On paper, it must have looked like a really bad political move: an invitation any seasoned political strategist would know to politely decline. Sending your candidate to another continent just days before a crucial and tight primary is ludicrous.

The only Rome a by-the-book strategist would have sent Bernie Sanders to last Friday is Rome, New York. Fortunately, it looks like either the team behind Sanders is as unconventional and risk-taking as their candidate or Sanders was really calling the shots on this one.

Bernie’s trip to the Vatican was a political success and it was even before rumblings about a papal meeting started to surface.

International Experience

One of the key accusations Hillary Clinton’s supporters have thrown at Sanders over the course of the primaries is that the Senator has no international diplomatic experience whereas Clinton, a former Secretary of State, has tons of it. While she clearly still has more, they can no longer say that Sanders has none.

Sanders was invited to the Vatican to speak at a conference on income inequality, a topic that is a regular part of his stump speech. When he was there, he was photographed chatting with Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. So now, Bernie Sanders has chatted with world leaders and spoken at a global conference in the Vatican.

bernie sanders evo morales

It’s what happened outside of the conference, though, that is really telling. Sanders was mobbed by the media to the point that it was hard for him to move through the crowd: the kind of treatment usually reserved for a visiting celebrity or an American President; the kind of reception President Obama got quite frequently when visiting foreign countries early on in his first term.

The imagery is palpable. Sanders is already meeting with world leaders and receiving the rockstar treatment abroad. While he wasn’t in New York campaigning, you had better believe voters in New York got to see those images.

Meanwhile in California

Clinton also took time off from campaigning in New York this weekend to have dinner in California with George Clooney and guests paying $33,400 a plate for the privilege of being in the same room as them. A photo with the pair cost $100,000.

So when Sanders was speaking out against income inequality, Clinton did her best to give the unequally wealthy special treatment in a rather over-the-top way. That irony wasn’t lost on Sanders supporters, people who make internet memes, several of which were either part of the media or the protesters themselves outside the event.

Even Clooney later told the media that the amount of money in politics was obscene and Sanders was right to criticise the system. He also spoke briefly with the protesters outside before heading in.

That juxtaposition, coupled with the fact that Sanders was now an international phenomenon, was enough to declare Bernie’s trip to the Vatican a huge (or rather Yuuugge) political success. But then another international celebrity entered the picture: the Pope.

Yes, Bernie Sanders Met With Pope Francis

On Friday night, the story in the mainstream media had shifted from Bernie wowing them in Rome to people making the point that he didn’t meet with the Pope. Even current Vice President Joe Biden weighed in, saying that while he thought Sanders speaking at the Vatican conference was a good thing, the Pope would not necessarily endorse him.

None of it mattered. Sanders had his international story and the fact that people, including the sitting Vice President were mentioning the Vermont Senator and papal endorsement (even to say there wasn’t one) in the same breath was an amazing victory for the Sanders camp. It went from “Hillary’s only primary threat is Martin O’Malley” a year ago to “Bernie’s almost done and should step back gracefully” a month ago to “no, he didn’t meet with the Pope and the Pope wouldn’t endorse him” on Friday.

That is momentum. That is changing the story. That is a campaign that is far from done and may go all the way to the White House. And that is all I thought I would write until I opened social media Saturday morning.

But then something I wasn’t expecting showed up in my newsfeed. Bernie Sanders had, in fact, met with the Pope. It was brief, five minutes approximately. It was at 6 a.m. in the foyer of the guest house where Sanders was staying and Pope Francis kept his residence. But it was arranged in advance.

Bernie Sanders was given an audience with the Pope. Even though Francis made it clear later to reporters on his plane that it was not an endorsement, something a head of state (the Vatican is a state) cannot do in another country’s election without causing a diplomatic incident, it was still a meeting.

This was the icing on the cake for a trip that any political operative thinking in “realistic” terms would have tuned down in a heartbeat. It turned out to be a yuuuuge success and well worth the risk.

If very few casual filmgoers pay attention to who directed the films they go to see, even fewer pay attention to the writers. This is a shame, because knowing who wrote a given film can tell you just as much about what you’re in for as knowing who directed it, in a lot of cases.

