Decades later, true crime stories keep gripping viewers


This is a story that I sent to papers, but failed to post here. Sorry about that; here it is.

 

By Mike Hughes

Joe Berlinger has
spent decades in a distant corner of the TV landscape.

He makes
documentaries, in a world that prefers adventure and comedy. He's
drawn praise, prizes (two Emmys, an Oscar nomination) and little
attention ... until recently.

“I've never been
busier,” he said.

That's because of
the surge in true-crime stories. It peaks this weekend with:

-- “Cold Blooded,”
his two-part documentary on Sundance; the first half is 9-11 p.m.
Saturday (Nov. 18, both halves are 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday. This is based on the
case Truman Capote described in “In Cold Blood,” a half-century
ago. “When I read it as a teen, I was obsessed with it,”
Berlinger said.

-- “I Am Elizabeth
Smart,” from 8-10 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime, rerunning Sunday. It's
a scripted film, not a documentary, but Smart narrates it and says
the details are meticulous. “It's the best/worst movie I've ever
seen .... I'm very proud of it, but at the same time, part of me
thinks I'll be happy if I never have to watch it again.”

-- And all the
shorter stories. Two cable channels – Investigation Discovery and
Oxygen – now focus on true crime; network newsmagazines (“48
Hours,” “Dateline,” “20/20”) are also obsessed.

“We have this
unbelievable explosion .... We are swimming in crime stories,”
Berlinger said.

That can make it
difficult for the real people who were involved. Smart is 30 now and
her ordeal was half-her-life ago, but people still spot her. “I go
to Costco still now and what should be 45 minutes usually turns into
an hour and 20 minutes,” she said.

By comparison, Paul
Dewey – whose dad Al was the prime “Cold Blood” investigator –
has avoided attention. “Nelle's advice was to not talk to anyone,”
he said.

Later, “Nelle”
would be known as Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Back then, however, she was just an unknown who accompanied her
friend Capote to this tiny town.

Most people avoided
them at first, but not the Deweys.

“My mother was
from New Orleans,” Paul Dewey said. “The poor woman had moved to
this little town in Kansas. When Truman Capote came to town, it was
love at first sight.”

The book was
followed by an acclaimed, 1967 movie. Al Dewey “had mixed emotions
about it,” his son said. “His concern was that the film had too
much about the killers.”

Now Paul Dewey lives
in Oregon and has had little contact with the story ... until
Berlinger found him. After, “finding that he's a very serious
documentarian, I thought, 'Well, maybe now is the time.' I went
through all the old boxes that Mom had saved (and) thought this was
the chance to tell that story.”

There are chances to
tell – and re-tell – many stories, during TV's true-crime spree.

A master chef vanishes -- and re-appears -- in surprising ways


(There have been some fascinating documentaries late, as people take a fresh interest in American food and American chefs. No comes an  intriguing one, tentatively set for Nov. 12 and 18 on CNN; here's the story I sent to papers.)

By Mike Hughes

It's one thing to be
the best. It's another to do it and disappear.

That has happened to
authors (Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger) and athletes. And to Jeremiah
Tower, a master chef.

“He was there –
and suddenly he wasn't there,” said Anthony Bourdain, a chef and TV
personality.

So Bourdain produced
a documentary, coming to CNN. Producer-director Lydia Tenaglia (who
also does Bourdain's series) captured Tower's quiet life in Mexico
and his un-quiet past.

“He was a
celebrity chef with an open kitchen .... He was the first sexy chef,”
Bourdain said.

In 2014, the filming
was almost done ... and Tower suddenly un-vanished.

“We opened up the
newspaper and found he'd taken the job at Tavern on the Green,”
Bourdain said. Tenaglia “said this would mean another year of
shooting. I said, 'Don't worry, he won't last a month.'”

Tower quit in April
of 2015, after a difficult year at New York's mega-restaurant

In Tokyo, Tower once
met an acclaimed chef whose restaurant seats nine people. Tavern on
the Green lists a seating capacity of 1,600. “It's a chef-killer
.... On Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, it's like Yankee Stadium,”
Bourdain said.

That was an odd stop
in a far-flung life.

Tower, 75, grew up
in a comfortable-but-distant family. He went to top schools –
including an architecture graduate degree from Harvard – and became
a chef.

He reshaped the menu
at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Bourdain said, then quit when owner
Alice Waters took credit in her cookbook. He created the Stars
restaurant in San Francisco, then sold it in 1998 and semi-vanished.

Along the way,
Bourdain said, he'd sparked a revolution in American food. People
used to try dinner and a show, talking about the show. “Now you go
to dinner and talk about the food.”

-- “Jeremiah
Tower: The Last Magnificent”

-- Debuts 9 p.m. ET
and PT Sunday (Nov. 12) on CNN, rerunning at 9 p.m. ET and 11:30 p.m. PT Nov.
18.

