They Didn’t Start the Fire
Susan Robinson is the soft, reassuring one, always good for a smile and a hug. Shelley Sella is the spare-framed former midwife who has clear eyes and a talent for straight talk. LeRoy Carhart is a trooper who has gone pudgy in his later years but soldiers on without complaint, a wheeled suitcase in tow. And Warren Hern is the tall old curmudgeon, reaching out for a new life and a new family after having been driven inward for years.
These four were associates and friends of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who was targeted by anti-abortion activists and murdered in 2009. Now Robinson, Sella, Carhart and Hern are the last four doctors in the United States who perform late-term abortions—and they are the subjects of Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s moving documentary After Tiller.
Like the doctors themselves, the film acknowledges the continual threat of death but does not dwell on it. Everyone has more pressing things to think about—on the grand scale, the need to carry on work that no one else is willing to do, and on an immediate level the duty to care for patients who are in terrible need. No evasions are possible. “I think of them as babies,” Sella says at one point, refusing herself the comfort of the word “fetus.” “It’s barbaric, unless you think of the woman’s experience.” With an unsentimental compassion that is again like that of the doctors, After Tiller also shows you some of that experience, whether it’s reflected in the restless hands and feet of women gathered in a support group or in the face of a woman who has just said good-bye to the son she had named Hudson.
If After Tiller does not feel grim, despite the overwhelming presence in it of death and mourning, that’s perhaps because it is so much a film about intimacy and trust—between the doctors and their patients, and between the filmmakers and their subjects. The art of it lies in the balance of the stories that are brought together, but even more in the ability of Shane and Wilson to get close to people—so close that the suggestion of heroism never arises. I suspect the term might embarrass these doctors, after they have let the camera stare at them in their weariness and doubt. But if a willingness to bear extraordinary emotional burdens of one’s own for the sake of relieving someone else’s suffering is a measure of heroism, then After Tiller is a study of people who have earned that word, and shrug it off.
* * *
Peter Morgan is good at writing movies about sparring partners—Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair, for example, or Richard Nixon and David Frost. Ron Howard likes to direct movies full of machinery—sometimes real (Apollo 13) and sometimes metaphorical (The Da Vinci Code). The two filmmakers have now combined to tell a true story, kind of, about the hateful, loving rivalry between 1970s racing champions Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and about the zoom roar ta-pocketa of the Formula One cars they drove. Howard and Morgan call the movie Rush, and that’s pretty much what it delivers, to no greater purpose than one of those five-hour energy shots you can buy at a deli counter, but certainly with no less of a kick.
Chris Hemsworth, best known as cinema’s Thor, has brought his golden mane and chiseled face down from Valhalla to play Hunt, the outwardly insouciant British driver with a reputation for recklessness and high living, and a habit of vomiting before every race. Daniel Brühl, fitted with a cruel prosthesis for his upper teeth, plays Lauda, the precise and humorless Austrian driver with a genius for automotive mechanics and the social skills of a rat, the animal he is often said to resemble. The cars, so far as I can tell, are played by themselves, with great verve.
Rush speeds into theaters at the start of the fall season as if it had “entertainment” painted on its side like a sponsor’s logo. And yet this movie engineered for conventional thrills is also designed to work against convention. It brings you to identify with the homely, uncongenial guy, while prompting you to feel a touch of pitying condescension toward his sex-god rival. The ostensible theme of Rush might be the management of the death wish, but what’s really managed, in a clever way, is commercial cinema’s imperative to be popular.
* * *
It might have been the eerie stillness of the apartment that unsettled me, or the fourth hour of watching Russian sailors voyage into the nocturnal nowhere of an Alexander Sokurov video, but sometime after midnight, when I heard the rapping, rapping, rapping, an intimation of the unearthly crept over my exhausted senses. Gathering my courage, I flung open the door. There he was, somber, ancient and as black as a raven: Rabbi Simcha Feffeferman, spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Tsurres.
“Rabbi!” I cried. “Why are you here? Why now?”
“I had to come myself to tell you this, young Klawans, and at such an hour?” he replied. “Think. When was the first time you invited me into your movies column—the very first movies reviews you wrote?”
“Of course!” I said, as he padded into the living room. “It’s been twenty-five years this month.”
“So, arithmetic you haven’t entirely forgotten, despite these things you make yourself watch. Twenty-five years you’ve been writing this column. And do you know what that makes you?”
“A senior figure?”
“How about, to be more accurate, something that won’t go away? Warts, coffee stains, credit card debt, anti-Semitism and what’s-his-name, he writes the movie reviews for The Nation.”
“Rabbi, I think it’s unfair—”
“Static cling, technological reductionism, the last guest at the party and you.”
“You come here in the middle of the night—”
“Atlas Shrugged, drug abuse in professional sports, these arguments ‘Is Hebrew National really kosher?’ and—”
“Enough! I know, I’ve hung around a long time. But that’s because the editors and readers of The Nation, bless them, have a conviction that it’s good to think about movies. That’s rare today, when so many publications have shoved their long-serving film critics aside, or decided to get by with consumerist blurbs. And do you know something else that’s rare? The loyalty that Nation editors and readers give to their writers. As far as I’m concerned, the only worthwhile thing to say about my twenty-five years is that I’m profoundly grateful for them.”
“So,” the rabbi said, his eyes softening, “it seems you’ve learned something after all.”
“Although not,” he added, “about the movies.”