-A series of blog posts on upcoming film or tv releases, storyline by storyline.
The 'American Dream Cracks' Storyline
Although this being chosen first-up might seem because it's so timely, the fact is I'm tackling this series alphabetically by storyline. This is by no means a new storyline, with coverage going back well into the silent era. In this storyline, protagonists struggles to keep their notion of the American dream alive in their own life. As with other storylines, there are Romantic and Realist interpretations. In the Romantic school, the protagonists fight to keep the dream alive, and usually manage - week after week if it's a tv series. The Realist approach means the protagonists fail or become disillusioned. It might seem a timely choice as first-up not just because of the crisis in US presidential politics, but because of the #metoo scandal, where once-revered role-model celebrity figures have been named by multiple complainants as sexual predators, who for years have been using their fame and influence to intimidate or sideline complaints, or their wealth to buy them off with gagging agreements, in potential criminal cases. Celebrity after celebrity, often success-story embodiments of the American Dream, have been named, with no end in sight.
This has a disillusioning effect on viewing, so that for instance, watching Bill Cosby's old tv series is now a creepy experience - the revised perception being that the public face was just a clown mask. (Others have commented that the plot setup of Woody Allen's latest film, Wonder Wheel, about a man attracted to the stepdaughter of his partner, now seems creepy since the allegations about Allen resurfaced.) Studios have begun removing such earlier work from the tv schedules, as well as recasting or even partly reshooting current works, as happened with Kevin Spacey. Producers and directors have also been named, with alpha-male Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein facing criminal charges. (David Mamet has already written a play, Bitter Wheat, about Weinstein; no word yet on a screen version, but Brian De Palma says he is developing a horror film called Predator, for an unnamed French producer, inspired by Weinstein.)
The bad old days of the studios covering up crimes and misdemeanours seems at an end, with the prompt cancellation of the Roseanne Barr show over some racist Trump-style 3am tweets a reflection of the new order. What effect this background is having on works in development or production is not easy to say, given that scripts are often rewritten during filming.
A few projects have actually been killed off. Kevin Spacey has had his House Of Cards tv series wound up without him, and Netflix's Gore Vidal biopic Gore, where he played the title character, seems to have been abandoned in post-production. (He was also replaced, at great expense - his scenes reshot - as J. Paul Getty in the David Scarpa-written kidnap-drama feature All The Money In The World.) This was after Spacey was named in a series of sexual harassment complaints in the UK and US. However other projects may be cancelled over their subject matter being likely to stir up further controversy. Playboy Enterprises halted a planned biopic (with Brett Ratner directing) about Hugh Hefner, and there may be others we simply don't hear about.
to plot setups, among the “how are the mighty fallen” revisionist biopics of national
figures who fall from grace, just out is HBO's Paterno, written by Debora Cahn,
John C. Richards and David McKenna, about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. “the
winningest coach in college football history,” whose career ended amidst a child sexual
abuse scandal. The
difference here is that the main character was not himself involved in any inappropriate liaisons,
but seems (just going by Wiki) to have simply failed to do more than report the matter internally,
where it was predictably buried. The concern here is the broader issue of institutional cover-up
(the theme of the 2015 award-winning newspaper drama Spotlight).
|Other story setups revolve around actual moments of public trauma or disillusion, where there is a perceptible loss of confidence in 'the system'. The JFK assassination in 1963 was probably the first of these moments in the modern era. The Ben Jacoby-scripted drama Newsflash is set November 22, 1963, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite became the 'voice of America' in the aftermath of the JFK assassination. That also saw Vice President Johnson take over as President, the subject of the biopic LBJ, written by Joey Hartstone. The conspiracy theories that flourished in the wake of the JFK assassination may be part of the story of the 1965 fate of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. This is to be dramatised as a film or limited series by filmmakers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, based on Mark Shaw's true-crime novel The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death Of What's My Line TV Star And Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen. (The title says it all, though they'll need a shorter one for the marquee.)|
Kathryn Bigelow's period drama Detroit, written by Mark Boal, focuses on the 1967 race riots prompted by police brutality. Also just out in the US is Chappaquiddick, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, about the 1969 political scandal that ended Ted Kennedy's presidential aspirations of continuing the family dynasty.
