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.
6. Fu Man Choo-Choo
Every year the media go crazy discovering a hot new story that has been obvious all along. Last year, they realized that the U.S. is a religious country. (Oh, is that why 89 percent of Americans expect to go to heaven?) This year, they discovered China, a hypercapitalist police state that has grown so awesomely powerful that its actresses are now playing geishas. Time put Mao on its cover and touted “China’s New Revolution.” Newsweek gave its own cover to foxy Zhang Ziyi (hilariously introduced as “ZZ Yang” on the Oscar telecast). And Today’s Matt Lauer flew to Shanghai to show all the new skyscrapers. Meanwhile, our bookstores were filled with titles that ranged from the greedy optimism of James McGregor’s One Billion Consumers to the obligatory alarmism of Ted C. Fishman’s China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to read Michael Crichton’s hysterical thriller (surely he’s already writing it) about the fiendish Rising Dragon and its secret weapon: Avian Flu!
7.Mr. and Mrs. Pitt
“The stars live on our substance,” wrote French sociologist Edgar Morin in 1961, “and we on theirs.” But don’t take his word for it. Just consider the Jennifer-Brad-Angelina triangle that spawned Team Aniston T-shirts, gave Mr. and Mrs. Smith a boost, and inspired so many tabloid pages that (I hear on good authority) it alone caused the deforestation of Cambodia. Of course, like any gossip with legs, this tale of romantic betrayal starred characters whose archetypal qualities could inspire endless discussion. Did sensible Jen deserve to marry gorgeous Brad in the first place? Could such a good girl possibly hope to compete with a strutting, plush-lipped, bad-girl Angelina? Isn’t Brad, for all his good looks, just like all other men, emotionally dim and susceptible to the next sexy woman who makes a play for him? (Answers: Yes, no, yes.) For all their glamour, the sheer banality of their problems makes this trio just like the rest of us — at least compared to Tom and Katie.
8. Still Crazy After All These Years
While self-promoting flat-earthers like Thomas Friedman promote the “wisdom” of the market — great news: Those cushy European welfare states are being undermined by low-paying jobs in India — people who live with those markets have begun to notice that capitalism may be just a little bit, y’know, irrational. It makes deals with despotic commissars in China. It sells off poor nations’ national resources and gives all the profits to the elite (which is why the Bolivians just elected an ally of Hugh Chavez). It looks at the Los Angeles Times and, dissatisfied with profits of 20 percent (the market demands even higher), starts gutting the paper’s staff. Whenever you notice that capitalism produces a system of winners and losers, one of the winners always tells you, “Yes, there are some temporary problems with the system, yet in the long run we’ll all be better off.” But in the long run we’re all dead (as John Maynard Keynes famously remarked), and in 2006, more and more people began grasping that capitalism’s awesome creative power is matched by its power to destroy.
9. American Cannes-Cannes
At the end of Hineer Saleem’s film Kilometre Zero, two Iraqi émigrés hear a radio report that Saddam has been overthrown. “We’re free!” they shriek, opening their windows to share their joy with the people of Paris. But nobody is listening — the City of Lights remains gray and impassive. When that scene played in Cannes last May, the largely European audience sat in shocked silence at such a violation of political correctness — I mean, this movie was suggesting that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a good thing. Surely this naive Iraqi filmmaker didn’t see the world as clearly as the worldly Parisians (who did seem a little less, uh, enlightened once France’s young immigrants began rioting about poverty, ghettoization and flagrant discrimination).
A similar stony silence overtakes many Bush-haters when faced with evidence that the invasion — though a dreadful, ideologically driven bungle — isn’t all bad. Are you one of them? Ask yourself three questions. Which made you happier: the capture of Saddam Hussein or the indictment of Tom DeLay? (Be honest now.) Were you at all moved by the sight of those Iraqi voters holding up their purple-inked fingers? If you knew for sure that Iraq would be run by the insurgents — you know, the fascists who blow up buses, markets and police stations — would you still be for immediate withdrawal?
