Friday, May 29, 2009

Non-Fiction Review: Bloggers on the Bus, Eric Boehlert

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

There’s a fairly decent test for determining whether a non-fiction book is a serious effort: See if there’s an end notes section in the back. The goal of any good journalist or historian is to provide as definitive a treatment of the book’s subject as possible. They should want any enterprising reader to be able to retrace their work, and if they’re particularly thoughtful, they know that their efforts are providing at least some of the groundwork for other writers’ efforts down the road. There is no implicit plea for trust on the author’s part. If one questions what is written, one can check out the author’s facts. And if one disagrees with the author’s analysis, it should be easy to determine where one and the author part ways. If there is no end notes section (or a bibliography, for that matter), the book is all but assuredly a work of “popular” non-fiction--essentially an airport read. While it may be engaging, it is no more serious journalism or history than a novel by John Grisham or Fern Michaels is literature.

I’m sad to report that Eric Boehlert’s new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press, is a journalistic airport read. There are no end notes or bibliography, and more importantly, there is no substantive reporting or serious analysis of its subject. It purports to tell the story of the liberal blogosphere and the 2008 election, but it treats events as anecdotes, and Boehlert’s handling of them gets more incomplete and disappointing as the book goes on. It is primarily a series of profiles of the most prominent liberal bloggers and Internet figures in the 2008 primary and general-election campaigns, and it drops the ball in this as well. Several of the most prominent figures are mentioned only in passing or not at all. In sum, Bloggers on the Bus is poor journalism, bad history, and an embarassingly slapdash piece of work. It's especially disappointng coming from Boehlert, whose work at has strongly criticized several reporters and broadcasters for many of his failings here.

The first chapter is representative of several of the book's problems. It covers the successful campaign to cancel a pair of Democratic presidential debates sponsored by Fox News and the Nevada Democratic Party. Many on the left felt that Fox, given its reputation as a GOP propaganda organ, was an inappropriate sponsor. In response, they launched an ultimately successful campaign to get the debate cancelled. Boehlert, though, can't tell the story straight. He lets himself get sidetracked by extended profiles of filmmakers Robert Greenwald and Jim Gilliam, which take up 10 of the chapter's 16 pages. He overhypes the importance of efforts by Greenwald, Gilliam, and bloggers like Matt Stoller in getting the debates cancelled. Judging from this account, the most important player was actually The biggest problem, though, is that the basics of reporting and research are ignored. Apart from Greenwald and Gilliam, the only person involved whom Boehlert interviewed is radio host Christiane Brown. He didn’t talk to any of the other principals, which include, Fox News, U. S. Senator Harry Reid, the John Edwards campaign, the Nevada Democratic Party, and the Carson City Democratic Committee. He fails to cite any sources, including reports from which he lifted quotes from Reid and Fox chairman Roger Ailes. He doesn't even give the dates of on-air complaints about the cancellations from the Fox pundits. It is hard to believe one is looking at the work of a professional journalist.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that the point is to provide a context for the profiles of the various bloggers and Internet folk. Despite the book’s considerable shortcomings as journalism and history, these are fun to read. The people given the extended treatment include Duncan Black (Atrios), Heather Parton (Digby), Jane Hamsher, Arianna Huffington, John Amato, Howie Klein, Alegre, Susie Madrak, and Glenn Greenwald. Boehlert is occasionally able to effectively build the entire story of a particular event out of his profiles, as he does with Philip de Vellis, who posted the anti-Hillary take-off on Apple Computer’s “Big Brother” ad, or with Joe Anthony, who independently created Obama’s popular MySpace fan page.

The major problem with the profiles, though, is that Boehlert doesn’t provide them for a number of important figures, such as John Aravosis, Jerome Armstrong, and Josh Marshall. The most shocking oversight is the failure to profile Daily Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas, who one would think would have rated at least a chapter or two. Regardless of one’s opinion of him, he is undoubtedly the single most prominent member of the liberal blogosphere, and Boehlert’s failure to give him his due leaves a gaping hole in the book.