The notorious 1969 'Manson Family'
cult murders, at the height of the hippie culture, of actress Sharon Tate Polanski and several
others in LA forms the background of the latest Tarantino film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,
which focuses on people on the fringe of the showbiz community. (Manson himself died in prison,
age 83, some months ago - which put the story back into the headlines.) The killings are also
the subject of Charlie Says, a feature scripted by Guinevere Turner (the screenwriter
of American Psycho) from books by Ed Sanders and Karlene Faith, focusing on the involvement
of a prison worker in the rehab of 3 of the 'Family'.
Left: The Post. Though set in 1971, the drama reflects ongoing American concerns about official lying.
|The events dramatised
in the recently released drama The Post [on UK DVD 21 May 2018], which has the
Washington Post standing up to White House pressure not to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
(They upset many Americans as they showed the US govt knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable.) In
fact the documents were leaked to, and published by, the NY Times, but the Washington Post did
play a lead role in the Watergate scandal, as already told in All The President's Men.
There are two upcoming tv miniseries about this multi-faceted 1970s scandal which brought down
Nixon and made US conspiracy theory more mainstream.
George Clooney is backing an 8-part Watergate drama being written by Bridge Of Spies scriptwriter Matt Charman, for Netflix. (“The series is said to follow an individual who was significantly part of the Watergate scandal in each episode, following such players like Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon counsel John Ehrlichman. The Watergate series will also be modelled after the Japanese drama Rashomon.”) And CBS TV is developing a series based on the 2012 novel Watergate by Thomas Mallon [director of Creative Writing at George Washington U], with a script by John Orloff [Band Of Brothers etc], which focuses on the politicians rather than the press. Meanwhile, the feature Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House, adapted by director Peter Landesman and John D. O'Connor from the nonfiction books by Felt (Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat" source for Watergate), is already out in the US, though not in Britain. (His Deep Throat cover-name being taken already by a famous porn film, are they hoping a shorter, more marketable title will materialise?)
presidential assassination attempts are the subject of a couple of new dramas. A yet-untitled Warner
Bros drama being scripted by Daniel Pearle deals with the 2nd attempt to shoot President Gerald
Ford in September 1975. (The first was by one of the Manson Family, “Squeaky" Fromme,
but her gun misfired.) The 2nd attempt, by Sara Jane Moore, in San Francisco, led to ex-Marine
Oliver Sipple, who foiled the attack by knocking her gun arm, having his life ruined when he was
outed as gay by a friend, SF gay activist Harvey Milk, who wanted to publicise him as a 'gay hero'.
(Milk was himself assassinated along with SF's also gay mayor, in 1978).
The 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life (by someone obsessed with impressing actress Jodie Foster) in Washington is the subject of Rawhide Down, a spec script by Alex Cramer, dramatising events in real time. (The Secret Service codephrase was also the title of the 2011 book by Del Quentin Wilber. This near-assassination was the subject of previous films, right.)
Above: the 2001 tv film The Day Reagan Was Shot written by its director Cyrus Nowrasteh, and [mouse over] National Geographic’s 2016 Killing Reagan, written by Eric Simonson from the 2015 book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.
Left: David Simon's 8-episode HBO series The Deuce.
|The sleazy 70s New York porn scene (previously visited in Taxi Driver) is the setting of George Pelecanos and David Simon's 8-episode HBO series The Deuce, on "the birth of the modern pornography business in New York City in the early 1970s." Given the way Simon has demonstrated, in The Wire, how he can turn urban grime into state-of-the-nation drama, we should probably list this here without worrying about plot particulars. Season 2 will premiere in September.|
plot setup, which has roots in the postwar American novel (cf Thomas Wolfe), the 'you can't go
home again' setup, has few current development examples. There’s certainly no sign of a film
version of the recent big literary schocker here, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
sequel Go Set A Watchman, published in 2015, to great consternation over its ‘revisionist’
view. (It has the protagonist’s ageing father Atticus now attending segregationist meetings.)
This may be related to the litigious nature of the author’s estate (she died in Feb 2016),
which recently tried to block a Broadway stage version of TKAM adapted by West Wing
creator Aaron Sorkin, on the grounds of some textual changes which seem to reflect awareness of
the GSAW followup. (That suit has been settled, but no word of any tv version of the new
The dark side of Small Town America is instead explored in CBS All Access’s new series created by Jason Mosberg, One Dollar, “set in a small rust belt town in post-recession America. The story follows a one-dollar bill that changes hands and connects a group of characters involved in a shocking multiple murder. The path of the dollar bill and point of view in each episode paint a picture of a modern American town with deep class and cultural divides that spill out into the open.”