-- Schedule could
change with breaking n

On a quiet Sunday, young Americans faced a deadly crisis


"The Long Road Home" -- the book and the cable mini-series -- tells a compelling story of young men caught in a deadly ambush. I had a chance to talk to two of the soldiers who also were military advisors for the mini-series. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

These men seem like
everyday slices of Americana.

-- Eric Bourquin is
a towering Texan. He's married, with four kids, ages 4 to 11.

-- Aaron Fowler
summarizes his life cheerily: “I'm a ballet dad,” he said. That's
sort of like being a soccer mom, except it involves whisking his
three kids to lots of ballet classes.

They seem to be in a
different universe than they were on Palm Sunday of 2004. That was
the start of a fierce ambush, vividly retold in Martha Raddatz's “The
Long Road Home,” now a cable mini-series.

“It has been part
of the healing process, getting the story out,” Fowler said.

Bourquin – a
military advisor on the film with Fowler – agreed. “I'm still
realizing what happened,” he said. “You don't understand it until
after the fact.”

At 6-foot-3 and
solid, Bourquin strikes a strong image. “Now I know him for the
sweet circus bear that he is,” said Jon Beavers, who portrays him.
“But at (first), he looked very intimidating.”

Bourquin left home
on his 16th birthday and was on his own. A few years
later, he joined the Army with, Raddatz wrote, “a strange fantasy
that some bad Iraqi would take a few wild shots at him.”

Even that seemed
unlikely when his unit arrived from Fort Hood in April of 2004. That
was a year after Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, 11 months after
George W. Bush stood in front of a “mission accomplished banner,”
four months after Hussein was captured.

The men in his unit
were new to this. “The vast majority had never seen combat,”
Fowler said.

Bourquin was 23 and
a staff sergeant. Assigned to a quiet Baghdad suburb, the men had
been in country for four days and were leading a convoy to take
sewage trucks to a disposal spot.

Then came the
ambush, leaving them with no way to get out. “I could see the look
in my soldiers' eyes,” Bourquin said.

And, perhaps, in his
own eyes, when he was point man in a harrowing moment: Trapped in an
alley, the men needed to get into a top-floor apartment that had roof
access. Bourquin had to shoot open the door and charge in, ready to
kill anyone who fired at him.

Such moments awe the
actors portraying them. “They will literally walk into a room where
there's a man with a gun on the other side of the door,” Darius
Homayoun said.

In this case, he
held his fire. Inside, Raddatz wrote: “Two Iraqi men stood frozen
in panic; three small children sobbed and shook in the arms of an old
woman. From an adjacent room, several other women could be heard
whispering.”

As it turned out,
Bourquin said, “they were very helpful.” That could have been
deadly for them or for him. “It was something I think about –
what could have gone wrong.”

Another crisis came
as the attackers tried an unprecedented strategy: They marched down
the alley, with riflemen in the back and children in the front. He
fired his grenade launcher twice; as did the soldiers, he tried to
aim above the children's head. Soon, more than 100 bodies were being
cleared.

The fighting
continued for days, until rescuers (including Fowler) could finally
break through. Eight Americans had been killed and more than 60
(including Bourquin) had been wounded.

Bourquin would
re-enlist; in all, he spent 16 years in the Army, including two
stints in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and retired as a sergeant
first class. Since then, he has tried nursing studies ... has walked
the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, to publicize the needs of veterans
... and has raised his family.

“These men have
worked incredibly hard,” Raddatz said.

Each man has
adjusted to a ballet, Little League world that's far from any
alley-shootout past. “He's become a good husband, a good dad,”
Raddatz said. “He's fought just as hard to be a good person.”

-- “The Long Road
Home,” eight-hour mini-series, National Geographic Channel

-- Opener is 9-11
p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 7), repeating at 11; it repeats at the same times
Saturday (Nov. 11), wrapping up a Veterans Day marathon of military
shows

-- Subsequent hours
are 10 p.m. Tuesdays, rerunning at 11

-- The Martha
Raddatz book was 2007, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008, Berkley

 

"Flint": A gentle approach to a gritty crisis


If you scroll a few blogs down, you'll see the storty I sent to papers about the "Flint" movie on cable's Lifetime channel. Here's one more thing, a review:

By Mike Hughes

The Flint water
story could have been told in many ways.

It could have been
stuffed with rage and frustration. It could have been political,
swinging at Michigan's power structure.

But “Flint,”
debuting Saturday (Oct, 28) on Lifetime, goes another way. It's more interested
in heroes than villains. It's sharply acted, beautifully filmed and
good-spirited – the approach that director Bruce Beresford
(“Driving Miss Daisy”) is known for.

“Flint” settles
on three real-life heroes – LeeAnne Walters, Nayyirah Sharif and
Melisa Mays (Betsy Brandt, Jill Scott and Marin Ireland). Sometimes
dismissed as “housewives” with no science background, they
battled the experts.