The short shrift given Moulitsas is most notable for the lost opportunity to provide some needed history. The politicking efforts of the liberal blogosphere extends back at least as far as the 2004 primary season. Since then, there has been the pushback on George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security, Paul Hackett’s (unsuccessful) effort to capture a traditionally GOP Ohio House seat in 2005, and Ned Lamont's 2006 Senate campaign in Connecticut. A good profile of Moulitsas and the Daily Kos would have covered all of this, and it would have provided a good background for the other sections of the book.

The history Boehlert does provide is inaccurate and incomplete. He writes that the first political bloggers were Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan. He further claims the liberal blogosphere didn’t begin in earnest until 2002, when Jerome Armstrong founded MyDD and Moulitsas launched the Daily Kos. Actually, the first political blogger was Terry Coppage, who started Bartcop in 1996. The right-wing sites The Drudge Report and began in 1997. Bob Somerby launched The Daily Howler in 1998. Mickey Kaus didn’t begin Kausfiles until 1999, and Andrew Sullivan didn’t start The Daily Dish until 2000. Other sites that began in 2000 include Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and JennyQ’s now-defunct Media Whores Online. (Media Whores is also where Atrios got his start.) Jerome Armstrong began MyDD in 2001, not 2002. All of this information is available online, and it took me less than an hour with Google to put it together. The laziness Boehlert shows in his reporting extends to his research as well.

The two chapters devoted to the civil war that erupted between the online supporters of Obama and Hillary Clinton are particularly disappointing. In many ways, Boehlert misses the story. According to him, the key moment in the conflict was the Clinton-supporter walkout that Alegre led at the Daily Kos in March of 2008. The crux of the fight was actually the week leading up to the Democratic primary in South Carolina on January 26. Obama had unexpectedly lost primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada, so to bolster his efforts, his campaign launched a series of specious accusations that the Clintons were racists and engaging in racist appeals to voters. (The memo outlining the strategy can be read here.) Obama’s online supporters never cared for the Clintons in the first place, and the accusations of racism--the equivalent of child molesting to many on the left--gave them all the rationale they needed for an anything-goes jihad. The Clinton supporters, furious at the smears being directed at both them and their candidate, turned hard against Obama, with many seeing him as a demagogue who needed to be defeated for the good of the Democratic Party.

The Obama campaign had also been hiring a number of workers to blog for the campaign, and it’s widely suspected that they were used to astroturf the Daily Kos and other sites. If so, this certainly exacerbated the situation.

Boehlert seems oblivious to all of this. The racism smears against the Clintons in the days leading up to South Carolina are ignored, and he claims, wrongly, that the Obama campaign did nothing to provoke the online war. He fixates on the claims of sexist language being used against Hillary Clinton and her supporters, but he doesn’t research their validity. He doesn’t dispute the charges, but he doesn’t challenge the claims of innocence made by Moulitsas and others, either. The narrative devolves into a “he said/she said” argument between two camps.

The book almost completely falls apart when it gets to the general-election campaign. Boehlert depicts the bloggers as fighting the good fight against Sarah Palin and others, and the chapters feel like one has stepped into an alternate reality. Contrary to Boehlert, Palin got the better of the blogosphere. The misogyny that confronted Clinton got flung at her, too, and a particularly nasty smear about her children quickly discredited the Daily Kos community and other bloggers with the public. (In fairness, Boehlert does acknowledge this to an extent.) Bloggers, in Alaska or elsewhere, had nothing to do with the eventual consensus that Palin had no business being on the Republican ticket. What brought Palin down was her interviews with Katie Couric, in which she came off as completely unprepared and unsuited for national office. The establishment media does deserve some credit every now and then. Couric certainly deserves it with Palin.

