need to be studied by financiers or economists. What we need is therapists.

            And the light moves from Madoff to his investors. Why did they clamor so much to invest with him?; why did they queue, beg him to take their money, intercept him on the beach to give him millions? The answer is greed. Not only among the top big investors who, as I wrote, might have known what is afoot all along, but also among hundreds of medium and even smaller investors. Why did Elie Wiesel need a special investment opportunity that would generate 10% per year? Aren’t there hundreds of wealth management and investment funds that would take his money? Hasn’t he heard of Fidelity, Vanguard, Chase? And the same is true for many others.

            Of course, in the court case, and even to some extent in the movie, the story-tellers insist  on “normal” investors, many of them however extremely rich by usual standards even if not billionaires. Even for them, one wonders, why did they do it? Didn’t they have other, more standard, opportunities? I know that many people will argue that this is blaming the victim, and while there is no doubt that legally Madoff was guilty, ethically, one wonders, if the victims’ guilt was not as great. If Madoff was doing all of this in order to be admired and loved, didn’t they exploit his psychological weakness to make money? Wasn’t Madoff used by his “victims”? Was he a victim of his pride and they the victims of their greed?