Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss

This is the third and latest short film that I’ve either written or co-written with Juan Carlos Hernandez for his production company, Popcorn Sky Productions. It’s a comedy about a politically-divided family in New York City during the Trump era.

As Denise Longrie says in her review:

This amusing and enjoyable short depicts the fireworks that erupt when the Ronderos’ son Jerry (Anthony James Hernandez) comes home from college for a visit. Mom Veronica (“Ronnie”), played by Adria K. Woomer-Hernandez, lays down the law to her husband Guillermo (Juan Carlos Hernandez): no talking, not even whispering, about politics.

Although Juan was gracious enough to give me the sole writing credit for Ronnie, the truth is that much of the finished film was based on on-the-spot rewrites by the cast and crew in New York. I was asked to go to the Big Apple to be on hand, but I couldn’t afford the cost of an airline ticket plus a long extended stay at a hotel. So even though I was consulted, Juan, Adria, and Anthony had to rework the story and script to make Ronnie work well as a comedy with some serious commentary about the divisiveness in Trump-era America.

The film is 22 minutes long, but it’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. I think it’s both hilarious and relevant.

If you have not watched it yet, here it is, in all its YouTube glory.

Audiobook Review: ‘Red Storm Rising’ (2013 Bolinda Audio Edition)

(C) 2013 Bolinda Publishing Pty. Ltd. Original novel (C) 1986 Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Larry Bond

The Coming “Red Storm”

Reviewer’s Note: This review is not about Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising; it’s about the audiobook edition of that 1986 book. For an in-depth look at one of the 1980s’ runaway best-selling novels, you can read my review here: Book Review: Red Storm Rising.

In the summer of 1986 – 34 years ago to the day – New York-based G.P. Putnam’s Sons published Tom Clancy’s second novel, Red Storm Rising. Co-written with former U.S. Navy officer and wargame creator Larry Bond – who later went on to write novels, including Red Phoenix and Vortex – Red Storm Rising is a spellbinding look at what a conventional Third World War – and especially a Third Battle of the Atlantic – might have been like with modern, i.e. mid- to late-Eighties, military weapons and technology.

The original hardcover edition.(C) 1986 Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Larry Bond

Like Clancy’s unexpected debut novel The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising came at a pivotal time in world history. Ronald Reagan was in his fifth year as President of the United States, and the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union still seemed like it would either be a perpetual geopolitical conflict with no end in sight or – eventually – come to a boiling point and end in a Third World War and nuclear annihilation.

Reagan was elected in 1980 for a variety of reasons, one of which was his promise to restore America’s military to either deter Soviet aggression – a real fear to many people in  the West, who weren’t aware of the decline of the Soviet Empire and only saw the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the public displays of Red Army hardware at the annual military parades in Moscow’s Red Square – or fight (and win) a World War III “toe-to-toe with the Russkies.”[1]    The American armed forces – especially the Army – had been badly affected by the post-Vietnam War cutbacks on defense spending and problems with low morale, racial tensions, and indiscipline in the ranks. Reagan, in his first campaign for the White House, pledged to change that.

Screenshot from Cold Waters, a computer game inspired by Red Storm Rising. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

“He constantly taps the current world situation for its imminent dangers and spins them into an engrossing tale.” – The New York Times Book Review (1986)

The Hunt for Red October and – especially – Red Storm Rising were influential novels in the Cold War zeitgeist because – unlike many of the popular “action-adventure” novels with Cold War settings – they presented the U.S. military and intelligence communities in a more positive light. Clancy’s novels, particularly the early ones published between 1984 and 1991, were meticulously researched and plotted, even though Clancy – an Irish-American Roman Catholic and lifelong Republican – injected a lot of his conservative world view into his books, especially his popular Jack Ryan series. [2]

Red Storm Rising, therefore, was a huge success when it first hit bookstores in August of 1986, and it was – along with Clear and Present Danger ­– one of the decade’s biggest-selling books. So much so, in fact, that the hardcover edition remained in print well into the late 1990s.[3]

The Audiobook: Abridged…or Unabridged?

Starting in the mid-l980s when Sony Walkman portable cassette players with lightweight headsets took off and everyone and his cousin had one – or seemingly so – the audiobook also became a “thing.”  It was a popular medium by the time I started college in January of 1985; I remember walking into either B. Dalton’s or Waldenbooks and checking out the latest titles on audio.  

Back then, though, most audiobooks – including the first one based on Red Storm Rising – were abridged versions rather than complete editions. Audiotape – like its cousin videotape – has several drawbacks as a storage medium, the biggest one being running time.

For instance, Red Storm Rising, even without minutiae such as the Author’s Note, copyright page, and the Acknowledgment page, has a running time of just over 31 hours. That requires at least 31 one-hour-long cassettes. Such a box set, while not unheard of even in the mid-Eighties (I used to see the box sets for the unabridged BBC Radio readings of The Lord of the Rings whenever I visited Waldenbooks, which In those pre-Amazon days I did quite frequently, but they cost $150) would be prohibitively expensive and unwieldy.

Back in the old audiocassette days of the 1980s and ‘90s, I owned a modest collection of books on tape, including Red Storm Rising and Red Phoenix. They were abridged, of course, but they often featured professional actors that read them – I had two Star Trek novels that featured James Doohan (Mr. Scott) and George Takei (Mr. Sulu) as readers. Most usually featured at least a main title theme or musical transitions, and a few even had a few sound effects added for dramatic effect.

I owned – and listened to – Red Storm Rising’s abridged audiobook, which was read by F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) and had its own musical score and (limited) sound effects. It was, of course, restructured to fit in two cassettes, so to me, the effect was a cross between listening to an audio-drama based on a one-man play and reading a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books edition of Clancy’s novel.

Had I not owned and read the print edition I might have been satisfied with the original audiobook of Red Storm Rising. I bought the audiobook knowing that it was abridged because the long bus rides from my house to Miami-Dade Community College and back were usually mind-numbingly dull and tiring, so listening to music or a book-on-tape on my Walkman was preferable to nothing at all.

Now, of course, advances in audio technology have made it possible for publishers to release unabridged editions of books either on compact disc – a format that is slowly but surely being phased out – or as digital files.

Bolinda Audio’s ‘Red Storm Rising’

(C) 2013 Bolinda Audio. Red Storm Rising (C) 1986 Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Larry Bond

In 2013, Australia’s Bolinda Audio released Red Storm Rising in an unabridged edition on two MP3-ready compact discs. This CD format allows users to transfer the files onto an iPod or similar digital device quickly and easily, as well as a home or car CD player, provided that it’s MP3-compatible.

When Moslem fundamentalists blow a key Soviet oil complex, making an already critical oil shortage calamitous, the Russians figure they are going to have to take things into their own hands. They plan to seize the Persian Gulf, and more ambitiously, to neutralize NATO.

Thus begins Red Storm, an audacious gamble that uses diplomatic maneuvers to cloak a crash military build-up. When Soviet tanks begin to roll, the West is caught off guard. What looks like a thrust turns into an all-out shooting war, possibly the climactic battle for control of the globe. – Audiobook back cover blurb, Red Storm Rising (Bolinda Audio edition)

Michael Pritchard. Photo Credit: Pacific Resident Theater

This unabridged reading of Clancy’s novel is performed by Michael Pritchard and is almost identical to Amazon Audible’s digital-only version. Here, Bolinda Audio omits several non-plot related sections from the print edition, including the Author’s Note that explains how Clancy and Larry Bond met and decided to join forces to write the novel, and the Acknowledgments page in which Clancy thanks various individuals – including the officers and crew of the Perry-class frigate USS Gallery (which the author mentions solely by her pennant number – FFG-26.

A port bow view of the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigate USS GALLERY (FFG 26) underway off the coast of Maine. US Navy Photo

Aside from these minor divergences from both the 1986 print edition and the Audible digital version – which does include the Author’s Note – the MP3 CD edition is a nicely-done reading of one of Clancy’s best early works.

Michael Pritchard first trained as a singer – he has a pleasant and sonorous voice from that – but although he has done some acting in live regional theater, his forte is reading audiobooks, and he has won severable industry awards for it, including the Audie Award for best history book narration in 2010.

Although Pritchard’s reading of Red Storm Rising is not as dramatic as F. Murray Abraham’s – his presentation of character voices is not as hammy as the Oscar-winning actor’s, for instance, it is solid and confident, much like Clancy (and to some extent, Bond’s) writing. Like any experienced actor and audiobook reader, Pritchard delivers the material in a pleasant, I’m-just-telling-a-story tone, avoiding overdoing the drama unless he’s doing dialogue,

Here, Pritchard is at his best. You can tell when he is the omniscient narrator standing in for Tom Clancy, and when he is delivering “the lines” spoken by Red Storm Rising’s multinational and predominantly male cast of characters. (I have not yet reached any parts when Major Amy “Buns” Nakamura, USAF appears, so it’ll be interesting how he “reads” her in the audiobook.)

Red Storm Rising probably will never be adapted into a film or miniseries; there was no Third World War in the late 1980s after all, and even if it were presented as an alternate history tale, it’s too massive and complicated to adapt into a dramatized version. It might work well as a radio drama, but such a project isn’t likely to be made, either.

Though the game Cold Waters is not directly based on Clancy’s 1986 book, its designers were inspired by MicroProse’s 1988 Red Storm Rising. In Quick Missions, players can even set up single missions that replicate scenes from the novel. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

The next best thing to a Red Storm Rising film, of course, is a good audiobook, especially an unabridged edition. And luckily, there are two: the Amazon Audible version, which I added to my Kindle edition purchase recently, and this Bolinda Audio edition on CD.

[1] One of my favorite lines from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

[2] Red Storm Rising is, along with SSN, one of the two major “Tom Clancy” novels that are not set in the late author’s long-running “Ryanverse.” Before his death of heart failure in November of 2013, Clancy wrote or co-wrote 14 novels that featured John Patrick Ryan, Sr either as a main character, a supporting character or as an off-screen presence (Rainbow Six and The Teeth of the Tiger are examples of the latter). Putnam, in an arrangement with Clancy’s estate, continues publishing “Tom Clancy” novels set in the Ryanverse that are written by other writers, including his last two co-authors, Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney.    

[3] A boon for me, because I literally wore out two hardcovers and three paperback copies because I re-read them so often! I’m not careless or rough with my books, but I think I often fell asleep in bed reading, and the book would often fall off the bed or I’d sleepily just leave it open and facing down next to me, which put a lot of stress on the spine. My late 1990s edition is in better condition, although the dust jacket shows a bit of wear and tear if you examine it too closely.