The most notable thing about the political blogs in the fall campaign was just how unimportant they were. Boehlert notes that they were irrelevant to the Obama campaign, but he doesn't discuss how they became increasingly irrelevant to their audiences. The presidential race effectively ended on September 15, when Lehman Brothers went under and the entire financial services industry was facing collapse. Obama kept his cool, McCain didn’t, and that was all she wrote. The real story in the blogosphere was the sudden popularity of economics sites like Calculated Risk and Naked Capitalism. People were desperate to make sense of the financial disaster, and they wanted an alternative to the pro-Wall Street line being fed them through the corporate media. The economics blogs were doing what the political blogs had done in response to the Iraq War and the pro-GOP puffery of the mainstream news: They provided information and analysis people weren’t getting elsewhere. In short, they filled a need, and that’s what makes any human venture successful.

And sadly, that’s what may make this extremely disappointing book a sales success. The 2008 campaign, particularly the Democratic primaries, were a roller-coaster ride for many, and it occasionally left them not knowing up from down. There’s a desire out there to get some perspective on what happened--to put it all in context--and Boehlert’s book is, as of right now, the only place they can go. If it’s successful in the book trade, one can only hope it will motivate another publisher to get a competing book out there. Let’s hope that would be one by an author who believes in the importance of research, reporting, and getting the story right. That's the sort of author one would have expected Boehlert to be.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fiction Review: "Tattooizm," Kevin Moffett

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A remarkable aspect of fiction is its ability to captivate us with the lives of people we otherwise wouldn't have anything to do with. Andrea, the protagonist of Kevin Moffett's 2006 short story "Tattooizm," is an aimless 19-year-old slacker living in a beachfront Florida town in what appears to be the mid-to-late 1970s. Apart from her boyfriend Dixon, a 24-year-old aspiring tattoo artist, she has no real ambitions or interests, and that relationship has lost its appeal for her as well. The only thing holding them together is sex, which annoys her--she wonders if it is "turning her into a dull and contented cow." She looks forward to classes at the local community college that fall, but she's more engaged by her idealized notions of being a student than any interest in the work it entails. Aside from sex, the only thing she gets active enjoyment out of is yelling "Cajun" at the local drifters when the car she's in goes by them. The irony is that her attitude towards life isn't far removed from theirs--it's the same mindset at an earlier age. The wonder of "Tattooizm" is Moffett's ability to create such a compelling character study from such a dull, empty life. From the story's opening paragraph to its epiphanic conclusion, it is nothing less than captivating.

The conflict that drives the story is Andrea's resistance to Dixon giving her a tattoo. Dixon is, in some ways, just as much an overgrown baby as Andrea, but unlike her, he's not apathetic. He is engaged with life, but he's a fool--destined to be confounded in everything he does. He's the sort who will convince himself that driving the speed limit will mean his never having to stop at a red light, and he holds to that no matter how often it's demonstrated he's wrong. As for the tattoo, he sees it as a sacrament between him and Andrea; her assent to it would be a way of saying that, no matter what, a part of him would always be with her. It's permanent; it's a commitment. And Andrea, whose thoughts are inevitably daydreams to take her mind off the present, keeps putting him off. The only thing she wants of Dixon in the future is some clever way of describing him to friends and boyfriends down the road. She'll look back on him fondly, but with the affection she'd have for "an old toy or a book that she read in bed when she was sick." Moffett carefully builds the tension in Andrea's attitude towards Dixon over the course of the story, and it's not giving away too much to reveal that she does finally agree to the tattoo. The surprise is in the tattoo Dixon chooses to give her. He turns out to be not quite as big an amiably headstrong dope as he originally seemed, at least as far as Andrea is concerned. He fully understands her attitude towards him, and the tattoo reflects this. It's something she can choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge forever; no one will know unless she goes out of her way to tell them, and even then they might not believe her. It's permanent, but it only requires the commitment she's willing to give it.

