1. All the President’s Men (and Women)
Along with marking the end of the Olympian Anchor — the new prototype is the cute, engagé, pop-culture maven Anderson Cooper (did you catch him giggling like a schoolgirl on The Colbert Report?) — 2005 forever buried the Myth of the Heroic Reporter. First came Judith Miller, she of the hyped-up WMD “scoops,” who was finally tossed overboard by The New York Times after slowing the indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby by about a year — a delay, noted Roberto “Che” Scheer, that may well have swung the 2004 election. Her disgrace was quickly followed by proof that Watergate golden boy Bob Woodward hasn’t exactly been killing himself on behalf of the public’s right to know. He, too, had information about the Plame case but pretended he didn’t, even going on Larry King Live to suggest it was all no big deal. This journalistic icon didn’t bother to say what he knew to his Washington Post editors — let alone his readers — because he was squirreling away information for another of those lousy best-sellers. Here’s the scoop: Woodward will gladly break important news . . . years late, for hardback prices.
2. Are Women Necessary?
Not in Hollywood, it seems. Once again, prize givers are struggling to come up with standout female performances — Carla Gugino flaunting her rack in Sin City? Judi Dench playing Judi Dench, yet again? But the problem isn’t the studios’ alone. When Warners brought out North Country, a stolidly worthy film about sexual harassment, reviewers clobbered it for being just like like Norma Rae — as if the problem with Hollywood is its insistence on churning out feminist dramas. (The same thing happened to Mona Lisa Smile.) When Fox released In Her Shoes — a touching, beautifully made film with wonderful performances — it got written off as just another “chick flick,” a fate that never seems to befall “guy flicks,” even when (like Sin City) they wallow in the most sophomoric and masturbatory male clichés. Which isn’t to say that the media don’t like so-called women’s pictures — Brokeback Mountain left reviewers weeping. They just don’t want them to be about women.
3. I Walked With a Zombie
In “The Homecoming,” Joe Dante’s biting installment of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, dead American soldiers from Iraq come back to life as zombies so they can vote against the sitting president, obviously modeled on George W. Bush. Of course, the real-life Dubya was himself shadowed by a kind of specter in the form of Cindy Sheehan, whose son, U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in Sadr City in 2004. Talk about the return of the repressed. Setting up Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, this Vacaville mother pulled off a masterful public-relations coup, prompting the TV networks to cover something they’d been ducking — President Bush’s own attempt to duck talking about the human cost of what was going on in Iraq. Predictably, the right assailed Sheehan for her politics, but the charges didn’t stick. You see, Sheehan didn’t matter because of her specific ideas about, say, Israel. She was the galvanizing avatar of all those Americans who wanted the president, at long last, to stop hiding himself away from genuine human contact and to start leveling with us about the war.
4.Memoirs of a Survivor
Joan Didion has always been a writer who could find cosmic terror in a wilted flower at the Rose Parade. After decades of cramming all of human experience into the same enigmatic-ingénue prose — danger is everywhere! — she finally found a subject that suited her sensibility: the illness (eventually fatal) of her daughter, Quintana Roo, and the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The work that resulted, The Year of Magical Thinking, is probably her best book in a quarter-century, as Didion uses the magical thinking known as writing to hold herself together in the face of personal loss. Still, to judge from the response, you’d think that nobody had ever died before. The cultural elite instantly began treating this memoir as a sacred text, plugging it in TheNew York Times Magazine, awarding it the National Book Award, turning it into a Broadway play and cranking out raves so extreme they sounded like punch lines: “I can’t imagine dying without this book,” declared John Leonard (a critic I normally admire). Me, I can’t imagine dying without pointing out that this book’s success is as much a manifestation of celebrity culture as Lindsay Lohan’s driving record.
5. The Banana Republic Factor
When the tsunami wiped out Asian coastlines on December 26, 2004, it was hard not to scoff at the incompetence of the corrupt, smalltime governments that couldn’t get it together to warn their citizens of impending disaster. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and you realized that the U.S. has a “third world” government, too — only America’s wealth makes it easier to disguise. Even as corporations were looting pension plans and an increasingly inept health system was bankrupting the country (just pray you don’t need to find an emergency room), the president still dreamed of cutting taxes for the rich. And as the Department of Homeland Security unveiled the vaunted new baggage search at the airports — you can now bring those nose-hair clippers in your carry-on! — the 9/11 Commission was busy reaming the Bush administration for its failure to act on its recommendations for dealing with potential terror attacks (a story that got depressingly little media play). You know what’s scary? Bill O’Reilly was probably right when he said that, in a crisis, the government won’t help you.