Adventures in Screenwriting: Mom Would Have Been Proud

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Mom Would Have Been Proud

Way back in the late Seventies – circa early in 1978 – I told my mom, “You know what? Someday I’m gonna write a movie. I wanna write one, anyway.”

I had just seen Star Wars during one of the three times that I watched it over its long run (May 1977-July 1978), and I was fascinated by the notion that before George Lucas ever said “Action!’ to his cast and crew in 1976…even before Ralph McQuarrie created his first production paintings…Star Wars had existed only as words on paper.

At the age of 15, I knew that acting wasn’t my cup of moviemaking tea. And I don’t have the temperament for managing large groups of people or instructing actors on how to perform their roles.

I did love writing, though. I’ve had a love affair with the written word since before I first kissed a girl. I was reading before I was four years old; I kissed my first girlfriend – on the lips, at that! – at the age of nine. I started writing stories to amuse myself and impress my teachers not long after I learned the joys of kissing…but I was reading way before then.

The author and his mother at a beach in Marco Island, circa 1964.

Anyway, back to my conversation with Mom….

Mom and I were sitting in the kitchen of our then new townhouse; Mom was smoking a Pall Mall Gold as she had her morning cup of coffee, and I was having my usual breakfast: scrambled eggs and toast that I had made myself, and a cup of coffee that Mom had brewed for me.

When I said, “You know what? Someday I’m gonna write a movie. I wanna write one, anyway,” my mother smiled at me. Not condescendingly, not mockingly. Rather, it was a wistful little smile.

“You can do it if you set your mind to it, mijito. And I will be proud of you because I know you will do your best.”

Fast forward 31 years….

My friend Juan Carlos Hernandez. (Note the photos of my late mother, who knew Juan when we were both in high school.)

In 2009. I co-wrote, with my friend and colleague Juan Carlos Hernandez, a script that we called After the Ball. It was an odd mix of comedy and horror that Juan tried to get financing for but couldn’t get anybody to invest in. I was, predictably, disappointed.

But Mom, whose health was about to go badly south not long afterward, said, “There’ll be other scripts. Just keep at it.”

I then started on another collaboration with Juan -a script called Gym Rats.  But Mom then got really sick in March of 2010. Caregiving duties and stress didn’t mix well with screenwriting, so I had to tell Juan, “Sorry, man, but I can’t help you with Gym Rats. Mom got sick, so…”

Fast forward to 2020…..

Mom died in July of 2015. My life was chaotic with the aftermath, including a nasty – but predictable – legal squabble with my half-sister over Mom’s modest estate, an unplanned move out of Miami, and other issues. Then, out of the blue, my friend Juan asked me to write a short screenplay for the production company  he founded with his wife Adria.

“I need a two-minutes-long short. It can be about anything.”

I tried my best to write a two-minutes-long film (two pages of screenplay). Ended up with a nearly four-minutes long film instead. No problem. Juan and Adria still shot it. A Simple Ad, we call it.

A Simple Ad (2019)

Next, Juan asked me for a comedy script. I tried to write one. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good, either. I had to try again.

In the meantime, Juan worked on a script of his own. He wanted me to contribute to it, so I wrote a no-dialogue sequence that ended up being the second “act” of Clown 345.

Clown 345 (2019)

Finally, after weeks of grappling with the “comedy script” I called Happy Days Are Here Again, I sent Juan several drafts. That script was better than my first attempt at comedy. Everyone worked on it in two different states of the Union: Juan, Adria, and their son Anthony in New York. Me in Florida. It took a while, but it got made. Revised, reworked, and renamed, it now lives as  Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss.

Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss (2020)

Officially, that makes three official writing or co-writing credits that I’ve earned since 2019. Three produced short films that can be seen – gratis – on YouTube.

I’d like to think that my mother would have liked the finished films. As someone who knew her well, I can say with 90% certainty that of the three, she would have enjoyed Ronnie the most. She would have liked the others as well, but as someone who loved All in the Family – the sitcom that most influenced my first draft – Mom would have found Guillermo, Ronnie, and Jerry’s story highly entertaining, and she would have appreciated the social commentary beneath the humorous situations.

And best of all, she would have been proud of my work as a screenwriter.

My Internet Movie Database page can be found here: Alex Diaz-Granados at IMDb.com

Movie Review: ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Directed by: John McTiernan

Written by: Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stuart, John Milius (uncredited), David Shaber (uncredited)

Based on: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Fred Dalton Thompson, Larry Ferguson, Daniel Davis, Jeffrey Jones, Gates McFadden

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On March 2, 1990, Paramount Pictures released The Hunt for Red October, a submarine-espionage thriller film by John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard). Based on the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy and featuring a stellar cast that includes Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, Sean Connery as Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy, and Scott Glenn as Commander Bart Mancuso, USN, The Hunt for Red October is the first theatrical film in the Jack Ryan series.

Written by Larry Ferguson – who plays Chief of the Boat Thompson – and Donald E. Stewart (with additional material by an uncredited John Milius and David Shaber), The Hunt for Red October is set in November 1984, shortly before the death of the ailing Soviet Premier Konstantin Chernenko and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Kremlin. Per the pre-main title prologue, we are told that at that time, a Soviet Typhoon-class missile submarine suffered a catastrophic reactor failure and sank off the Grand Banks. Most of the crew was rescued. However, “according to statements by both the American and Soviet governments, none of what you are about to see…ever happened.

The prologue then takes us to a fjord in the Kola Peninsula near the Soviet Navy’s base at Polyarnny, near the Soviet Union’s large port city of Murmansk in the Arctic Circle. There, on the conning tower of the nuclear-powered ballistic submarine, Red October, Captain First Rank Marko Alexandrovich Ramius  (Connery) and his first officer, Captain Vasili Borodin (Sam Neill) take a last look at their homeland before taking their “boomer” out to sea on her maiden voyage and a scheduled fleet exercise with an Alfa-class submarine, the Konovalov.

 The two men – in one of the few scenes in which Soviet characters speak Russian – exchange a few words. Ramius observes that the land they are leaving is “Cold…and hard.” After a meaningful pause, Borodin cryptically says, “It’s time, Captain.” Ramius replies, “Time indeed,” then the camera pulls back in a dramatic reveal of the Red October – which in reality was a near-full scale mockup of a Typhoon-class boomer built to show the sub above the waterline – as it heads out of Polyarnny Inlet out to sea as the “Hymn to Red October” by composer Basil Poledouris plays triumphantly and the film’s main titles begin.

As in McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster film Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October introduces its American protagonist, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Baldwin) in a montage that defines his character. In this sequence, we are shown details that we need to know: he reads Proceedings, the Naval Institute Press magazine about navies and naval power, as well as Jane’s Fighting Ships; he is an expert on the Red Navy; he is studying the Typhoon-class sub (we see a computer schematic on his laptop before Ryan closes its lid and packs it away); and he is on assignment in London and lives there with wife Carolyn (Gates McFadden in a brief cameo) and daughter Sally (Louise Borras).

And, as a brief scene set aboard a Washington, DC-bound British Airways jet shows, Ryan doesn’t like flying:

Flight Attendant: You know, if you do try and get some sleep, the flight will go a lot faster.

Jack Ryan: I can never sleep on a plane. Turbulence.

Flight Attendant: Pardon?

Jack Ryan: Turbulence. Solar radiation heats the Earth’s crust, warm air rises, cold air descends – turbulence. I, I don’t like that.

Flight Attendant: Oh. Well, try to get some sleep anyway.

Ryan’s immediate superior at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley headquarters, Deputy Director (Intelligence) Adm. James Greer (James Earl Jones) knows all about Ryan’s phobia of flying; he refers to it obliquely when Ryan arrives in Greer’s seventh-floor office when he asks, “What’s so important to get you on a plane in the middle of the night?

Ryan takes a sheaf of photographs out of his CIA-issued briefcase and shows them to the Admiral, who examines them with a magnifying glass. They are covertly-taken black-and-white snapshots of Red October, presumably taken by a CIA asset in the Soviet shipyard where Red October was built. Greer notes that the sub is a “big son of a bitch,” and Ryan agrees, adding that “she’s 12 meters longer than the standard Typhoon, and two meters wider.”

When Greer notices a modification to the new sub – two sets of  paired “doors” at the bow and stern – he asks Ryan what they are. Ryan, who Clancy envisioned as a man who isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind and says the truth as he sees it, says, “Those doors, sir, are the problem. I don’t know what they are. And neither do the British. Perhaps our friends in Murmansk have come up with something new.”

Ryan isn’t sure what that “something new” may be, but he knows someone who is – his friend Oliver Wendell “Skip” Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), a former submariner whose career in the Navy ended when a drunk driver clipped his car and caused Tyler to lose a leg. Now he teaches engineering at the Naval Academy and does consulting for the Navy’s sub development labs and has high security clearances: “Top Secret or better,” Ryan says.

Greer gives Ryan permission to show the photos to Tyler, who is currently at a nearby shipyard working on a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle  (DSRV) or “rescue sub.” In his office. Tyler examines the photos and quickly identifies Red October’s new innovation:

Skip Tyler: [Looking at photos of Red October which show the doors in the front and back of the sub] I’ll be… This might be a caterpillar.

Jack Ryan: A what?

Skip Tyler: A caterpillar drive. Magneto hydrodynamic propulsion. You follow?

Jack Ryan: No.

Skip Tyler: It’s like… a jet engine for the water. Goes in the front, gets squirted out the back. Only it has no moving parts so it’s very, very quiet.

Jack Ryan: Like how quiet?

Skip Tyler: Doubt our sonar would even pick it up. If it did, it would sound like… whales humping or some kind of seismic anomaly. Anything but a submarine. We messed with this a few years ago. Couldn’t make it work. This… this isn’t a mockup.

Jack Ryan: She was put to sea this morning.

Skip Tyler: When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Well, this thing could park a couple of hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it till it was all over.

McTiernan intercuts the initial stages of Ryan’s research into Red October with scenes set aboard the titular submarine. After Red October sets out to see and is safely cruising underwater, Ramius sets the plot of the story in motion by murdering the submarine’s Zampolit (Political Officer) Ivan Putin (Peter Firth) and destroying the submarine’s official orders and replacing with false ones that Ramius will read to his crew, most of which are oblivious to Ramius’ true intent: to take the Red October on a course far away from the Soviet Union – and defect to the West.