What makes the story work is Moffett's effective shuttling between his development of Andrea's view of Dixon and his treatment of every other aspect of her life. The Dixon passages are the foundation, with the others like momentary departures from a melody that are terrific music in their own right. We see the fun she has with her younger brother while baby-sitting him, her looking back on her friends and boyfriend from high school, her fantasies about school in the fall. Moffett's pacing is immaculate. He never dwells on anything too long, and his rendering of the scenes and Andrea's musings are both concise and fluid. It's hard to imagine he has a high opinion of his protagonist, but his tone is so breezy that one never catchs him making a judgment. He demonstrates that no character is too insignificant for a capable writer; one just needs to give everything its proper development and weight.

"Tattooizm," by Kevin Moffett, is featured in The Best American Short Stories 2006.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fiction Review: "A Society," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The text of "A Society," by Virginia Woolf, can be read by clicking here.

Like most accomplished artists of the last century or so, Virginia Woolf worked in a number of modes. Her dominant side was her experimental one, which employed innovative uses of wordplay and character perspective, and which resulted in her most impressive work. The novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway are what immediately come to mind. But she was also a witty satirist of gender relations, roles, and status. This was Woolf at her most accessible and popular; if one meets a person who has read only one book by her, her semi-autobiographical feminist narrative A Room of One’s Own is the work that is invariably (and most fondly) mentioned.

Her 1921 short story “A Society” appears, at first, to be cut from much the same cloth as A Room of One’s Own. There’s little of the modernist approach to construction and effect that characterizes most of her major fiction; one can’t imagine anybody complaining about the story being incomprehensible or exceedingly arty. It starts off as a breezy, good-natured satire on gender roles. Woolf engages in a bit of her trademark leitmotif approach to words and phrases, but she keeps it in service to jokes, which is all but guaranteed to keep every reader on board. But the comic aspects of the early parts serve two purposes: they also provide a devastating set-up for the harsh ironies of the story’s latter sections, in which the entertaining absurdism of Woolf’s gender satire shifts into tragedy.

The story opens with a tea party. The attendees are all young women, and they’re completely caught up in thoughts of men; they can’t wait to get married and have children of their own. However, one of them, Poll, breaks down crying while listening to the others rhapsodizing. Poll is the most eccentric of the group--the one considered least likely to get married--but she’s not crying over her prospects. Her father has left her a fortune in his will, but only on the condition that she read every book in the London Library. She has done her best to comply, but she can’t take it anymore; most books, as she puts it, are “unutterably bad.” She reads passages from several works to overcome her friends’ skepticism, and the group comes to the realization that men may not be living up to their end of the social contract. As the narrator says, “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books.” The women create a society of their own; its goal is to go out in the world and see how men are living up to their responsibilities, such as running things and writing the books. And until they are satisfied that they know how well the men “have borne the books” and whatnot, they will not bear any children.

This leads to a number of entertaining vignettes. There’s the encounter with the ship captain who has, shall one say, idiosyncratic notions about corporal punishment. (The bit is like something barely cleaned-up from Anaïs Nin.) One of the women tries to understand the nature of judges, only to be left unsure if they are men or a whole other species of animal. Another takes her measure of a number of Oxbridge professors, who are so caught up with their goofy obsessions that she can’t imagine them producing anything of value--and these are who the culture entrusts to cultivate men. The suspicions created by the passages Poll read for them in the opening scene seem all but confirmed. Men’s pretensions exist for the knowledgeable woman’s laughter.

Woolf’s tone, though, shifts at this point. Others in the society outline men’s achievements in the world, such as the remarkably sophisticated operations of government and business. There’s no room for derision there. And an especially discordant note is struck when one of the women, who has posed as a book reviewer, can’t offer any kind of coherent report on the state of contemporary literature--her thoughts drift back to mundane pleasures and the vicarious joy in a colleague’s having his raised his sons in style. The women don’t know what to make of her comment that “the truth has nothing to do with literature.” And they certainly don’t know what to make of the cheers for a declaration of war that come from the streets outside. Rollicking humor has given way to feelings of unease, confusion, and dread.