Oddly, a fictional
character (well-played by Queen Latifah) is added. That leaves us
with a muddy fact-fiction blur.

“Flint” is
harshest on Dayne Walling (Flint's ex-mayor), Steven Busch (district
supervisor of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and
Jerry Ambrose, who was
Flint's emergency manager for four months. It spares Gov. Rick
Snyder, except for brief criticism of state inaction.

Mostly, it
criticizes government for failing to listen to people ... and praises
the people who insisted on being heard. It also transports two
events:

-- The “smoking
gun” discovery that corrosion controls weren't used. Other reports
say that came from conversations between Walters and the EPA's Miguel
Del Toral; in the film, the women find it together.

-- The idea of
having Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrian, study records of Flint children. Other reports say that
came from a conversation with her former high school classmate; in
the movie, it comes from Latifah's fictional character.

But the overall
story – non-experts confront their government and sometimes win –
remains consistent. For a tragedy, “Flint” has some feel-good
moments.

 

-- "Flint," cable's Lifetime channel.

-- Debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 28); reruns at 12:02 a.m. and then at 10 a.m. Sunday

Poe's image was dark,demented ... and mostly untrue


This Halloween season has lots of creepy things, a few funny things ... and on excellent portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. That's Monday on PBS; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Each Halloween
season, Edgar Allan Poe seems to loom.

His poems
(especially “The Raven”) are recited. His stories (“Tell-Tale
Heart,” “Pit and the Pendulum”) are retold. His books are
reprinted. His solemn face is reviled.

He becomes, somehow,
a symbol of evil. “His reputation was buried, practically from the
moment he died,” said Eric Stange, whose “American Masters”
portrait reaches PBS on Halloween eve.

One of the first Poe
obituaries was written by an enemy. Poe's death, at 40, “will
startle many, but few will be grieved by it,” wrote Rufus Griswold,
who described a man as dark and demented as the characters he
created.

That was false,
Stange said, but it was soon accepted as fact. “I knew the Poe that
most people know from the Griswold biography, this invented
caricature.”

And that version had
just enough truth to remain believable, he said. Poe:

-- “Had a terrible
way of getting horribly drunk after one or two drinks and doing
ridiculous things.”

-- Married his first
cousin when he was 27 and she was 13.

-- And “had a way
of antagonizing everybody.”

He wrote brutal
reviews. He was quick to point out flaws in people who published him
(including Griswold) and employed him. He even attacked Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow, a beloved figure.

But this was also a
careful craftsman. He was, said “Masters” producer Michael
Kantor, “determined to re-invent American literature. Poe was an
influential and brutally honest literary critic and magazine editor.
He invented the modern detective story and refined the
science-fiction genre.”

Denis O'Hare, who
portrays Poe in the “Masters” film, said he's always admired the
precision of his poetry, but didn't know the rest. “I didn't know
how well-embedded he was in the actual world of literature and
magazines at the time .... He was somewhat of a literary
intellectual.”

And he was much more
than the fragile man people expect, the film says. He was a good
athlete and a good soldier, becoming a sergeant major at 20. He was a
West Point cadet (until he started mocking his teachers) and a
popular party guest (until he drank).

Still, there was
also that fragility. This was someone, Stange said, who “lost every
woman he loved, starting with his mother and foster mother and
everyone else.” He felt “just not part of this world. One of his
most famous poems, and I think one of the most moving, is called
'Alone.'”

Poe's mother, a
popular actress and singer, died when he was 2. His father had
already abandoned them and he was raised by a rich family, loving the
woman and arguing often with the man.

Later, he clung to
his aunt and her daughter, Virginia Clemm. “A rich cousin was going
to sort of adopt young Virginia and pay for her schooling,” Stange
said. When Poe heard that, “he just lost it .... His last bit of
family (was) slipping away.”

His solution was to
marry Virginia (then 13) and have her and and her mother move in with
him.

“It all sounds
very creepy and it's certainly weird,” Stange said. “But in the
context of his intense loneliness” it makes sense. “No one knows
whether the relationship was chaste for many years. People think it
was much more of a big brother, little sister relationship for quite
a while. And all the neighbors thought they were a wonderful, loving
couple.”

But she died of
tuberculosis at 24 and Poe descended further into despair. He
rebounded, gathered financing for a new magazine and then died at 40,
under mysterious circumstances. “I think he ran afoul of the
political gangs that were warring that particular week in Baltimore,”
Stange said.

Critics (including
Griswold) called it the end of a decadent life. A generation later,
supporters (including Walt Whitman) called him a genius. Either way,
he's a huge figure at Halloween or any time.

“American Masters:
Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive,” 9-10:30 p.m. Monday, PBS (check
local listings)