Posted by Lilly from D007011.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu (18.104.22.168) on Thursday, November 28, 2002 at 3:39PM :
I'm definitely going to go see the 2nd film opening night... but both sound interesting. Again, Jim Ridley is awesome.
November 28-December4 2002
Two engrossing documentaries measure the perils of thug life, musical and global
By Jim Ridley
Biggie and Tupac (2002)
dir.: Nick Broomfield
R, 107 min.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)
dir.: Eugene Jarecki
NR, 80 min.
In the swampy ecosystem of celebrity notoriety, Nick Broomfield occupies a place somewhere between a mosquito and a catfish. A shrewd, wry muckraker who comes on like a gangly Brit Columbo, Broomfield has made the world of show-biz bottom-feeders his slimy domain. His movies, like Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, aren't exposÚs in the usual sense of righting wrongs and baring injustices. They're sustained gawks at the underbelly of fame. Most every nut case Broomfield interviews hopes to parlay his/her limited access to some quasi-celeb into cash, a career or simply a wisp of the attention their better-known pals get.
Broomfield's cynical leech parades can be frustrating and obnoxious. But they're seldom uninteresting, and neither is Biggie and Tupac, his gripping inquest into the still unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and his rival, Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. Biggie and Tupac is braver and meatier than Kurt and Courtney, Broomfield's seedy, shallow stalk job on Courtney Love, where the screwy digressions couldn't hide his ultimate lack of substance. Again, though, the director peels through onion-like layers of fringies and sycophants to reach his unreachable subjects.
Biggie and Tupac, according to Broomfield, is "the story of two great friends who had a misunderstanding...and became deadly enemies." He has rare footage of the wiry Tupac and the burly Biggie embracing onstage at a rap show in 1994. Three years later, both superstars would be dead before age 30. The murders were notched up to the infamous East Coast-West Coast rap feud, which had more to do with gang and label affiliation than geography. For West Coaster Tupac, the end came in 1996 outside a Vegas casino after a Mike Tyson bout, where a skirmish with a Crips 'banger led to a hail of bullets. It was said to be a hit orchestrated by his East Coast nemesis Biggie Smalls, whom Tupac blamed for an earlier shooting (and whose wife, Faith Evans, Tupac boasted of nailing). Six months later, Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles, in what was seen as gang retribution.
Or at least that's what the LAPD (and this year's heavily hyped L.A. Times investigation) concluded. Broomfield listens instead to Russell Poole, an LAPD detective who quit the job after 18 years when he was hastily shunted off the case. Poole suspects a different puppetmaster behind both shootings: Suge Knight, the gangsta impresario whose Death Row label reputedly trafficked in drugs as well as hit records. Knight, a former Piru Blood gang member, kept Tupac isolated and sheltered, but his star was about to bolt Death Row with priceless unreleased tapes and a claim for millions in back royalties. Not only did Knight have the motive, Poole says, he had the only means capable of conducting and covering up such a hit: a goon squad of off-duty LAPD cops and a D.A. in his back pocket. The movie, amazingly, names names.
As Broomfield wanders through a seamy, sprawling L.A. underworld looking for clues, Biggie and Tupac becomes Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye with the British director playing Philip Marlowe. Like fellow nonfiction troublemaker Michael Moore, Broomfield makes his outsider's lack of access a joke, a badge, a challenge and a narrative device. He seldom gets anywhere near heavyweight insiders, but he tracks down anyone who knew the two rappers and is willing to talk, from Tupac's largely absentee father to Biggie's onetime supermarket co-worker.
It pays off as they lead Broomfield from the fringe to the center, raising tough questions. For instance: Why did cops fail to question a suspect described at the Biggie shooting scene, a man named Harry Billups with a former Las Vegas address and ties to both Knight and the LAPD? Yet when Broomfield finally gets an audience with Suge Knight (then serving a parole violation sentence for the casino incident), the interview is surreally anticlimactic: The hulking gangsta sits in a prison yard, murmuring high-pitched homilies about teaching kids life lessons. More telling is the fearful jiggling of the camera and the deference of a warden who acts almost like a press agent.
For all its conspiracy-minded appeal, the movie begs for cultural context. There's no insight into the differences between Biggie and Tupac as artists, or between East Coast and West Coast rap in general. There's not even much detail about how the two started out as friends, let alone wound up such (supposedly) bitter enemies. As the observer of this cloudy biosphere, Broomfield's less interested in the big fish than the pond scum.
Much more compelling, even moving, is the idea that Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace got locked into thug life for the sake of keeping their raps real. The movie's moral center is Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mom, who gently dispels her son's self-mythologizing raps about growing up in one-room shacks with no food to eat. But his raps connected with an audience who recognized the truth in those words, and expected the figurehead rappers to live out the audience's own bling-bling fantasies of getting over by any means necessary. If any message is to be found in Biggie and Tupac's ice-cold ambiguities, it's that gangsters who wanna be music moguls stand a better chance of survival than musicians who wanna be gangsters.
The one that got away
Talk about thug life: The Notorious B.I.G. was a sucker MC compared to foreign policy's notorious Mr. Big, Henry Kissinger. Playing his access to the Johnson White House against the probability of a Nixon presidency, Kissinger leveraged himself into the key role of President Nixon's secretary of state, then anchored America's global supremacy through brilliantly strategized, brutally pragmatic realpolitik. He wound up with the Nobel Peace Prize, but the seething new documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger suggests he deserves a different honor: a seat before a war-crimes tribunal at The Hague.
At issue is the awakening notion of universal justice. If Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet can be charged with war crimes, journalist Christopher Hitchens argues, why not Kissinger, who engineered Pinochet's bloody rise to power in 1973? Hitchens, whose book The Trial of Henry Kissinger inspired the film, lays out the case against Kissinger along three fronts: the bombing of neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War; the horrific slaughter of the East Timorese by U.S.-backed Indonesian forces; and the overthrow of democratically elected Chilean leader Salvador Allende to protect corporate U.S. interests in the country's copper industry.
As filmmaking, the unapologetically one-sided Trials, directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, offers little beyond the usual mix of talking heads and news footage, but its unusual clarity and anger give it a political thriller's force. Like Bowling for Columbine, it's required viewing for anyone who's wandered around in a daze asking, "Why does the rest of the world hate us?" The Trials of Henry Kissinger blames the man who set the tone for U.S. foreign policy, as described by one accuser: "International law applies to everyone except Americans."
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