There is also HBO's 8-hour adaptation of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn's 2006 novel Sharp Objects, debuting in July, though here the protagonist only goes home, to the Missouri small town where she was born, as a reporter to investigate the murders of two girls.)
A particular opportunity for nostalgia
currently being revisited is the US space program, whose glory days were in the 60s.
into trouble abroad became a staple plot setup in the 1970s-80s, as more US citizens travelled
to Europe and often got involved in the counterculture scene. Americans also discovered they were
resented as the world's wealthiest people, and often became the terrorist and kidnap targets of
The apparent kidnapping by Italian gangsters of the 16-year-old grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty (his penny-pinching grandfather was sceptical and refused to pay) is the subject of two dramas. The David Scarpa-written feature All The Money In The World has Getty played by Christopher Plummer (replacing scandal-hit Kevin Spacey, whose scenes were reshot), while FX Channel's Trust, created by Simon Beaufoy, (with Getty played by Donald Sutherland) is a 10-part series on the same 1973 events, to be shown in the UK on BBC2.
Left - FX Channel's Trust: The story setup offers another 70s-era tie-in motif, the generation-gap clash over lifestyles and values, and the artwork reflects this. (Getty, considered the world's richest man, was obsessively frugal but collected paintings and presented himself as an arts-supporting philanthropist.)
|The American who becomes so frustrated with the ineffectiveness or corruption of the US justice system that he turns vigilante is a story setup that became popular in the 1970s, its most successful outing, commercially if not critically, being Death Wish in 1974. It continues today with films like the 2014 The Equalizer, which has an upcoming sequel. The Equalizer 2 (2018), scripted by Richard Wenk, again uses the 1980s tv-series setup created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim, of an ex-CIA black-ops agent retired but advertising his services to help others achieve justice [ie revenge] against those who are otherwise above the law. Here, he goes after the men who killed a friend.|
The historically-based Paramount 6-ep miniseries Waco, created by executive producers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, dramatises a still-notorious debacle, the 1993 siege by paramilitary-style federal forces [over firearms paperwork] of a compound in Texas that led to a massacre of 76 people including children (many killed by burning CS gas) - and to greater distrust of the Feds by many Americans, as well as precipitating armed hostilities with other anti-govt groups and leading to further domestic terrorism. (The Oklahoma City bombing was claimed as a direct reprisal.)
|The trauma of 9/11
is being relived in Only Plane In The Sky, written by Liz Hannah (screenwriter
on The Post) based on eyewitness accounts, set aboard Air Force One on the day when all
other planes except the president's were ordered to land or be shot down. The U.S. intelligence
failures which led to the CIA and FBI not coordinating to prevent 9/11, despite the many clues
it was about to happen, are the subject of Hulu's 10-ep drama The Looming Tower,
based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction novel.
Set in the days after 9/11 is the fact-based The True American, a human-interest drama being adapted for Kathryn Bigelow from Anand Giridharadas's nonfiction book, about immigrant Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladesh Air Force veteran, who worked to save self-styled “Arab slayer” Mark Stroman from death row, after he shot Bhuiyan in the head and killed two other Muslim immigrants in a Dallas-area convenience store shooting spree. The CIA's notorious post-9/11 "war on terror" rendition and extreme interrogation programme is the subject of The Torture Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns.
Shock and Awe (2018), written by Joey Hartstone, about a group of journalists (including the legendary Joe Galloway of We Were Soldiers fame) from the Knight Ridder newspaper chain investigating the Bush White House's fake news story that Saddam Hussein had 'weapons of mass destruction' ready to use in 45 minutes, in order to justify their pre-planned 2003 invasion of Iraq. (As with the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, this was the start of a very long scandal which shook many Americans' faith in their government.)
|Since the post-9/11 Gulf and Iraq wars of the 2000s, another plot setup has appeared within this storyline: the military veteran isolated on his return to America by PTSD. Thank You For Your Service, adapted by writer-director Jason Hall (who co-wrote Clint Eastwood's 2014 American Sniper), from David Finkel's 2013 book, deals with three returning Iraq vets. The Yellow Birds, adapted by David Lowery & R.F.I. Porto from the semi-autobiographical novel by Iraq War vet Kevin Powers, has a 20-year-old searching for a missing buddy while coping with his own PTSD. A Brotherhood, from writer-director Bandar Albuliwi, was inspired by an actual incident and has an Iraq war vet “forced to return to the Middle East after ISIS kidnaps his estranged brother.”|
Left: Sicario , currently being sequelled [see below].