The final section of the story is a dialogue between two of the women some years later. One has come to the conclusion that the women were better off in their ignorance--everyone is better off in their ignorance. At best, knowledge only makes humanity clever without substance; at worst, knowledge is joined with substance--with concrete goals--which leads to the suffering of war. Paradise was in not knowing anything at all. Woolf never makes or alludes to the analogy of Eve and the apple, but the resonance of the Hebrew myth in this story is inescapable. Knowledge walks hand in hand with horror.

And one realizes that the story isn’t feminist in the way one traditionally thinks of. Its point of view is not patriarchal--Woolf treats war as the culminating sin in that manner of thought, and it is a sin she clearly feels is alien to the female mind. However, in "A Society," she is not advocating that women step beyond their roles in the patriarchal structure. She’s not of the view that they can’t, but that they will ultimately reach a point where they wish they hadn’t. It’s an odd sort of feminist notion: women, unlike men, have the capacity to understand that it is ultimately better not to know. Knowledge is power, but ignorance is security. Hm.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Comics Review: Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The most impressive aspect of Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds is its evocation of contemporary life in Israel. Modan’s visual style is strongly influenced by Hergé and Tintin--she shares his simple “clear line” approach to rendering, as well as his love of heavily articulated backgrounds--but she has a command of social detail worlds beyond anything seen in his work. She gives every setting in the story a remarkable degree of authenticity. The streets of Tel Aviv, a bus-station cafeteria in Hadera, the apartments of the various characters--these locations and others are precisely and acutely observed. Modan’s storytelling also presents several other fresh details, such as the matter-of-fact, life-goes-on attitude of the characters towards terrorism. And through the conspicuous absence of Palestinian characters and their culture, she draws attention to the ethnic segregation in Israel and the homogeneity it imposes on the Jews who live there. This and the lifelike pacing of the story give Exit Wounds a you-are-there quality that is unusual and fresh.

The two main characters, both Israeli Jews, are Koby, a thirtysomething Tel Aviv cab driver, and Numi, an affluent woman in her early twenties. They meet at the tail-end of Numi’s military service. Numi confronts Koby with the possibility that his father, whom she’d been having an affair with, might have been killed in a suicide bombing in the city of Hadera several weeks earlier. There was an unidentified victim at the scene, and she wants Koby to submit to a DNA test to ascertain whether the body is his father’s. He is resistant to this--he and his father have been estranged for some time--but he eventually agrees and accompanies her to Hadera. A number of complications ensue, Koby and Numi both come to terms with their relationships with Koby’s father, and the two fall in love. Modan provides the set-up and outlines of what looks to be a promising story.

One only wishes that the narrative she develops was worthy of that promise and her considerable cartooning skills. Everything about Exit Wounds is first-rate except the script. The plotting is reasonably deft, but Koby and Numi are unappealing, poorly realized bores. The only time they command interest is when they’re reacting to the story’s twists and turns. Most of the time, though, their behavior falls into a pattern that becomes grindingly familiar as the book goes on. One of the two approaches the other to go along with some idea. The other stubbornly resists at first, only to relent in short order. They then crab at each other until one says or does something the other takes offense at and stalks off. However, they’re soon back together again, and the cycle starts over. There’s no wit or drama in the way these two gripe at each other; the reader is left marking time until a raw nerve inevitably gets hit. The love story is unconvincing; a beach interlude notwithstanding, there’s no sense of rapport between Koby and Numi. One self-absorbed pill falls for another, and for no apparent reason beyond the other being unusually tolerant of the other’s unpleasantness. Modan can’t build any narrative momentum out of their relationship--the story's emotional core--and the book ultimately comes across as a lavishly realized nothing, albeit one with a topical setting.