For example, if people knew, as I do, to treat the phrase “written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci” like a giant red flag with accompanying marching band, door to door awareness campaign and PBS after school special saying “don’t go see this one” then a lot of spectacularly bad movies wouldn’t have made the soul-destroyingly high amounts of money that they did.

And speaking of writers to look out for, Damon Lindelof. Lindelof is perhaps best known for being the driving mind and main writer for Lost, and has since gone on to write or at least have a sticky finger or two in the writing of Prometheus, World War Z, and now Tomorrowland. While Kurtzman and Orci’s signature moves include gaping plot holes and the kind of awkward, stammery humor that makes me want to take a nap in a cement mixer, Lindelof is a different beast. Oh yes, the plot holes are still absolutely there, but Lindelof’s favorite game is to make the audience wait a million years while withholding as much plot-important information as possible, teasing us with a mystery to the point of frustration and then finally revealing it to be something either nonsensical, patently ridiculous or some combination of the two.

tomorrowland posterWhich is exactly what’s been done in Tomorrowland, the new film directed by the talented Brad Bird and based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name. The film focuses on a young girl who is given a glimpse of a secret world created as a kind of city-sized think tank, where the greatest scientific minds can gather to develop their inventions and ideas without the constraints of politics, money and presumably ethics boards and any kind of accountability. Somewhere out there a despondent games writer is frustratedly deleting a word file marked “Bioshock 4 Story Outline.” Getting back to Tomorrowland, our hero Casey must enlist the help of Frank, a bitter inventor who was kicked out of Tomorrowland for reasons unknown.

That’s the bare bones setup, at least, the frame on which the story is hung like so much laundry. But the thing is, that’s not the actual plot. There’s more going on, some crisis that Frank keeps hinting at, some larger end goal that needs to be accomplished, and given what I just told you about how Lindelof typically operates, you can probably figure out that a) the movie spends the first 90 minutes or so spinning its wheels, refusing to tell us anything and chiding us when we, through Casey, try and get some answers and b) that when we finally find out what’s going on it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense and critically undermines a large chunk of everything we’ve seen up till that point.

There’s a scene where, upon asking for some simple answers, Casey is told by Frank “Stop asking questions, can’t you just have a sense of wonder?” and he might as well be looking dead into the camera at this point. Christ, there’s even a scene where the little robot girl that selected Casey and Frank to get in on this whole adventure pretends to shut down when Casey starts asking very simple, reasonable questions. Not for any discernible reason we ever learn, either.

The first 90 to a hundred minutes of Tomorrowland are a theme park ride, a series of distractions and light shows meant to distract us from the fact that, since we have no clue of the stakes, the larger goals at hand, what it’s all really working towards, we don’t have any reason to care about any of what we’re seeing. And then when we finally do learn what it all has been about, it turns out to be nonsensical, confusing, poorly explained and more than a tiny bit preachy.

Tomorrowland insert

People who saw Tomorrowland before I did described it as having a great first two thirds, and then falling apart in the end, but I don’t really think that’s the case. What I think is happening is that once you find out the actual plot, you start to look back on those early days of ignorance with a fond nostalgia. It’s like looking back at the days before you had to pay taxes or wait in lines at government offices. How wonderful and simple it all seemed then, you think, forgetting the fact that nothing interesting ever happened to you.

And what makes Tomorrowland watchable, with all its blatant Lindelof-isms is seeing Brad Bird occasionally break the surface before a slimy tentacle emerges after him, fixing around his neck and dragging him back down while it mumbles something about the mystery box. The premise is sound and rich with storytelling opportunities, and a lot of the visuals, action sequences and sight gags are fantastic. The end result is like when you have a friend who’s really great and awesome and can do great things, but they’re stuck in a toxic, oppressive relationship with someone who just wants to drag them down into their own mediocrity.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Lindelof isn’t to blame for all of Tomorrowland‘s failings. Brad Bird, as much as we’d like to deny it, is only human. It’s entirely possible that the problems with Tomorrowland are as much his own fault as Lindelof’s.

We’ll probably never know. But the end result, either way, is a visually dazzling, often extremely clever movie that makes you wait for most of its run-time to reveal that the engine driving it is actually a rube-goldberg machine consisting of old wind-up toy parts held together with scotch tape and optimism.