10. The Dalai Lama Weeps
For five years, even fans had fun mocking the hippie-dippie Buddhism that appeared to underlie the worldview of Six Feet Under. But in the show’s final season, creator Alan Ball threw audiences a delightfully shocking spitball: In the third show from the end, he not only killed the show’s main character, Nate (played with majestic, black-hole self-absorption by Peter Krause), but went out of his way not to redeem him. Even lying on his deathbed, Nate behaved cruelly to his wife, Brenda, and, fueled by his customary more-enlightened-than-thou narcissism, anticipated his leap to the next woman who might “save” him. Has TV ever knocked off a popular character more ruthlessly? “If there’s a God,” wrote the show’s chronicler on TelevisionWithoutPity.com, “Nathaniel Samuel Fisher, Jr. (1965–2005) is now melting in Hell.”
11. The Birds and the Bears
Whether it’s King Kong offering us a sensitive New Age ape with a taste for blondes or The New World’s sexy Pocahontas becoming a metaphor for the virgin American land, our culture keeps struggling to draw the line between nature and culture. That drama played itself out in the year’s two biggest documentaries, Luc Jacquet’s insanely popular The March of the Penguins and Werner Herzog’s critically acclaimed Grizzly Man. While Jacquet treats the penguins’ Darwinian struggle for life with a Frenchified anthropomorphism that would make Uncle Walt shudder (in the original French version, you half-expected these tuxedoed birds to light up Gauloises), Herzog uses the story of solipsistic bear-watcher Timothy Treadwell to show the delusions of civilized man denying the barriers between himself and the wild. Although Herzog sees this story through his usual mad-German eyes — “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony,” he says, “but hostility, chaos and murder” — the most sensible thought in either movie comes from an Eskimo in Grizzly Man who observes that we disrespect wild animals if we try to pretend we inhabit identical worlds. Now, if somebody will just tell that to Naomi Watts.
12. Weird Science
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While foreign scientists engage in traditional forms of dishonesty — like South Korean clone-meister Hwang Woo Suk faking his research — the new American right has been busy attacking science itself. Bush administration ideologues watered down official studies of global warming. Republican politicians flocked to attack medical knowledge in the Terri Schiavo case (with the ambitious Dr. Frist offering an incorrect diagnosis, sight unseen). Most striking, evangelical groups tried to force-feed students the idea of intelligent design, another term for God in pseudo-scientific drag. While this predictably raised the hackles of actual scientists — on Charlie Rose, DNA codebreaker James Watson called Darwin the most important human being who ever lived — it also brought out the good sense in many old-school conservatives who believe in, you know, reason.
It was Bush-appointee Judge John E. Jones III who overruled the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board for forcing intelligent design into the curriculum. And it was bow-tied, baseball-loving pundit George F. Will who scoffed at the anti-evolutionists in every available forum. “If an intelligent designer designed nature,” he asked, “why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?”
13. Counting Chickens
“I earned capital in the campaign,” boasted George W. Bush, after the 2004 election. “Political capital. And now I intend to spend it.” Just so. The year began with the president cockily planning to cram through a big anti–New Deal agenda. But as conservative thinker Peter Viereck once observed, “Reality is that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away.” And in 2005, Bush faced a lot of reality. The mess in Iraq, public rejection of his Social Security plan, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” the indictments of Libby and DeLay and Abramoff — all this (and much, much more) turned Dubya’s political capital into Enron stock. The guy who ended 2004 as Time’s “Person of the Year” had, by this December, morphed into the chump on Newsweek’s “Bush in the Bubble” cover. But before you get too giddy pondering Dubya’s inexorable ruin — unpopularity, impeachment, eternal disgrace! — remember that his second term is less than 12 months old and our media can’t hump the story of his failing presidency for another three years. So steel yourselves, comrades: Once Bush’s approval ratings go up a few more points to 50 percent, we’ll be bombarded with headlines calling him “The Comeback Kid” and declaring that, once again, Prince Hal’s been misunderestimated.