|The failed “War
on Drugs” can also be regarded as a symptom of the failure of the American Dream, or at least
the disastrous failure of official policy. The chilling 2015 Sicario, written by Taylor
Sheridan, on the cross-border cartel-driven drug war turning the US justice system into a fig leaf
for black ops, now has a sequel, subtitled Soldado. Here, drug running and people
smuggling are officially classified by Washington as terrorism, and treated with even greater ruthlessness.
(It doesn't feature the same lead female character, and seems from its trailer like more of a revenge-rampage
drama, with an officially sanctioned 'sting' op that goes wrong.) A 'Sicario 3' is also in the
works, with no title or release date yet.
Netflix has also produced the drama series Amo, about the drug war in Philippines, where officialdom has openly taken off the gloves in its war on drugs. There's an industry rumour Sylvester Stallone is writing Rambo 5, where the ageing Viet vet takes on a Mexican cartel single-handed. (The earlier rumour was he would tackle ISIS in Iraq and Syria in this final outing, titled Last Blood, but his rep denied this.) A new version of Universal Pictures’ Scarface is also in the works, being billed as a "re-imagining", with a long list of scriptwriter names tackling it in turn, but no word yet how it will be updated in setting to make it contemporary, only that it will be set in LA - rather than in Chicago, as in 1932, or Miami, as in 1983. (Both earlier films had a factual background, using Al Capone and the Cuban Boat People respectively.)
The 2015 Sicario [above] was
a grim portrait of the US administration sinking into the mire of the cross-border drugs war,
with the sequel, Sicario 2: Soldado [below] evidently ramping up the ruthlessness of the [un]official
Whereas the first Scarface
dealt with bootleg champagne etc as the great moneymaker in Prohibition America, the 1980s remake
had its gangster characters deal in cocaine brought in from South America, for this was by then
the drug of choice for those who could afford it. Cocaine has continued to distort American society,
as Sicario shows.
|The latest trauma for many suggesting the American Dream is cracking has been Donald Trump's becoming President - despite losing the popular vote to Hilary Clinton. The bestselling exposé Fire And Fury by Michael Wolff, about "the first chaotic year of Trump's White House" is to become a TV series from the company that produced Patrick Melrose. ("Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book." -Trump 3am tweet.) HBO cancelled a project about the 2016 election following #Metoo allegations against its writer, political journalist Mark Halperin, but it may continue with another writer. Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal is also working on a miniseries, yet untitled, about Trump's election. (Earlier, we also had Donald Trump's The Art Of The Deal: The Movie, a 40-min web-tv indie spoof written by Joe Randazzo, made in 2016 as a spinoff from the 'Funny Or Die' HBO series, here pretending to be a 1988 docu made by DT himself, based on his 1987 book, starring Johnny Depp and Ron Howard.) There's also an ongoing satiric animated tv series, Our Cartoon President, which began as a segment on Stephen Colbert's late-night talk show, with 17 episodes now commissioned. In the works is The Apprentice, a biopic being scripted by Gabe Sherman, a journalist specialising in political sex scandals, on 'how a young Donald Trump set himself on the unlikely path to become President'. (And, as Trump would put it in his mis-spelled tweets, "Make America Grate Again.")|
Re the USA’s
biggest current who-are-we national-identity-crisis controversy, the enforced separation of immigrant
children from their parents, there is at least one related work in development, an MGM/WB film,
scripted by Tracy Oliver. from Nicola Yoon’s YA bestselling novel The Sun Is Also
A Star, about a Jamaican girl in New York who falls in love just before her family is
about to be deported back to Jamaica.
|The realist and
satiric works above are obviously quite different from the more romantic treatment of the storyline
from the viewpoint of frontline public services tv series, where week after week the protagonists
reassuringly fight to keep alive their corner of the American Dream (if not Superman's “Truth,
justice and the American Way”, at least their professional integrity in the face of
political corruption, bureaucratic incompetence etc.) New on the block in terms of police and emergency
services drama series are The Rookie, written by Alexi Hawley, inspired by a true
story, about the oldest rookie [at age 40] in the LAPD; Safe Harbor, which “chronicles
the colorful, complicated lives of cops on and off the beat”; Station 19,
set in a Seattle firehouse (evidently a spinoff - set in the same neighbourhood of hospital drama
Grey's Anatomy). The Good Fight (a spinoff from The Good Wife)
has the female partners of a Chicago law firm taking on police brutality etc cases.