As in Clancy’s novel, McTiernan’s film then becomes a race between the U.S. and Soviet governments to be the first to find the new stealthy missile sub that is racing west across the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The Soviets know what Ramius is doing – before leaving port, the half-Russian, half-Lithuanian submarine captain sends a letter to his late wife’s uncle, Admiral Yuri Padorin (Peter Zinner) in which Ramius states his intention to defect, along with a handful of like-minded officers who are disillusioned with Communism and the Soviet state.

However, most of the American national security officials privy to the new crisis do not, and it is up to Jack Ryan to find out what Ramius is doing, and how to get to Red October before the bulk of the Soviet fleet finds her…and sinks her.

Theatrical release poster. (C) 1990 Paramount Pictures

My Take

I first read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in the spring of 1986 when I was a 23-year-old college sophomore at Miami-Dade Community College’s South Campus (now the Kendall Campus of Miami-Dade College).[1]  It took me a while to get into Clancy’s writing style, but eventually I was caught up in what eventually became the first of the ongoing Jack Ryan series of novels penned by the late author and other writers – including Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney, both of whom co-wrote the last three books Clancy completed before his death in November of 2013 – and became a fan of his books.

When I finished reading The Hunt for Red October for the first time – it’s one of the few books that I re-read at least once every few years – I asked myself two questions:

  • Will there be a movie version?
  • If there is a movie version, how can it possibly be done right?

Clearly, I wasn’t the only person who pondered this. As is often the case when a book comes out of – seemingly – nowhere and becomes a bestseller (helped in no way by a public endorsement from President Ronald Reagan, who answered a reporter’s question by calling Hunt “the perfect yarn”), movie studio execs read it to see if it could be adapted – and concluded that although Clancy’s story was exciting and had dramatic potential, it was too large and complex to film within a reasonable budget.

Producer Mace Neufeld disagreed. A film business veteran since the 1950s – he started out as a talent agent for Don Knotts and other notables before moving on to producing movies and TV shows in the 1970s – Neufeld had read galley proofs of the novel and, with his business partner Robert Rehme, bought the film rights from Clancy, as well as the rights to future books by the “master of the techno-thriller.”

Though the script had to dispense with many of the novel’s details and excised huge sections of the story – including the crucial role played by the Royal Navy and any depictions on screen of the Soviet surface fleet (the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s massive deployment is mentioned in dialogue and on US Navy ships’ computer display graphics, but we never see it at sea) – it is faithful to the spirit of Tom Clancy’s book, if not precisely the letter.

The screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (with uncredited contributions by John Milius and David Shaber) is taut and fast-paced, and in a few scenes, it incorporates either lines from the source novel or Clancy’s cadences for Jack Ryan’s speaking style.

The movie features exciting action and nail-biting tension throughout, even though the underwater scenes look a bit murky on TV screens. The pacing is as good as can be expected from the director of Predator and two Die Hard films, and Basil Pouledoris’ Russian-flavored score is fittingly exciting.

But pacing, effects, and musical scores are worthless if the actors don’t perform well. Happily, The Hunt for Red October is enhanced by great performances by Baldwin and Connery, whose chemistry in their scenes together evokes the Ryan-Ramius relationship in Clancy’s book, making this the best of the five films set in the “Ryanverse.”

It’s also worth noting that three of the actors – Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, and James Earl Jones had served in the armed forces before becoming actors – and that many of the extras in The Hunt for Red October were active duty Navy sailors and officers. Glenn, who plays USS Dallas skipper Bart Mancuso, was allowed to sail aboard a Los Angeles-class sub – USS Salt Lake City – shadowing Capt. Thomas Fargo as he went about his daily routine as commanding officer. Fargo ordered his crew to treat Glenn as though he was the captain, and only asked the actor (a former Marine) to excuse himself when Fargo received classified comms from the Fleet.

This adds a sense of realism to the movie that prior military films of the era lack. It also ties Hunt to its source novel, which was so true to life that Clancy was once asked if he had access to top secret data. (The former insurance agency owner explained that he did his research from open source information available in reference books such as Jane’s Fighting Ships and conversations with nuclear plant engineers, many of whom had served in U.S. Navy nuclear-powered subs and carriers before entering civilian life.

Had screenwriters Ferguson and Stewart even attempted to be as slavishly faithful to Clancy’s novel, it is unlikely that producer Neufeld would have been able to get Paramount Pictures to undertake such a massive production.

To depict the hunt for a defecting Typhoon-class submarine as in the book with late 1980s tech would have required expensive miniature effects sequences, for what makes Clancy’s novel so exciting is the ensuing face-off between most of the Soviet Navy and a large fraction of the U.S. Navy. Could it have been done? Perhaps…but it would have cost almost as much as Titanic a few years later: well over $200 million.

Left out of the screenplay were passing references to Patriot Games, which in the chronology of the books is a prequel to The Hunt for Red October, as well as a secondary storyline (what TV writers would call a B story) involving an American spy working for the Soviets. Clancy readers know that this storyline will be developed in two other novels. However, in order to make this movie move smoothly, many scenes and characters were excised.

In spite of these compromises –  or perhaps because of them – director John McTiernan  tells a gripping action adventure piece that is also cerebral. Connery’s Ramius is strikingly similar to the one in the novel.

Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan also comes close to his literary alter-ego, and one wonders how the franchise would have fared had he not been replaced by Harrison Ford for two films and Ben Affleck in one, and Chris Pine in yet another movie. Even the sea chase (now pared down to one Alfa-class submarine and a Bear Foxtrot anti-sub warfare patrol plane for the Soviets, and one Los Angeles-class nuclear attack sub and one Perry-class frigate for the U.S. Navy’s onscreen force) makes this movie worth watching.

The Hunt for Red October is not the perfect adaptation of a Clancy novel. In several interviews before his death, the author often griped that Hollywood never got the details right enough to his satisfaction. Hunt was a disappointment to Clancy, not because it had to pare down the plot to tell the story in a two-hours-long running time, but because it had factual errors real submariners would spot easily.

Still, it is a good action-adventure that portrays the Navy and the CIA in a positive light – a rarity for a Hollywood production of the late Eighties – and has a great script, cast, and a talented director at the helm. It’s one of my favorite movies, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly recommend it.

[1] See my review of Red Storm Rising.

Thoughts & Musings for August 4, 2020

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

Hello, there, Dear Reader. It’s late afternoon here in my small corner of Florida, and on this fourth day of August, it is a hot one, at that. Right now, it’s 92˚F (33˚C) under mostly sunny skies; with humidity at 62% and a 9 MPH breeze blowing from the northwest, the feels-like temperature is 105˚F (41˚C). In my old life – the one I led before my mother’s death changed everything – I used to go out for walks in the late afternoon or early evening, and on hot days like today, I would put my swimming trunks on and go to one of our condominium association’s two pools and either swim or lie on a deck chair and read a book while catching a few rays of sunshine. Ah, those were the days, especially in those less stressful years before my mother’s final illness manifested itself a little over a decade ago.

I didn’t accomplish anything today; I had every intention of sitting at my desk to write another book review, but I did not. I had a couple of titles in mind – Larry Bond’s Vortex (1991, Little, Brown) was one of them – but my heart wasn’t in it. Every time I sat at down at my desk to start writing on Word, I’d just stare at my screen and think, Man, I really don’t want to do this right now.

Photo Credit: Amazon Audible

Instead, I spent much of this Tuesday either playing Cold Waters or trying to access my ebook copy of Red Storm Rising on my smartphone’s Amazon Kindle app, but to no avail. Tom Clancy’s World War III novel is in my Kindle library, and I did have it delivered to my phone, my PC, and my Amazon Fire HD tablet. It opens just fine on those two devices, but not on my phone. That’s strange, because all of the other books I’ve downloaded to my phone’s Kindle app open when I access them.

No biggie, I suppose. I can access it on the tablet just fine, as well as the audiobook edition; I just wanted to see if I could read Red Storm Rising from my phone in situations where I don’t have my Fire HD handy.

I used to have the abridged audiobook of Red Storm Rising on audio cassette tape when I was studying journalism at Miami-Dade Community College back in the late 1980s. It was read by F. Murray Abraham, who was famous at the time for his Oscar-winning performance as Antonio Salieri in Milos Forman’s Amadeus. It was all right, I suppose; Abraham did a nice job of giving each character at least the illusion of a distinctive voice or accent. Thus, the Russian characters sounded vaguely Slavic, and Abraham also captured the no-nonsense, almost laconic way that U.S. military personnel talk, especially aboard U.S. Navy warships in combat situations.

But the audiobook was abridged, and back in the days when tape was still the most available format, “complete editions” of audiobooks were hard to find and cost even more than a hardcover did. So as much as I liked Abraham’s reading for Red Storm Rising, I never enjoyed it as much as I did the print edition.

Now I have it as a digital audiobook that I can access from my tablet and – at least when it’s my turn to be online – my PC. My phone? Not so much. I can’t access the Kindle print edition, much less the Audible one.

I love technology. But sometimes it drives me up the wall. Know what I mean?

I love the graphics in Cold Waters. This is a real screen grab from an actual session; a rare periscope view of an enemy vessel exploding as a result of a torpedo hit. (Game elements and graphics (C) 2017 Killerfish Games.)

Book Review: ‘Red Storm Rising’

Jacket design (C) 1986 by Leonard Ratzkin. (C) 1986 by Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. & Larry Bond

On August 7, 1986, G.P. Putnam’s Sons published Red Storm Rising, a novel by Tom Clancy. Set sometime in the late 1980s – Clancy and his uncredited author Larry Bond never specifically mention a year in the text – Red Storm Rising is a military thriller that, as in The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s debut novel, focuses on the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the last years of the Cold War.

But where The Hunt for Red October was a novel that concerned itself with a story that blended a traditional “keeping the balance of power stable” plot that was a staple of Cold War fiction and elements of C.S. Forester’s novels with naval themes a la The Good Shepherd and The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck, Red Storm Rising is a more ambitious project: a full-on “Cold War-turns-hot” novel depicting a Third World War, complete with battles in the air, land, sea, and even in low-Earth orbit.

