CultureJew: The Spy, Succession, Roy Cohn, & Lots More

I started writing this the day after the finale to HBO’s second season of “Succession” ended with a great turnaround. Not a total surprise but deeply satisfying. “Succession” is a show loosely modeled on the Rupert Murdock clan and perhaps some other uber-wealthy and powerful families. It’s basically about rich people behaving badly.

Logan Roy is the patriarch of a publicly traded holding company that owns a conservative cable network, a movie studio, cruise ships, theme parks, and lots more stuff. He has four children from different wives, all of whom are slavishly dependent on him, and he manipulates them shamelessly. The plot involves a lot of business shenanigans and constant backstabbing, as Logan battles against hostile takeovers with poison pill maneuvers. Everyone in this show is terrible–scheming, lying, arrogant creeps. Yet, it’s weirdly addictive. Partly that’s because the mostly British cast is fantastic and also the writing is top-notch. Creator Jesse Armstrong, who has worked onr “Veep” and “Black Mirror,” writes razor sharp dialogue, filled with hilarious one liners. Which one of the kids will inherit the throne? Can Logan ever give up control? Will they get together and stab him to death in his sleep? I can’t wait for season 3 to find out, and I’m not the only one. This is the first show where I’ve enjoyed the recap as much as the episodes. Slate Money does a recap podcast on “Succession” that’s super entertaining. I laughed harder at that than the actual episodes.  

 Another series filled with intrigue is “The Spy” on Netflix, but this one involves real espionage where the risk of betrayal is death. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen, an actual Israeli spy who infiltrated the Syrian government in the early 1960s and almost became the deputy secretary of defense. Cohen is excellent in a straight role, and the story is inherently suspenseful. Noah Emmerich from “The Americans” plays Cohen’s handler with sensitivity, and Hadar Ratzam Roten is believable as Cohen’s lonely and frustrated wife, left in Israel under the illusion that her husband is off buying supplies for the department of defense. Written by Gideon Raff, the series touches lightly on the lower status of Mizrachi Jews at the time and how that affects Cohen’s intense wish to succeed. With an unlimited budget from the Mossad, he can live a luxurious life in Damascus as a respected businessman rather than endure the slights of Ashkenazi Jews at home.  An insightful and nuanced real-life spy story. 

Nuanced isn’t a word I’d apply to the Australian girls-on-the-run Netflix series “Wanted,” but it’s a lot of fun to watch and exciting too. Lola and Chelsea, strangers to one another, are waiting for a bus when they witness a shooting by two masked men. Struggling with one of the assailants, Lola shoots him. The other man pushes them into the trunk of a car, from which they manage to escape, and we’re off racing across Australia and New Zealand with detours to Thailand and prison and who knows where else. Created by the husband-and-wife team of Rebecca Gibney and Richard Bell, “Wanted” manages to give Lola and Chelsea real personalities as well as ending every episode with a cliffhanger. The women develop a close bond despite coming from different backgrounds: Lola’s tumultuous past includes a father in prison; Chelsea’s family is wealthy but she’s recently embezzled a lot of money.  Gibney stars as Lola and Geraldine Hakewill is Chelsea, and both enthusiastically plunge into the hectic plot, which includes corrupt police, sex trafficing, hidden money, criminal networks, and more. It’s not always plausible, but it’s consistently enjoyable.  

At the Movies

Some good movies are trickling into theaters after what seems like a long drought. Based on real-life events, Francois Ozon’s “By the Grace of God” tackles the church’s sex abuse scandal in Lyon, France. Suffused with a quiet sense of outrage, the film focuses on three men–Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), Francois (Denis Menochet), and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud)– who were victims of a pedophile priest and together formed a support organization for other victims. Alexandre is a practicing Catholic with a large family who cannot admit what happened to him until he is middle-aged. Francois is an excitable atheist whose fury leads him to suggest forming the support group to find more victims and force the church to deal with its coverup. The most fragile of the three, Emmanuel finds the greatest solace in the group. Ozon has structured the film almost like a relay; we begin the story with Alexandre, then shift the focus to Francois and finally end with Emmanuel. Much quieter and more subdued than most of Ozon’s work, “By the Grace of God” is one more powerful indictment of what seems to be a never-ending scandal. 

“Where’s My Roy Cohn” is a fascinating look at the well-known lawyer and fixer who taught our current president everything he knows. Produced and directed by Matt Tyrnauer, this documentary traces Cohn’s life from his childhood as the only son of a wealthy Jewish New York family to his stint as Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer on the House Unamerican Activities Committee to his career working for the mob in New York. Brilliant, ugly, vicious, and enormously ambitious, Cohn has become our contemporary symbol of evil. In the 1970s, he developed a close relationship with a young Donald Trump, along with lots of other New York movers and shakes, and shared his tactics of never admitting fault or failure, never apologizing, always attacking. The film includes a lot of interview material with different people who knew Cohn, including boyfriends and law partners, and also presents a nostalgic view of a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore. 

I’m planning to see a lot of other good documentaries at the Teaneck International Film Festival. That festival usually offers a strong selection of documentaries and this year’s slate is particularly impressive. “Maiden,” “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” and “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” will be screening, along with “Ask for Jane,” a film about the efforts of young women at the University of Chicago to build a network of willing abortion providers before the procedure was legal. 

In the Theater 

On a recent trip to England, I spent three days in Stratford-on-Avon and enjoyed a fantastic production of “King John” at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater. I don’t know that play, yet the plot was easy to follow and the language clear for the most part. That reminded me again that Shakespeare is always understandable to the audience if the actors understand what they’re saying. It’s not the text; it’s the actors. In addition to the superb acting, the production itself was a marvel–battle scenes were presented as a dance contest, a boxing match, and a game of musical chairs! Wonderfully inventive and a real treat. Those Brits know Shakespeare.

Another astounding performance I enjoyed recently was that of Tom Sturridge in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Sturridge plays a father in the first play in the duo, “Sea Wall,” and this slight, delicate-looking actor builds his performance slowly and carefully until it comes to a shattering conclusion. He uses his body and his voice to infuse the dialogue with feeling, and his use of silence is quite wonderful too. Jake Gyllenhall stars in the second play and he’s very good, but it was Sturridge who stayed in my mind long afterward.  

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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