Exit Wounds, though, has garnered raves throughout the comics industry and the mainstream press, with the characters being treated as a particular highlight of the book. One has to wonder if the book is being praised more for what it isn’t than what it is. In sharp contrast to the stereotypical comic book, the pacing is deliberate as opposed to headlong, the approach to dramatization is understated instead of hyperbolic, and the characters seem rooted in observation rather than stereotypes. A naturalistic tone is unusual for comics, and perhaps that’s what these reviewers are responding to. But naturalism is nothing without dynamism--the various facets of Koby and Numi’s personalities, as well as their relationship, never add up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And the most acutely observed characters become hackneyed if they’re put through the same paces over and over again. Exit Wounds, for all of Rutu Modan’s visual prowess, is an eminently forgettable book. It reminds me of the award bait that litters movie theaters in December and January: topical, ambitious, and technically accomplished, but celebrated far more for intentions than achievement. A year or so down the road, no one will remember anything about it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Poetry Review: "The canals. The liquor coming through," Joshua Beckman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Joshua Beckman’s untitled poem beginning with the line, “The canals. The liquor coming through,” is an intense little piece. Over the course of its twelve lines, it renders two scenarios. The first is the aerial bombing of a bridge and canals, presumably in a time of war. The second is of an alcohol-fueled argument among friends. Beckman doesn’t describe these situations in much more detail than is included here; the lines are made up of sentence fragments, with the last one containing the only complete sentence. However, his use of repetition focuses the reader’s attention ever more acutely on the two sets of circumstances, and the juxtaposition of the two scenes draws a parallel between them--the bombing ends in devastation, and the implication is that the argument does, too. The repetitions of “The dead” in the final three lines suggests that it is applicable to both scenarios. And what at first seems the most incongruous of the fragments, “The wood in piles along the bank,” turns into the most chilling. It’s an apparent metonymy for the murder of one of the friends; the reader gathers the body is buried under the pile. This context makes the closing complete sentence, “A little anger grows inside them,” particularly disquieting. It echoes through one’s recollection of the rest of the poem--the “little anger” is the seed of violence both large and small. It’s the starting point for war’s devastation, as well as a rash, unplanned murder borne of momentary discord. This may seem a banal little insight, but Beckman makes it new through a canny understanding of construction and effect.

The untitled poem beginning with "The canals. The liquor coming through," by Joshua Beckman, was originally published in issue 8 (Fall 2006) of bird dog. It is included in The Best American Poetry 2008 anthology, and in Beckman's book collection Shake.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Film Review: The Visitor

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, is surprisingly enjoyable. The story is nothing especially original--it’s about a withdrawn man who learns to care about others and enjoy life again--but McCarthy doesn’t sentimentalize things, and he uses his cross-cultural spin on the material to keep the details fresh. He also gets terrific performances from his cast, particularly from Richard Jenkins, the veteran character actor in the lead.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a sixtyish economics professor at Connecticut College. Using a book project as a pretext, he cuts his teaching load down to one class, but he never does any writing, and he recycles his lecture notes for the one course he does teach. Walter is so disengaged that, about a month into the semester, a student has to remind him to issue a syllabus. His colleagues don’t interest him, he couldn’t care less about his students, and he has no friends. The interiors of his home in New London are so immaculately kept that it’s hard to believe anyone lives there. He is like a ghost walking through his own life.

Walter is a widower, and it becomes clear that he has never completely gotten over to his wife’s death. She was a professional concert pianist who also enjoyed a recording career, and Walter constantly plays her CDs whenever he’s at home alone. He has also resolved to learn to play the piano himself. But he has no aptitude for it, and after going through five instructors, he still struggles with such basics as keeping one’s fingers curved while playing. His inability to let go of his wife shows in other ways: he still wears his wedding band, and he has held on to the two-bedroom walk-up they owned in Manhattan.