Author Tom Clancy. (Photo Credit: http://www.tomclancy.com)

Red Storm Rising begins on a cold winter night in western Siberia as three Azerbaijani Islamic radicals – Ibrahim Tolkaze, a Soviet-trained oil field engineer, and his two associates, Rasul and Mohammet – set out on a deadly mission. Its goal: to destroy the refinery near the city of Nizhnevartovsk by sabotaging large sections of the pipelines and infiltrating the main control center to kill anyone capable of reversing or minimizing the damage from the terrorists’ efforts.  Tolkaze and his friends are motivated by religious fervor and longstanding resentment toward their Russian overlords’ overt acts of racism and the USSR’s official imposition of atheism over Azerbaijan’s Islamic majority.

The radicals’ mission is a complete success, even though they are killed by a KGB quick reaction force summoned by frantic calls from several of the doomed oil facility engineers before they are executed by the three terrorists. As Tolkaze manages to shout a defiant cry of “Allahu Akbar!”before a KGB soldier cuts him down with a burst from his Kalashnikov assault rifle, much of the Nizhnevartovsk refinery goes up in a hell-storm of fire and smoke.

When Energy Minister Mikhail Sergetov, a junior (non-voting) member of the Communist Party’s Politburo returns to the Kremlin in Moscow after surveying the damage, he shocks his colleagues with his preliminary report. The refinery not only was infiltrated and almost totally destroyed by an insider attack –  made possible by a Moscow edict to assign oil workers from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to Siberia (a policy that Sergetov had objected to when it was originally proposed) – but its loss will result in a 33% reduction in the Soviet Union’s oil supply.

Sergetov, a “young” technocrat in his fifties, is a loyal Party member, but he is also a professionally-trained engineer and tells his fellow members of the Politburo the truth as he sees it. Yes, he says, the Nizhnevartovsk disaster is a serious blow to the nation’s economy, which is presently already laboring under the weight of inefficient policies and existing fuel shortages. With the temporary loss of the sabotaged refinery, there simply isn’t enough oil, gasoline, and aviation fuel to meet the demands of both the civilian economy and the massive Soviet military, particularly its large conventional ground forces, air forces, and navy.

But, Sergetov adds optimistically, if the Kremlin cuts fuel expenditures by the military and reaches out to the West, particularly the United States and Western Europe to buy the hardware needed to repair the damage in the Siberian facility while increasing production in other Soviet oil industry facilities, the oil shortage will be painful in the short run, but it can be dealt with.

However, most of the voting members in the Politburo, especially the unnamed Defense Minister and Boris Kosov, head of the KGB, argue that admitting to the West – the Soviet Union’s capitalist adversaries – that they need help of any sort is an admission of weakness. As the Defense Minister – a hardliner – remarks after Sergetov suggests asking for Western aid:

“Then I will tell you why this situation is unacceptable. If we do as you suggest, the West will learn of our crisis. Increased purchases of oil production equipment and unconcealable signs of activity at Nizhnevartovsk will demonstrate to them all too clearly what is happening here. That will make us vulnerable in their eyes. Such vulnerability will be exploited. And, at the same time” – he pounded his fist on the table – “you propose reducing the fuel available to the forces who defend us against the West?

Sergetov tries to use reason to convince the senior members of the Politburo to seek help from America and her NATO allies. He tells his vociferous inquisitor, “Comrade Defense Minister, I am an engineer, not a soldier. You asked me for a technical evaluation, and I gave it.” Sergetov kept his voice reasonable. “This situation is very serious, but it does not, for example, affect our Strategic Rocket Forces. Cannot they alone shield us against the Imperialists during our recovery period?” Why else had they been built? Sergetov asked himself. All that money sunk into unproductive holes. Wasn’t it enough to kill the West ten times over? Why twenty times? And now this wasn’t enough?

“And it has not occurred to you that the West will not allow us to purchase what we need?” the Party theoretician asked.

“When have the capitalists refused to sell us –“

“When have the capitalists had such a weapon to use against us?” the General Secretary observed. “For the first time, the West has the ability to strangle us in a single year. What if now they also prevent our purchase of grain?”

In the novel’s second chapter, Odd Man In, Clancy creates a portrait of the inefficient Soviet system’s weaknesses, especially its overreliance on planned economic goals – Sergetov notes that the grain harvests in the USSR have failed to meet the state quotas for the past seven years in an 11-year time span. Combined with lower-than-normal harvests in Argentina and Australia, two of the USSR’s main foreign sources of wheat and other consumable grains, as well as the potential of difficulties in purchasing grain from the U.S. and Canada, the fearful old men of the Communist Party see a nightmare scenario of a Soviet populace deprived of electricity, the means of production, and even food.

“If We Cannot Buy Oil, We Must Take It…”

688-class fast attack subs figure prominently in Red Storm Rising. (Screenshot from the Red Storm Rising-inspired computer game Cold Waters. Game elements (C) 2017 Killerfish Games.)

Unwilling to see reason, the hardliners make a decision born out of a combination of fear and the desire to hold on to power over the vast population of the Soviet empire. Why buy oil from a possibly unwilling West when there are vast reserves in the Persian Gulf region, which is within comfortable striking range of the Soviet armed forces? A lightning campaign featuring airborne drops on the oil production regions of Iran and Iraq, supported by a combined arms force of ground troops and tactical aviation, will provide the Soviet Union with the petroleum supplies it needs.

But before the Soviets move in the Middle East, they must neutralize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and prevent it from reacting militarily. Aided by analyses from Chairman Kosov’s KGB and the military intelligence agency, the GRU, the Politburo decides to use every means necessary to divide NATO politically and lull it into a false sense of security before the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact invade West Germany.

Over the next four months, the Soviet leadership carries out a series of deceptions – maskirovkas – to distract attention from the preparations for Operation Red Storm, the invasion of West Germany. These include:

  • The public announcement by the Soviets of a new disarmament treaty with the West that includes the unilateral scrapping of entire classes of obsolete Red Navy submarines
  • Soviet TV airs a series of movies by Sergei Eisenstein, including Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky to arouse feelings of nationalism and patriotic fervor in the USSR prior to the start of hostilities
  • A KGB team’s “false flag” bombing of a building in the Council of Ministers section of the Kremlin that is timed to coincide with a visit by schoolchildren from the city of Pskov. Seven children are killed, as well as a few minor Party officials. A KGB agent, posing as a West German sleeper agent named “Gerhardt Falken,” is publicly accused
  • The Kremlin, in an attempt to justify the military invasion of West Germany, accuses the Bonn government and German “revanchists” of the Kremlin Bomb Plot and demands reparations
  • Prior to the opening of Red Storm, Spetsnaz operatives infiltrate West Germany and prepare to strike at various NATO installations. However, one team is accidentally exposed when its leader is hit by a car and his identity as a Soviet officer is discovered before the Spetsnaz strike team reaches its target
The modern cover art for the paperback edition. (C) 1987 Berkeley Books/Penguin Random House

Although U.S. satellites monitored the explosion and fires at Nizhnevartovsk in real time, American and allied intelligence agencies are oblivious to the economic fallout of the disaster, in part due to Soviet attempts to disseminate false information about the incident and thus hide the Soviet Union’s poor economic situation. As a result, American intelligence professionals such as National Security Agency analyst Bob Toland – who is also a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve – and Marine Corps Colonel Charles “Chuck” Lowe, who Toland meets in the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk (Virginia)  during his annual “two-weeks” summer stint in uniform as a fleet intelligence officer.

Like Clancy’s best-known character, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, Toland is a keen observer of trends and patterns in an adversary, and it is he, along with his Marine counterpart, who first notices unusual actions by the Soviets, such as a sudden shortage of batteries for cars, trucks, and other vehicles in the Soviet civilian economy – even though the country’s main manufacturer is working overtime. Simultaneously, most of the Red Navy’s submarine fleet is called in to its bases for overhauls and replenishment of arms and fuel.

 As a result of NATO’s discovery of the Soviets’ planned Spetsnaz operations in West Germany and other Soviet preparations for war, including field exercises that are actually cover for the massive buildup of Warsaw Pact units on the eastern side of the Inter-German Border, the Western alliance not only mobilizes its armed forces, but gets in the first blows by using Stealth fighters (the fictional F-19 Ghostriders, not the F-117A Nighthawks that had not yet been made public by the Pentagon) to shoot down Soviet airborne early warning and control (AEWC) planes and bomb badly-needed bridges over the River Elbe to slow down the invasion NATO now knows is coming.

In the midst of the new Third World War, we meet a cast of characters that are both complex and well-developed – on both sides – that made Red Storm Rising one of the biggest best-sellers of the Eighties, including:

  • Pavel Leonidovich Alekseyev: Deputy Commander of the Southwest Front and then Commander in Chief-Western Theater, one of the planners of Red Storm who develops serious doubts about the war and his own government
  • Lt. Commander Daniel X. McCafferty, USN: Commanding officer of the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Chicago and, along with Ed Morris, one of Bob Toland’s friends from Toland’s brief career as an active Navy officer
  • Colonel Douglas “Duke” Ellington: U.S. Air Force pilot and commander of the F-19 Stealth squadron
  • Ivan Mikhailovich Sergetov: Captain (later Major) in the Red Army and aide to P.L. Alekseyev; son of Politburo member Mikhail Sergetov
  • Lt. Commander Edward Morris, USN: Commanding officer of USS Pharris and later USS Reuben James, friend of “bubblehead” Danny McCafferty and Bob Toland who sees action in the North Atlantic as part of NATO’s efforts to secure the sea lines of communication between North America and Western Europe
  • 1st Lt. Michael D. Edwards, Jr., USAF: Meteorologist stationed at Keflavik Air Base on Iceland
  • Boris Georgiyevich Kosov:  Shady Chairman of the KGB who plays dangerous power games in the Kremlin
  • Major Amelia “Buns” Nakamura, USAF: F-15C pilot who becomes the first American female fighter ace
  • Marshal Andre Shavyrin: Chief of the Soviet General Staff in Moscow
  • Lt. Commander Jerry “The Hammer” O’Malley, SH-60 Seahawk pilot attached to the Perry-class frigate USS Reuben James
  • Vigdis Agustdottir: Icelandic civilian rescued by Mike Edwards from Soviet paratroopers who murdered her family – including the pet dog – and were attempting to rape her

My Take

Screenshot from MicroProse’s 1988 Red Storm Rising game, which is based loosely on the sub warfare sections of Clancy’s novel. (C) 1988 MicroProse Software, Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Larry Bond.