And the longest-running 'lawfare' series of all, the cops-and-prosecutors investigative-procedural drama Law & Order, has officially ended its 20-year broadcast run, but its creator Dick Wolf says he hopes to continue it under other auspices. With its focus on 'ripped from the headlines' plots, a relaunched L&O should, in Trumpian America, not lack for what is called 'hot button issue' material.
Showrunner Dick Wolf is currently producing a new procedural series, simply titled FBI, also set in NYC. This will also likely have plots built around contemporary issues. It won't air till autumn 2018 but the episode being trailed on YouTube etc has a white-supremacist financier behind a sophisticated bombing campaign designed to provoke a race war.
At the lower
end of the economic spectrum, we also have Americans struggling to make ends meet in the face
of medical etc bills and being led to desperate measures, perhaps drug-related. (Breaking
Bad may have been a trendsetter here, though the plot setup often also reflects the Thoreau
quote about the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation.)
With the economic crunch, the idea of 'downsizing' one's lifestyle is a popular idea. The premise of the satire Downsizing, co-written by director Alexander Payne with Jim Taylor, is to take the idea literally, with the protagonists scientifically reduced to 5” high to save expenditure on resources, but - according to the reviews - discovering social problems persist regardless in their new small-scale planned community.
Here And Now, an HBO comedy-drama series by Six Feet Under creator lan Ball, described as “a provocative and darkly comic meditation on the disparate forces polarizing present-day American culture” evidently proved over-ambitious for a mainstream US audience, with its diverse domestic setup involving “the members of a progressive multi-ethnic family - a philosophy professor and his wife, their adopted children from Vietnam, Liberia and Colombia, and their sole biological child - and a contemporary Muslim family, headed by a psychiatrist who is treating one of their children.” (There's also a supernatural aspect.) It has not been renewed but Season One is still out there [trailer here].
Another 'all-in' melting-plot setup seems to be Universal TV's ensemble drama The Village, written by executive producer Mike Daniels (Sons Of Anarchy), about residents of a NYC apartment building interacting. ("All under one roof are a recovering war vet, a pregnant teenage girl and her single mom, a cop with an unexpected love interest, a woman hiding a terrifying secret from her husband and a millennial lawyer who might find his grandfather is the best and worst roommate he ever could have hoped for.") The premise seems to be all-human-life is here, at least as found in contemporary America. (The setup where protagonists, having moved away from their birth family, find social support in the big city via their work colleagues or room-mates is of course nothing new.)
cynical-sounding punningly-titled Americons seems to embrace two unrelated dramas,
one a 2017 indie drama about the mid-2000s US property market crisis, and the other a comedy drama
in the works for Sky One being scripted by English comedienne Catherine Tate, as a vehicle for
herself and her Scots costar David Tennant, playing a Brit couple who move to the US with high
The low-budget indie production Walden: Life In The Woods, scripted by Adam Chanzit, has 3 modern-day protagonists (in 3 separate plot strands) trying to keep the dream alive in their own way, by touching base with the ideas of a classic American-dream text, Thoreau's Walden. (That's the 1854 text that opens its argument for living 'deliberately' with the setup line “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”)
| A tv-series version
of an American classic novel sequence, John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ novels, which began
with Rabbit, Run in 1960, is being developed by Andrew Davies, regarded as ‘Britain’s
most successful literary adapter for television’ [House Of Cards etc]. Updike: ‘My
subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class’, characterised by men whose
high-school promise was never fulfilled. The 5-novel sequence ended in 2001, after winning awards
like the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. Since the original
May 2018 announcement, the 81-year-old Davies said he was struggling to convince his 20-something
female script editor that the project was not simply endorsing the way men behaved then –
the matter of “how, in the era of #MeToo, TV and film-makers should depict behaviour
that is no longer considered acceptable.”
Right: Still from the unsuccessful film version of Rabbit, Run, announced in 1963 and released in 1970; it was adapted by its producer Howard B. Kreitsek, and re-edited by the studio.
[c] Storylines In Review 2018