I think we should all resign ourselves to the fact that the United States will never stop making movies about World War 2. They’re like that guy at the party who always steers the conversation toward their favorite subject, and can deflect all attempts to change the subject like with the deft skill of a JRPG character swatting bullets out of the air with a samurai sword. At the very least, The Monuments Men represents the hope that there are enough interesting stories to be found in that particular conflict that this needn’t be a bad thing.

And the story of the Monuments Men is an interesting one, no doubt, one that had me seriously interested in the film from the first trailer. A team of art experts (most of them as at home in a theatre of war as I am in an extended social situation), dispatched to Europe in WW2 to find priceless works of art either hidden from or stolen by the Nazis and return them to their proper homes. That right, there is a good setup, rife with potential for drama and comedy, if the movie knows how to properly balance the two. Which it can’t, which is the first major problem.

MonumentsMen PosterIn terms of tone, The Monuments Men is an out of control car, swerving back and forth between somber dramatic moments and comedic scenes with such suddenness that it’s a wonder you can’t hear the film’s gearbox screaming in protest. One minute George Clooney’s ragtag band are finding casks gold teeth taken from concentration camp victims, the next it’s o ho ho, that silly Matt Damon’s stepped on a landmine, whatever shall we do. It’s not impossible to balance comedy and drama in a WW2 film, Roberto Benigni won an Academy Award and the right to briefly go stark raving mad on international television for doing just that. But Monuments Men seems unwilling or unable to properly segway between the two, like a vaudeville act double billed with Schindler’s List.

To make matters worse, the pacing gives the whole film this breathless feeling as it madly dashes from one scene to the next, like the first half of The Lego Movie, but without the presence of Batman to even things out. In the first half hour alone we meet our principal characters, see them go through bootcamp, land at Normandy, go their separate ways on different missions, and before you know it one of them’s dead already. Months will go by with almost no indication of the passage of time, relationships will develop off screen, and things like character exposition get shipped back home to the farm with a shot-off leg.

For most of the movie, I had almost no idea who any of the characters were, or what made them tick, and I got the sense most of the actors had the same problem. John Goodman mostly plays himself, Bob Balaban just sorta stands around and stares, and Bill Murray just looks bored, delivering most of his lines like he was nodding off and someone just nudged him with a stick. Granted, he gets one solid character building scene, but it feels like an island in a sea of blank looks and flat deliveries.

George Clooney and Matt Damon mostly spend the runtime trading dry wit and put-on seriousness, neither of them offering anything as interesting as a character flaw. The only one who seems to be trying is Cate Blanchette, playing a spy for the French Resistence, operating first under constant fear of being uncovered by her Nazi boss and later shrewd and distrustful of Damon’s pleas for help in locating missing artworks. Then she suddenly switches gears and starts not only helping Damon, but putting the moves on him as though, well, as though he were Matt Damon, with “It’s Paris” as the only explanation for her sudden character shift.


The whole story has this similar feeling of being rushed and underdeveloped. Things that would have made for interesting story lines, like Blanchette being blackmailed by her boss, or the tension between Clooney’s men and the Army brass, get glossed over, and often dropped entirely. There’s clearly too much story going on, too much of the actual events Clooney and co wanted to keep in the film, but weren’t eager or able to properly flesh out, and would rather have kept it in as this little vestigial stump of a storyline that could have been than cut it out entirely.

What this should have been, come to think of it, is a miniseries. Something in the vein of Band of Brothers, with enough space to let the characters actually have character, flesh out the story more and give the comedy and dramatic scenes more room to co-exist, as opposed to being crammed into the same narrative like comedically mismatched roommates in a bad sitcom.

I wanted The Monuments Men to be good, but in order to be good, a film needs to have at least some idea of what it wants from itself. Monuments Men can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy, a drama, a war film or a caper, and when it settles on one, it usually spends most of the next few scenes struggling to catch up with the story to make up for all the time it lost staring indecisively as its options, like a man dithering the menu at a restaurant and then cramming the meal down because he’s already late for work, making this the first film I think I’ve seen that actually has indigestion.