I was introduced to the books of the late Tom Clancy by Dr. Charles Cox, my American History (Honors) professor at what was then Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus in the spring of 1986. I had  given an oral presentation – my least favorite type of academic work, as I am not comfortable speaking in groups – about the World War II Battle of Midway.  Apparently I made a good impression on the professor, because after class he walked up to me and said, “You seem to like naval history. Have you read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October? It’s a work of fiction, but it’s very well written.”

I had seen the paperback edition for sale at the campus bookstore, even held a copy in my hands and read the blurb, but at the time I wasn’t sure if I would like it and I put it back in its rack. However, if a professor with a Ph.D in history was recommending it….

So, I bought the Berkeley paperback of The Hunt for Red October and read it in my spare time [1]between classes or my hours College Work-Study job at the campus’ student newspaper office. At first, I didn’t think too much of Clancy’s writing style, but once I got into his tale of a defecting Soviet missile sub commander and his theft – aided by like-minded officers with personal grudges against the Communist state – of the Red Navy’s newest and stealthiest “boomer,” I could not put the book down.

Back then in those last years before the Internet, I found out about new books from reviews in the Miami Herald or Time magazine, as well as through monthly Preferred Readers’ Club newsletters. So I probably didn’t go to the nearest Walden Books store at the Miami International Mall when Red Storm Rising came out on August 7, 1986 but sometime afterward, because I distinctly remember reading the review in an issue of Time magazine, which called the novel “harrowing…tense…with a chilling ring of truth.”

I bought the hardcover edition soon after that; I was a fan of the hypothetical war genre, having read General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985 and its sequel, The Third World War: The Untold Story when I was in high school. Back then, too, even though Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting to reform the Soviet state and ease tensions with the West, I worried a great deal about the Cold War turning hot in my lifetime. So I had a somewhat morbid fascination with the possibility of a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, although by the late Eighties – and the end of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency – I was convinced that Gorbachev meant what he said about restructuring the corrupt and cruel Soviet system, and that World War III would be averted.

Looking back on this period of my life nearly 40 years after the fact, I think I must have read Red Storm Rising at least 10 times while I was still in college, and countless times since then. Since 1986, I have owned three hardcover copies; two of those I read so often that they literally fell apart. I bought the copy I have now sometime in the late 1990s; it’s still in good shape because I read Red Storm Rising less frequently and in different formats, including paperback and e-book editions.

For me, the appeal of Red Storm Rising – back then, anyway – was that of all the novels and stories I’d read about a possible “future war” between the Soviets and the West, it doesn’t end with an apocalyptic exchange of thermonuclear weapons at the climax of the conflict. Oh, nuclear weapons are on the backs of everyone’s mind, particularly among the Soviet leadership, but Clancy and Larry Bond – an ex-Naval officer turned wargame designer known for creating the Harpoon series of board and computer games – keep their Third World War strictly conventional.

As Clancy says in his Author’s Note:

“This book began sometime ago. I got to know Larry Bond through an advertisement in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, when I purchased his war game, ‘Harpoon.’ It turned out to be amazingly useful, and served as a primary source for The Hunt for Red October. I was intrigued enough about it that I drove to a wargamers’ convention that summer (1982) to meet him in person, and we ended up becoming close friends[2].”

Red Storm Rising came about when Clancy, whose seminal novel The Hunt for Red October was in its pre-production stage at the Naval Institute Press, which would publish it in hardcover as its first fiction offering. According to Clancy, ”Larry and I started talking about one of his projects: ‘Convoy-84,’ a macrowargame or ‘campaign’ game which, using the ‘Harpoon’ system, would fight out a new Battle of the North Atlantic. I thought this was fascinating and we began talking about building a book around the idea, since, we both agreed, no one outside the Defense Department had ever examined in adequate detail what such a campaign would be like with modern weapons.”

As a result of this focus on a Third Battle of the Atlantic, Red Storm Rising spends a lot of time following the comings and goings of three American Navy officers; a reservist named Robert Toland – one of two American “Everyman” characters in the novel – and his two career Navy friends, submarine commander Danny McCafferty and escort ship skipper Ed Morris.

In the novel, we are told that Toland started out in the Navy as a career man, too, but that a mishap that involved an ambiguity on a navigation chart while he was officer of the deck aboard a destroyer led to a grounding of the ship on a sandbar – and blemished his otherwise sterling record as a Navy officer. Knowing that the incident will prevent him from ever commanding his own ship, Toland left the active duty Navy and joined its Reserve as an intelligence specialist. This billet dovetails nicely with Bob’s full-time job as an analyst – with a specialty on Soviet Navy matters – for the National Security Agency (NSA).

The war gives Toland a means to redeem himself as a naval officer, although he witnesses first hand one of the Soviets’ early victories – a successful attack on a U.S. amphibious force and its covering aircraft carrier battle group by missile-armed Backfire bomber in the North Atlantic. Toland – and thousands of sailors and airmen –survive the Soviet attack that seriously damages the carrier USS Nimitz and causes the postponement of a NATO landing on Iceland, but are reminded that America’s most powerful warships are also the Soviets’ No. 1 targets.

The USS Chicago after a redesign/upgrade refit. Photo Credit: US Navy

Meanwhile, Daniel McCafferty takes his Los Angeles-class fast attack sub, USS Chicago, in harm’s way on several missions in the Norwegian Sea and other waters near the Soviet naval and air bases on the Kola Peninsula. Throughout the conflict, McCafferty and the crew of Chicago experience frustration, fear, and adrenaline highs in a series of clashes with Soviet subs and warships, including an interception of a Soviet amphibious force off the coast of Norway, a hunt for an enemy “boomer bastion,” and a daring cruise missile raid on a Northern Fleet Backfire bomber base utilizing Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs).[3]

Packaging for MicroProse’s 1988 computer simulation. Note that the design evokes Leonard Ratzkin’s original dust jacket design.(C) 1988 MicroProse Software, Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Larry Bond.

As for Ed Morris, Toland’s other buddy from his time in the regular Navy, he is in command of the USS Pharris, a Knox-class frigate that provides escort to convoys carrying troops and materiel to Europe from the East Coast of the U.S.  Like Toland aboard USS Nimitz, Morris finds himself – along with his officers and crew – in the crosshairs of the Soviet Navy and is shaken to the core when his ship is torpedoed and badly damaged by a Soviet submarine during one of those perilous transatlantic crossings. Haunted by the deaths of some of his crew and the near-loss of his frigate, Morris must fight his inner demons when the Navy reassigns him to command a new Perry-class ship, USS Reuben James.

USS Pharris. Photo Credit: US Navy

Although Clancy’s (and Bond’s, too, though he is on record as saying that he only contributed 1% of the novel’s content) sympathies lie with the Americans and NATO – and thus the outcome of the war is not a mystery – Red Storm Rising does not portray the Soviet adversaries as cartoony villains with no redeeming qualities.

For instance, Energy Secretary Mikhail Sergetov, one of the few members of the Politburo who opposes the war, is possibly based, in some level, on Mikhail Gorbachev, as they are both “young” technocrats in their fifties who love their country and believe in Communism, but realize that the Soviet system needs reform and are in favor of true peaceful coexistence with the West.

Some of the senior Soviet commanders are also portrayed sympathetically in Red Storm Rising, particularly Pavel Alekseyev, who helps plan Red Storm despite having strong misgivings about its prospects. Although he starts the war as second-in-command to a general in charge of the “theater” that will invade the Middle East if Red Storm succeeds, he and his superior are reassigned when the Stealth fighter bombers kill Commander in Chief West in the early days of the Red Army’s incursion into West Germany. Once there, Gen. Alekseyev and his aide-de-camp, Ivan Sergetov, find reasons to doubt the Politburo’s wisdom in starting the war – and end up asking themselves if loyalty to the Communist Party is the same as loyalty to the nation…and its people.

Clancy has no love for the Soviet system, and his distaste for Communist Russia shows in the way he describes the bigotry and suppression that Great Russians who are loyal to the Party deal out to the now-defunct Soviet Union’s ethnic and religious minorities. Ibrahim Tolkaze, the Islamic radical whose terrorist act triggers the plot of the novel, is motivated by resentment over how Russians, who were the dominant ethnic group in the USSR, treated Azerbaijanis during the Soviet era, using “Russification” to erase Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage and violently suppressing the mostly-Muslim population’s religious faith. Clancy does not excuse Tolkaze’s methods but uses his brief story arc to illustrate the evils of the Soviet system and the dangers of radicalizing any minority through repressive policies.

That having been said, it’s evident that Clancy admires the resiliency of the Russian character, and some of the book’s most masterful military moves are made by innovative Soviet commanders, including the invasion of Iceland by an airborne division in an operation called Polar Glory. Other Soviet “first moves” are shown as being imaginative in concept, such as the use of Spetsnaz operatives to commit acts of sabotage, but are thwarted by random acts of fate – and not solely by clever Western military or intelligence officers.

Clancy never was as good a prose writer as Stephen King; he tended to write in a style that was workmanlike and straight-to-the point without any pretense to be “artistic.” I think it was Alec Baldwin (who was the first of five actors to play Clancy’s best-known protagonist, Jack Ryan) who said Clancy used to write five pages’ worth of description to describe how a pencil worked. And for the longest time, every time I read a Tom Clancy novel – especially during his heyday in the Eighties and Nineties – I found that almost all of his characters “sounded” alike in my head when they had spoken dialogue.

Still, he could tell stories well, and for folks who lived during the last years of the Cold War, especially in the post-Vietnam War period when most movies and novels about the CIA and the military portrayed them in cynical and antagonistic fashion, Clancy’s positive view of America’s armed forces and the intelligence community were refreshing and, dare I say, a welcome change.

I like many of Clancy’s novels and his non-fiction books about the military, especially his early 1990s Guided Tour series, which he co-wrote with military researcher John D. Gresham. I tend to favor his earlier works over his pre-2013 books, especially the novels that Clancy wrote before 2003’s The Teeth of the Tiger, which is one of his one of his lesser efforts in my view.

Of these early books, Red Storm Rising is clearly my all-time favorite. This was Clancy – and to some extent, Larry Bond – at the top of his game. The major characters are fully fleshed out and believable, and the battle sequences on land, at sea, and in the air are vivid, realistic, and have a martial lyricism that evoke an emotional response from the reader.

As the reviewer from the New York Times wrote in his review, which G.P. Putnam’s Sons later quoted in their “blurbs” page, Red Storm Rising is “a rattling good yarn…full of action.”

