‘New Yorker’ at Sundance — From Steers to Balzac to Al Qaeda

Could the CIA Have Blocked 9/11? Did Balzac Drink Too Much ……Coffee?

At the Sundance Film Festival

The New Yorker is keeping up with everyone else in the magazine business – almost everyone else — and perhaps is going beyond the competition, if the editors over there believe there is any. The magazine will now be commissioning The New Yorker Presents, a series of short films which will be available through Amazon – documentary, short-form fiction/drama, cartoons. Conde Nast Entertainment and Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions are producing the series. Gibney will be one the project’s executive producers.

A selection of the films were on view at Sundance at the Egyptian Theater in Park City last night. The results are more than promising – ambitious, imaginative and investigative. Sounds like the magazine, only less rooted in the ways of yesterday. For those who think that this new approach might be an abandonment of the style and refinement of a cherished institution, there’s plenty of the New Yorker spirit there.

What's Health Insurance?

What’s Health Insurance?

The Ride of Their Lives by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) takes on bull-riding in Texas. The sport was the subject of New Yorker article by – and James, who recently looked at the neurology of football head injuries, knows the glitter and the dark side of sports. Note the ambiguity of his film’s title.

In The Ride of Their Lives, James looks at two riders. One is a young boy, named Rhyder, who is pushed into riding by his father, a stern trainer who watches the boy get tossed from animals time after time, and chides him to be “a champ and not a chump.”

The other rider is a girl, now 17, a rarity at that end of the rodeo spectrum. She isn’t pushed into the punishing sport – she’s pushing her parents to let her keep riding.

James lets parents and children tell their own stories. If you thought that Texas football was a cultural terrain where kids pleased or disappointed their families, bruise by bruise, try life inside the ring.

Paul Giamatti as Balzac

Paul Giamatti as Balzac – it’s getting to my heart

Honore de Balzac was and is a world away from Texas, unless you remember his famous observation that “behind every fortune lies a crime.” In Le Café de Balzac, by Shari Springer Berman and Rob Polcini, Paul Giamatti adds a few dozen pounds, mostly to his face, to play the rotund and oratund writer, who was a prodigious coffee drinker of some fifty cups a day. Written by Bernard O’Hare, it is a portrait of an artist in excess – witty and mock-urbane, as much in the New Yorker tradition as anything.

Ali Soufan of the FBI -- He Tried

Ali Soufan of the FBI — He Tried

Alex Gibney, who attended a post-screening panel via skype – nothing if not the new New Yorker, was there with The Agent, a collaboration with the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright which took us back to the years before the 9/11 attacks. Gibney and Wright argue that the CIA knew that two 9/11 plotters whom they had been following abroad had entered the United States. It was an opportunity to pre-empt whatever those men might have tried to do, but the CIA never told the FBI about them. Instead of getting two prisoners, Gibney and Wright say, we got the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen which killed eight sailors and wounded many more (and showed the flat-footed vulnerability of a great power), and we got planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Agents like Ali Soufan and John O’Neill, whose warnings went unheeded, watched in frustration and disbelief. The names of the CIA officers who were responsible for not alerting the FBI, which could have arrested the plotters, are confidential. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, got a medal. Sounds like a choice between protecting citizens and protecting the careers of agents who failed to do their jobs.

It is an encouraging beginning, with work to come by Andrew Jarecki, Alex Karpovsky, Jesse Moss, Lucy Walker and many more. Check The New Yorker Presents or Amazon for more details.

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