Walter hasn’t been to New York in ages, but when a medical situation prevents a colleague from attending a conference there, he reluctantly agrees to go in her stead. After arriving, he discovers that a young couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), are living in his apartment--a con artist had taken advantage of his absence to rent it to the pair. Walter agrees to let them stay until they can find another place, and he becomes friends with Tarek, a charming, guileless Syrian who plays the African djembe drum in a local jazz band. Walter becomes fascinated by the instrument, and before long, he has a djembe of his own, having a high old time practicing with Tarek in the apartment and playing with other drummers in Central Park.

Richard Jenkins earned a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work here, and he gives a subtle, carefully modulated performance. His portrayal of Walter’s dourness in the film’s early sections is perfection: slumped shoulders, slightly stooped walk, and a manner of speaking that suggests an impatience to get to both the end of the sentence and the conversation. The strength of his performance is in how he uses these details as a foundation for the character--they’re his default position. He never abandons them, and the counterpoint they create with his happiness with the drums and Tarek’s friendship is obvious. They also provide an effective contrast to the concern and anger he shows after Tarek, who is in the country illegally, is arrested and turned over to immigration authorities. The most striking aspect of Jenkins’ performance is the way he uses Walter’s sullen mannerisms to suggest that they’re his way of conforming to a routinized existence. Walter intuitively knows where the line is drawn, and it gives an added edge to his most demonstrative scene, in which he rages at a detention facility’s waiting-room staff for their unhelpfulness, all while keeping the mandated distance from their desk area. Everything is within the rules, even when he loses control of himself.

Jenkins is provided with able support by Haaz Sleiman, who gives Tarek an open-faced charm that allows the viewer a more acute sense of the shift in Walter’s personality. Sleiman’s presence highlights Walter’s stuffiness, but it also brings Walter’s transition to happiness out in stark relief. He may seem too trusting and friendly towards Walter, but the extent of his naïvete is deliberate on Thomas McCarthy’s part. The difference between his attitude and Zaineb’s wariness towards Walter is so sharply etched that McCarthy clearly intends the viewer to see Tarek as something of a fool. But to McCarthy’s credit, he never invites one to look down on Tarek; he and Sleiman take one right inside the character’s feelings, whether it’s with his high spirits while performing or his frustration and terror during his incarceration.

The other two principal cast members deserve mention. It may seem that Danai Gurira isn’t given much to do as Zaineb. Most of Zaineb’s scenes show her being suspicious of Walter and impatient with Tarek, but McCarthy allows Gurira to hit some subtle effects, namely in how she seems to effortlessly convey Zaineb’s growing trust of Walter in the film’s second half. And Hiam Abbass, who plays Tarek’s mother, has extraordinary presence. Her manner is quite reserved, but it speaks loudly of the character’s pride and strength. She provides a strong complement to Jenkins’ Walter in the second half, and it’s quite satisfying to see the mother and Walter develop a rapport.

Thomas McCarthy gets wonderful work out of his ensemble, and he does a terrific job of realizing the story beyond them. One is especially taken with how enjoyably he evokes the New York milieu and its multicultural aspects. The nuances in some of the scenes are occasionally off. It's usually in ways that lead one to expect the scnes to conclude in a manner that never comes to pass, but he gets everything at the right pitch in most of the others. There are also times when his precision is almost uncanny. He doesn't overplay the visual joke of having the stuffy WASP Walter playing alongside the mostly African drummers in Central Park, and he never gives too much emphasis to certain dramatic touches, such as having as Walter look away while he presses a letter against the detention-center glass for Tarek to read. In these scenes and others, the dramatization is just right. The film is also superbly paced, and McCarthy never loses touch with the emotional core of the material.

The picture eschews a happy ending, at least in terms of the plot. Tarek’s story doesn’t end well, and Walter loses the new people in his life almost as quickly as he found them. But the film isn’t about finding happiness so much as it is about dealing with loss. The people in one’s life are never going to be a constant; the only constant can be one’s attitude towards life. To borrow the film’s key metaphor, one must always maintain the beat. The ending has Walter losing everyone important in his life once again, but this time, he’s not going to let that beat go--either figuratively or literally. He's found a triumph that rises from loss.