[1] I was attending school year ‘round thanks to a Pell Grant that I was eligible for because of my mom’s status as a low-income widow. I signed up for classes during every semester, including the shorter Spring and Summer terms, mainly to get as many required courses out of the way so I could work on the college student paper and earn valuable class credits.

[2] Clancy, Tom. Red Storm Rising. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] This was the basis for MicroProse’s Red Storm Rising computer game, which focuses on submarine warfare but also derives its backstory from Clancy’s novel, as events from the book are mentioned either in the title sequence of the game and form part of the context of the missions in the game.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You…This Blog, to Be Exact

(C) 2019 Paramount Pictures and Amazon

I don’t know if I ever mentioned this outside my About the Author page, but once upon a time (from December of 2003 to February of 2014), I wrote reviews at the now-defunct consumer review-writing website Epinions.

I wrote over 1,000 reviews (I don’t recall how many now) across a wide spectrum of categories; Books, Magazines, Pets, Kids & Family, Electronics, Pets, Food & Restaurants, Music, and Movies & TV. If I owned, borrowed, or otherwise used a consumer product, I would review it, no matter what category it was in. (I even reviewed a few “adult” products that were listed in the vast Epinions catalog.)

However, because I got started in my training as a journalist as an entertainment beat writer for my high school’s student newspaper, I focused most of my efforts in three categories: Books, Movies & TV, and Music.

When I started blogging on Google’s Blogger platform a decade ago, I tried to stick to just writing reviews, but since I still had Epinions and a few other sites that are now also defunct (Associated Content/Yahoo Voices, Bubblews, Examiner, and even Britain’s Ciao) I didn’t post there (there being the original A Certain Point of View blog) as much as I have done since 2014.

Anyway, if you are a regular reader of A Certain Point of View, Too, you probably have noticed that I write reviews here as well, although I try to write all sorts of posts in different genres about other topics.

(C) Paramount Home Entertainment and Amazon Studios

Upcoming Reviews

I am not, by nature, a compulsive planner, especially when it comes to personal projects such as a blog. I tend to write posts based on what goes on around me – within reason – or what thoughts happen to cross my mind at any given time. The only times I like to impose a certain structure that involves advance planning is when I’m writing for somebody else, which I rarely do these days…except when I’m asked to come up with a screenplay for a short film.

Still, sometimes I do have the odd glimmer of foresight, at least when it comes to coming up with review ideas, And this week I have at least a general idea of what I’m going to review in A Certain Point of View, Too.

This week – maybe by Wednesday – I will be getting the Blu-ray home media edition of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season Two via Amazon Prime delivery. (This month is when I must renew my annual subscription, so I already scheduled the $119 subscription payment to be sent to the credit card account that will be billed later this week.)

If you have not yet streamed Jack Ryan, you should, especially if you are, like me, a fan of both the late author’s Jack Ryan novels and of Fox’s 2001-2014 series 24. (Yes, I know that 24 ran for eight seasons between 2001 and 2011, but it also had a coda, 24: Live Another Day that aired in the summer of 2014 as a “limited run” series on Fox.)

John Krasinski, who is best known for his comedic role as Jim Palmer on the U.S. version of The Office, does a good job as the fifth actor to play Clancy’s stalwart CIA analyst. (The other four actors are, of course, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine.) In this “reboot” of the Ryanverse, Krasinski plays John Patrick Ryan as a more-or-less new analyst who still learning how to navigate the intramural politics of the Agency while showing his superiors at Langley that he doesn’t just talk the talk, he also walks the walk, so to speak.

Even though he is playing Ryan as a young man (like Affleck and Pine do in The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Krasinski is on record as saying his biggest influence is Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Clancy’s best-known character.

I’ve binge-watched both Seasons One and Two when Amazon first released them on Amazon Prime Video, but I prefer to get series I like on disc because I can’t always be online and stream stuff on my computer. I already watched Season One and reviewed it on A Certain Point of View; I will have to re-review it here at a later date.

So, yeah. That’s certainly one review that I know I will be working on later in the week. Depending on when I get it, you can expect to see the write-up on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan; Season Two as early as Friday or as late as Saturday.

(C) 1986 G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. & Larry Bond

While we are on the topic of Tom Clancy, I might also revisit the novel I consider to be my favorite of the ones he wrote before he died in October of 2013: Red Storm Rising.

Yes, I have reviewed it before, more notably in Epinions and my original A Certain Point of View blog. But since I have been playing the Red Storm Rising-inspired game Cold Waters since July, I think it’s time that I revisit Clancy’s 1986 best-selling novel about a conventional Third World War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

Since it has to be an all-new review – Google penalizes writers who create duplicate content in different websites or blogs, even if it’s their own content – I am going to have to pretend I am reviewing Red Storm Rising for the first time. This will be a bit difficult, but I think I can pull it off. We’ll see what develops, as the old commercials for Polaroid instant cameras used to say.

Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Musings & Thoughts for Sunday, August 2, 2020: Storms and Other Pieces of My Mind

Photo by Fabian Wiktor on Pexels.com

Hello, there!

Well, here we are on Sunday, August 2, 2020; it’s late morning in my little corner of Florida as I start this post –  I’m not the world’s best or fastest typist, so it will be past noon when I finally post this – and, as usual for the Sunshine State in summer, it’s already a hot, muggy, if somewhat windy day.

Presently, the temperature outside is 88˚F (31˚C) under partly sunny skies. With winds blowing from the northeast at 12 MPH and humidity levels of 78%, the feels-like temperature is 108˚F (41˚C). With the outer bands of Tropical Storm Isaias passing through the area later as the badly scattered and weakened storm system makes its way north along the Atlantic coast, the forecast for our area calls for light rain this afternoon. (I can tell that we are already getting a few feeder bands out there, my study was brightly lit from sunlight streaming through the venetian blinds a few minutes ago; now the light levels have decreased considerably.)

As of 11 AM, Tropical Storm Isaias is a huge if somewhat depleted system making its way up the east coast of Florida. Once a Category 1 hurricane, it has been hindered by wind shear and the interaction with land. As a result, all hurricane warnings for Florida and points north have been downgraded to tropical storm warnings:

Tropical Storm Isaias advisory map with forecast track and Cone of Probability. Graphic courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.

Per the 11 AM advisory issued by the National Hurricane Center:



LOCATION…26.9N 79.6W






The advisory goes on to add:



At 1100 AM EDT (1500 UTC), the center of Tropical Storm Isaias was

located by NOAA Doppler weather radars near latitude 26.9 North,

longitude 79.6 West. Isaias is moving toward the north-northwest

near 8 mph (13 km/h) and this general motion is expected to

continue through Monday morning.  A turn toward the north and

north-northeast is anticipated on Monday and Tuesday with an

increase in forward speed.  On the forecast track, the center of

Isaias will move near the east coast of Florida today through late

tonight.  On Monday and Tuesday, the center of Isaias will move from

offshore the coast of Georgia into the mid-Atlantic states.

Doppler radar data indicate that maximum sustained winds are near

65 mph (100 km/h) with higher gusts. Some fluctuations in strength

will be possible during the next 48 hours.

Tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 115 miles (185 km)

from the center. During the past couple of hours, the NOAA C-MAN

station at Settlement Point, Grand Bahama Island, measured a wind

gust of 64 mph (103 km/h). A wind gust to 62 mph (100 km/h) was

reported at Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. Along the east coast of

Florida, tropical-storm-force wind gusts have been observed from

Juno Beach northward to Port St. Lucie.

The estimated minimum central pressure is 995 mb (29.39 inches).

Out of Harm’s Way

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So far, I have not seen any reports of heavy damage or power outages from my Miami-area friends and family members, so unless I hear anything to the contrary, I’m going to assume that in South Florida, Isaias’ bark was worse than its bite.

As much as I say that I am often homesick and wish that I had been able not only to repair/renovate the townhouse that I owned – legally – for only a few months (due to the probate issue between my older half-sister and me) but still live there, I think I dodged several bullets by not being in Miami at this time. After Mom died, the house was uninsured, and I doubt that I could have gotten a good policy on my own. I am not sure if it could have withstood a more direct hit from a tropical storm in the condition it was in when I lived there on my own; to be honest, I don’t think it would have.

Besides, I hated dealing with the property manager’s office whenever I – either acting as my mother’s chosen representative from 2010 to 2015 or on my own – had to ask for something related to maintenance. I did not have to have roof repairs or anything that complicated during my last six years living in East Wind Lake Village, but we always had issues with the fence and its gate. No matter how many times I asked our manager, Maritza, to have it fixed, the workmanship was shoddy, and when there were clear signs of termites and termite damage, nothing was done.

And I still recall how long it took EWLV to repair our roof after Hurricane Wilma hit the area in late 2005. The storm did quite a number on our townhouse; it tore off a third or more of the roof away, leaving the attic exposed to the elements and carrying away or damaging a goodly portion of my Star Wars collection, which my mother had packed in cardboard boxes and placed up in the attic for storage.

This is just a taste of what I might have awakened to if I lived in my old townhouse still.

So, yes. I miss living on my own – I never thought that I would be longing for solitude or independence, but I do -but I’m realistic enough to realize that I’m not equipped for it. My mother made quite a few poorly-conceived decisions when I was a minor, such as moving to Colombia in 1966 and making some bad financial investments while we were there, then buying the townhouse in 1977 to placate my maternal grandmother’s whims. Mom later regretted buying the condo; she said that our previous house had issues, such as only having one and a half bathrooms rather than two, but it was perfect for the two of us. Mom hated dealing with the homeowners’ association and eventually lost confidence in the townhouse’s sturdiness in a storm, but by the time she said, “I wish we had stayed in the house on SW 102nd Avenue,” it was too late. We had lived in the EWLV “pad” for over 20 years by then, and Mom was in no shape financially to sell the townhouse, find a new house, and move.

I’m getting to be a decent sub skipper, but not yet good enough for Cold Waters’ campaign mode. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games.

So, yeah, realistically speaking, I didn’t have too many options about where to live or who to live with.

Anyway, I’m glad Isaias is gradually going away. It’ll be affecting us – mainly with light rain and gusty winds – for the rest of the afternoon – but it’s not as worrisome as it looked to be on Thursday.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing for the rest of this Sunday: as I type this, it’s already past one in the afternoon (See, told you I’m not a fast typist!), and I have not yet gotten a grip on my day. I stayed up too late last night and only went to sleep after 3 AM, so I’m a bit tired and unfocused. I might go read for a while, or maybe watch a movie before night falls.

If not, I’ll be back here at my desk, playing a Quick Mission on Cold Waters. Or getting into political arguments on Facebook. It all depends on my state of mind at the time.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Musings & Thoughts for August 1, 2020: Keeping a Weather Eye on Isaias…and Other Stray Thoughts

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, it’s late afternoon here in my quiet corner of Florida; it’s still sunny outside, and even though the temperature is lower than it was when I chimed in this morning, it’s still hot and muggy outside. Presently, the temperature is 83˚F (28˚C), although with humidity at 74% and northeasterly winds blowing at 14 MPH, it feels like it’s 89˚F (31˚C) out in the open and away from shady areas.

It probably isn’t so nice in my former neighborhood in the Miami area, though. Although it seems that Isaias is currently a tropical storm, it still is headed for the Atlantic coast of Florida and is expected to be offshore tomorrow.

Per the National Hurricane Center – which is located not too far from where I used to live – here is the latest update on Isaias:


Tropical Storm Isaias Advisory Number  19

NWS National Hurricane Center Miami FL       AL092020

500 PM EDT Sat Aug 01 2020






LOCATION…25.1N 78.7W






Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

The latest advisory also goes on to say:



At 500 PM EDT (2100 UTC), the center of Tropical Storm Isaias was

located by an Air Force Reserve reconnaissance aircraft near

latitude 25.1 North, longitude 78.7 West. Isaias is moving toward

the northwest near 10 mph (17 km/h).  A general northwestward

motion with some decrease in forward speed is expected for the next

day or so, followed by a north-northwestward motion by late Sunday

and a turn toward the north and north- northeast on Monday and

Tuesday with an increase in forward speed. On the forecast track,

the center of Isaias will approach the southeast coast of Florida

tonight and move near or along the east coast of Florida Sunday and

Sunday night. On Monday and Tuesday, the center of Isaias will move

quickly from offshore of the coast of Georgia into the southern

mid-Atlantic states.

Maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 70 mph (110 km/h)

with higher gusts.  Some restrengthening is forecast, and Isaias

is expected to regain hurricane strength tonight. Slow weakening is

expected to begin Sunday night and continue through Monday.

Tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 105 miles (165 km)

from the center. During hew past couple of hours, a Weatherflow

observing site at the Dania Pier in Broward County, Florida,

reported a wind gust to 59 mph (94 km/h) in an outer rainband. More

recently, a wind gust to 41 mph (67 km/h) was reported by a

Weatherflow site in Juno Beach, Florida.

The estimated minimum central pressure based on reconnaissance

aircraft data is 993 mb (29.33 inches)

Current position of Isaias and forecast track. Note the cone of probability has it avoiding much of the Florida Peninsula and staying mostly offshore. Graphic courtesy of the National Hurricane Center/NOAA

A general northwestward

motion with some decrease in forward speed is expected for the next day or so, followed by a north-northwestward motion by late Sunday and a turn toward the north and north- northeast on Monday and Tuesday with an increase in forward speed. On the forecast track, the center of Isaias will approach the southeast coast of Florida tonight and move near or along the east coast of Florida Sunday and

Sunday night.

National Hurricane Center, 5 PM Advisory on Tropical Storm Isaias, August 1, 2020
I snapped this photo of windstorm damage after a heavy thunderstorm passed through our Miami area neighborhood in June of 2015. If Isaias lingers too long off the Miami-Dade County coast, this is what the new owner of my old townhouse can expect to see on Sunday…at a minimum.

In any event, I think my area will be spared the worst effects, although I can’t dismiss the possibility that we will have periods of rough weather – rain squalls, wind gusts over 50 MPH, and localized power failures due to downed power lines and whatnot. The East Coast, from Miami northward, will bear the brunt of Isaias’ (hopefully) offshore presence.

I don’t have an exaggerated fear of cyclonic storms; I’ve been through quite a few hurricanes, tropical storms, and even unorganized “no-name storms” that hit Florida as parts of tropical waves or undeveloped depressions. I do respect their power, though, and when a hurricane or tropical storm is this close to my home state and my former city of residence, I still feel concern for the friends and even relatives I left behind.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And, let’s be honest: sometimes I do get homesick and regret not only the estrangement – unavoidable as it was – between my older half sister and me, but also the loss of my house. I know that this is purely a visceral rather than a logical way to see things, but I miss being a homeowner and having some control over my destiny.

Intellectually, I know that unless my half-sister and I had been able to reconcile our many differences and pooled our resources and talents to repair and renovate the townhouse I left in Miami, I would still have lost it. There’s no way, based on my financial realities, that I could have afforded to live alone “at home.” I don’t think I would have liked renting a room to a total stranger, and even under the best of circumstances, there’s no way that Vicky and I could have lived harmoniously under the same roof.

So, homesickness aside, I’m lucky to be where I am today.

Musings & Thoughts for August 1, 2020: or, Life in the Midst of Hurricane Alley and COVID-19

Photo by Simon Clayton on Pexels.com

Hi, there, Constant Reader, and welcome to another edition of Musings & Thoughts. It’s Saturday, August 1, 2020 , and man, is it hot outside! Right now, in my current corner of Florida, the temperature is 91˚F (33˚C) under sunny skies. With a nine MPH easterly breeze and humidity at 65%, the heat index is a whopping 104˚F (40˚C). The forecast for our area calls for mostly sunny skies and a high of 94˚F (34˚C).

That’s not the case for my former – and oft-missed – neighborhood in Miami. As Hurricane Isaias nears the southeast coast of Florida, the weather there is not as sunny or hot. Though it looks like the center of the storm will stay just offshore east of the Miami area (for the moment, anyway), they’re already getting the outer bands, which means rain squalls and tropical storm-force winds are affecting my old haunts.

The current predicted path of Hurricane Isaias, along with the Cone of Probability. Graphic courtesy of NOAA.

Here’s the latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center:



At 1100 AM EDT (1500 UTC), the center of Hurricane Isaias was

located by an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft and

Bahamas radar near latitude 24.7 North, longitude 77.9 West. Isaias

is moving toward the northwest near 12 mph (19 km/h). A general

northwestward motion with some decrease in forward speed is expected

for the next day or so, followed by a north-northwestward motion by

late Sunday.  On the forecast track, the center of Isaias will move

over northern Andros Island during the next few hours and move

near or over Grand Bahama Island in the Northwestern Bahamas later

today. Isaias is forecast to move near the east coast of the

Florida peninsula tonight through Sunday.

Reports from the reconnaissance aircraft indicate that maximum

sustained winds have decreased slightly to near 80 mph (130 km/h)

with higher gusts.  Little change in strength is expected through

Sunday, and Isaias is forecast to remain a hurricane during this

time. Slow weakening is expected to begin by late Monday.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 25 miles (35 km) from the

center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 115 miles

(185 km). Reports from a U.S. Navy site on Andros Island indicate

that sustained winds of 45 mph (76 km/h) and a gust to 69 mph (111

km/h) occurred about 3 hours ago. More recently, a sustained wind of

35 mph (56 km/h) and a gust to 48 mph (77 km/h) were measured at

Nassau, Bahamas.

The estimated minimum central pressure is 987 mb (29.15 inches).

The view from my old town house’s front door during a downpour. I took this photograph with a smartphone sometime in 2014. (Author’s photo files)

As I’ve said in previous hurricane-related posts here, while I miss both my late mother Beatriz and my old townhouse, I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about either in these times of crisis. We experienced several near-misses and direct hits by tropical systems during Mom’s last years whilst she was confined to a medical bed in a small downstairs bedroom, and trust me, those were stressful times.

For instance, Mom was resolute in her refusal to be evacuated in case an Andrew-type hurricane passed through, and although my half-sister and I agreed that taking our mother out of her familiar surroundings would do more harm than good, it still was a problematic situation. Mom’s room downstairs was one of the hottest in the townhouse; it faced west, so in the afternoon the sun flooded in through the big bedroom window. Yes, there was a big lychee tree that provided some shade, but whenever the power was out or the air conditioner had issues, even a moderate amount of sunshine made that room hotter than my elderly mother could withstand.

I’m also relieved – sad, but relieved – that Mom isn’t around to live in this weird new world of COVID-19. Hurricane season is stressful enough even under the best of circumstances; the coronavirus pandemic and all of the social distancing/COVID-19 lockdowns would have made caring for an elderly woman with cognitive issues insanely difficult. Mom probably would not have been able to receive many visitors, and in her moments of lucidity, she would have worried – as any loving parent would – about her two adult children.

I don’t know what I’m going to be doing for the rest of this Saturday. I could try playing Close Combat: The Longest Day, a tactical level war game that I bought recently from Steam using a credit accrued to my Master Card account, but my heart is not in it. It’s a fun game, even though it’s not exactly the easiest to learn or master. Plus, I prefer strategic-level games, such as “old” MicroProse Software’s Crusade in Europe, a game I played plenty of times on my old Apple IIe personal computer in the late Eighties and early Nineties.  I also think I spend too much time in front of a computer as it is.

So, I’m not sure how I’m going to spend this first Saturday of August 2020. Maybe I’ll read for a while or watch TV or a movie on my Blu-ray player. Anything but sitting here at my desk!

Documentary Series Review: ‘The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’ (2017)

Blu-ray box set cover art. (C) 2017 PBS and Florentine Films

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Produced and Directed by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Original Air Date(s): September 17-28, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered. – Army veteran Phil Gioia

On September 17, 2017, The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick made its broadcast debut on over 300 local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations in the United States. Directed by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films colleague Lynn Novick, this ambitious 10-part series – which aired in the United Kingdom over the BBC in abridged form – explores the most controversial and divisive conflict in American history.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, THE VIETNAM WAR, tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history as it has never before been told on film. Visceral and immersive, the series explores the human dimensions of the war through revelatory testimony of nearly 80 witnesses from all sides—Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as combatants and civilians from North and South Vietnam. – Program description from PBS.org’s The Vietnam War official website

(C) 2017 PBS and Florentine Films

“There is No Single Truth in War”

Written by Burns’ frequent collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward (The Civil War, Baseball, The War, Prohibition, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History), The Vietnam War is an earnest effort to examine one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century. In 10 parts that span 117 years of Vietnam’s history – starting with France’s imposition of colonial rule on Indochina in the late 1850s, then segueing into the various stages of the Vietnamese struggle for independence, including a failed petition for more autonomy for “French Indochina” within the French Union by Ho Chi Minh to the victorious Allies after World War I; the four-year-long occupation during World War II by Japan and the emergence of Ho’s Viet Minh resistance group, which was backed by America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to today’s Central Intelligence; France’s bloody – and futile – postwar effort to reassert its colonial rule, which resulted in an unpopular war that ended with a humiliating defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; and finally, the 30-years-long American effort to “roll back Communism” in Vietnam that stymied six American Presidents and ended – after the loss of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese and eight years of an undeclared war –  with a hurried helicopter and seaborne evacuation of the last Americans and a handful of their South Vietnamese allies from Saigon in April of 1975.

With production costs estimated at $30 million, The Vietnam War is one of Ken Burns’ most ambitious documentary films; it took his creative team 10 years to gather archival footage, audio recordings, and still photographs from various countries, including France, the U.S., and Vietnam, conduct hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses and veterans from all sides of the conflict, including anti-war protesters, soldiers, airmen, Marines, and former guerrillas.

Burns, Novick, and Ward decided early on not to simply focus on the American side of the war. As Burns and Novick note in their introduction to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, the companion book to the series:

When Americans talk about the Vietnam War, the scholar and novelist Viet Than Nguyen wrote, too often we talk about ourselves. We were determined not to make that mistake. How could we hope to make sense of this turbulent time in our history, or to explore the humanity and inhumanity of all sides, without hearing directly from our allies and our enemies – the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians we fought with and against?  Off and on for several years, we traveled to Texas, California, and Virginia to get to know many Vietnamese Americans who came to the United States as refugees, having suffered the unimaginable loss not just of their families, friends, and comrades, but of their country. They spoke honestly about the failings of their own government, and shared their doubts and fears about whether the Republic of South Vietnam under Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky had been worth fighting for. “Thieu [and] Ky, they were corrupt,” Saigon native Phan Quang Tue remembered. “They abused their position. And they received more from Vietnam than Vietnam received from them. We paid a very high price for having leaders like Ky and Thieu. And we continue to pay the price.”

The filmmakers also needed to get the perspective of the victors, too. They traveled to a unified Vietnam and went to various parts of the country, including Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Hue, and Hanoi, which at the height of the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s had the most extensive air defense system on Earth. Including sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that shot down hundreds of American aircraft over its airspace. Burns and Novick were surprised to note that “that the war remains as unsettled and painful for them as it is for us.”   

Ten years in the making, the series includes rarely seen and digitally re-mastered archival footage from sources around the globe, photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th Century, historic television broadcasts, evocative home movies, and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  – Program description from PBS.org’s The Vietnam War official website

The producers of The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novack interviewed 79 witnesses from the various “sides” of the conflict to get a grasp of such a complex and divisive war. On the American side, the interviewees included veterans such as John Musgrave, Philip Caputo, Everett Alvarez (the first U.S. pilot to be taken prisoner in August of 1964), Mike Cleland, and Roger Harris. On the anti-war side at the home front, we hear from Bill Zimmermann, Nancy Biberman, and Craig McNamara, whose father was Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

On the U.S. home front, too, we hear from family members who lost loved ones during the war, including protester Carol Crocker and her mother Jean Marie Crocker, who talk about Carol’s brother Denton “Mogie” Crocker, Jr., who volunteered for combat duty in the early years of the Vietnam War and was killed in action in 1966. Another parent, country singer Jan Howard, talks candidly about the death of her son in Vietnam, as well as her rejection of the anti-war movement. Howard, a conservative, supported the war as part of America’s larger crusade to fight Communism during the Cold War, and she recounts how she told local antiwar protesters who tried to sway her to their cause that if they ever darkened her doorstep again, she would have no qualms using deadly force against them.

As I noted earlier, The Vietnam War also features interviews with Vietnamese participants, including North Vietnamese Army truck driver Nguyen Nguyet Anh, National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) officer Nguyen Thoi Bung, journalist Huy Duc, former South Vietnamese diplomat Bui Diem, Tran Ngoc “Harry” Hue, ARVN (South Vietnamese army) lieutenant colonel, and Tran Ngoc Toan, South Vietnamese marine.

To give the audience a more nuanced view of the war, the filmmakers deliberately avoided interviewing “talking head” historians or pundits. They also did not include prominent persons such as John Kerry, John S. McCain III, Henry Kissinger, or Jane Fonda due to their polarizing viewpoints and personas. They appear in archival footage and film clips, but because some of them still stir up much anger and resentment in Americans on both sides of the great divide – the chasm, as Burns and Novick describe it – caused by the conflict – they were not interviewed.

The Series

Promo image from the PBS store

The series is divided into 10 parts and covers, as noted earlier, 117 years of Vietnamese history, although the bulk of the series focuses on the 11 years that passed between the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the summer of 1964 and the fall of Saigon in late April of 1975. 25 major battles are chronicled within the 10 episodes, including the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley – the subject of the 2002 film We Were Soldiers – the Tet Offensive of January 1968, the 1970  U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia – which triggered the tragedy at Kent State University in May 1970 –  the Spring Offensive of 1972, the “Christmas” bombing campaign of December 1972,  the North Vietnamese “test’ offensives of late 1974 to see if the Americans would return in force after withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973, and the tragic collapse of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975.

These battles are examined from the perspectives of all the combatants, and are depicted in archival footage from France, the U.S., and Vietnam. There are also many clips of American news broadcasts charting the course of the Vietnam War, including various Congressional hearings on the conduct of the war, plus the various protests and antiwar demonstrations – some peaceful, some violent – that have seared their imprint on the American psyche.

 Per the 2017 PBS Blu-ray set’s episode guide, here are the 10 parts:

  1. Déjà vu (1858-1961)
  2. Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)
  3. The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)
  4. Resolve (January 1966-June 1967)
  5. This is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967)
  6. Things Fall Apart (January 1968-July 1968)
  7. The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)
  8. The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)
  9. A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)
  10. The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)

My Take

Wars, all wars, create a kind of dissonance that obfuscates and deflects clear understanding. Vietnam is no different. To shed new light on such a complicated and unsettled time in our his­tory, to struggle to comprehend the special dissonance that is the Vietnam War, we needed to look beyond the familiar stories Americans have told about the war and include as many different perspectives as our narrative could accommodate. Nearly one hundred “ordinary” people agreed to share their stories with us on camera: grunts and officers in the Army and Marines, prison­ers of war, a fighter pilot and a helicopter crew chief, a Gold Star mother and the sister of a fallen soldier, a nurse, college students, reporters, protesters, military analysts, spies, and many others. To have been present as they bore witness to their experiences remains for us one of the enduring gifts of this project.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, on why they made the film, “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History”

I watched The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novack when it premiered in September of 2017 on my local PBS station. I sat through the entire series – almost 18 hours of it – and was in turns mesmerized and horrified by the folly of America’s involvement in a conflict that was not ours to intervene in, the costs of the war in terms of lives lost, billions misspent, and the divisiveness it caused in American society, a divisiveness that caused a rift between conservatives and liberals that never healed, and led, directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the United States.

Since its first broadcast on PBS, I bought the series on Blu-ray, and I re-watch it at least once a year. Not just because it’s a well-made documentary by a team of filmmakers with a stellar track record of making fine films such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, and Prohibition, but because it’s necessary to understand the Vietnam era if we are to get a grasp on what America and the world are going through in 2020.

I’ve been a fan of the films of Ken Burns since I watched his 1990 PBS documentary series The Civil War. Here he and his co-director Lynn Novick take the viewer on a journey back to the tragic and turbulent Sixties and Seventies through the use of archival film footage, photographs, and music from the period, including songs performed by Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Wright, The Beatles (who rarely license their songs to documentaries, but here Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr allowed Florentine Films to use three of them, including Let It Be), The Animals, Wilson Pickett, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and more.

THE VIETNAM WAR features more than 100 iconic musical recordings from the greatest artists of the era and haunting original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma.

“The Vietnam War” at PBS.ORG

To narrate the nearly 18-hours-long documentary, Ken Burns once again turned to actor Peter Coyote (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), who has lent his vocal talents to other Florentine Films documentaries, including The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts: An Intimate Story, and the more recent Country Music. Coyote delivers the words written by Geoffrey C. Ward with a measured Henry Fonda-like quality that lends gravitas and credibility to the narration.

Before I watched The Vietnam War, I had no idea that the Watergate scandal that rocked the nation in the early Seventies was a continuation of Richard Nixon’s dirty dealings with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks in 1968 before that year’s Presidential election. The Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey,  had a slight lead in the polls that fall, but Nixon’s collusion with Thieu led to a temporary collapse in the negotiations in Paris, which then gave the Republican candidate a boost in the polls shortly before Election Day 1968.  

Nixon, who then pledged to end the war with honor, actually made matters worse by bombing and then invading Cambodia in 1970, thus widening the war and delaying its end.

President Johnson was aware, through the efforts of the CIA and FBI, of Nixon’s secret deal with Thieu, but tired and bitter about the unpopularity of what many Americans called “Johnson’s War,” he did nothing about the Republican’s collusion with a foreign leader to delay a peace deal and swing public opinion in Nixon’s favor.

And as The Vietnam War illustrates, most of the various Nixonian dirty tricks and conflicts with the media – including the break-in into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office during the Pentagon Papers brouhaha (the subject of Steven Spielberg’s The Post) – that climaxed with the June 1972 break-in into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC are linked to that secret agreement between Republican operatives and South Vietnam’s Thieu, who thought Nixon would get a better deal in Paris from the North Vietnamese than Humphrey.  

The documentary covers a wide array of topics, ranging from President Harry S. Truman’s decision to help finance France’s ill-considered effort to reassert its colonial authority in a Vietnam that had declared its independence on Sept. 2, 1945 to the creation of the once-controversial Vietnam War Memorial designed by Maya Lin.  In between those events, separated in time by 36 years, The Vietnam War shows things that were done that cannot be undone and makes us hear things that were said that cannot be unsaid.

As anti-war activist Nancy Bieberman says in Part 10, The Weight of Memory:

I have been to the wall more than once. When I look back at the war and think of the horrible things we said to vets who were returning, calling them “baby killers” or worse, I feel very sad about that. I can only say that we were kids too, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry.