June 6, 2018

On D-Day It’s All About Character

By Stuart Mitchner

As soon as news of the Normandy invasion reached the office of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the games scheduled for June 6, 1944 were cancelled. According to mlb.com, such a thing had happened only once before, on the day President Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923. Go figure: this is the man who until recently was considered by many to be the worst American president. And did you know that future Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was a Seaman Second class in a rocket boat stationed off the coast of Normandy on D-Day providing fire support for the invasion? Interviewed by Keith Olbermann on June 6, 2004, Yogi recalled, “Well, being a young guy [he had just turned 19], I thought it was like the Fourth of July, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.’ And I was looking out and my officer said, ‘you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’”

Of all the players in the game who could have been in that historic place at that historic hour, somehow it had to be Yogi. Why is it so easy to love that man? After making the obvious comments about his face (Yogi said it best himself: “I never saw anyone hit with his face”), the first thing that comes to mind is that he’s a character. Not like a character in a book or a film, but the opposite of snob: someone who can make you smile, surprise you, get your attention. When I grew up there was the damned Yankee stereotype and then there was Yogi, who was to the Bronx Bombers as Ringo was to the Beatles.

The Nice Guy Next Door

D-Day for the FX series The Americans was last Wednesday. No need to flash a spoiler alert about the final confrontation the show has been heading for ever since the pilot episode in which the FBI agent-next-door Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) sneaks into his new neighbors’ garage on a hunch that their car might be the one involved in the abduction of a Soviet defector.

While the “Americans” of the title are Stan’s neighbors the Jennings, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), and their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), Stan is the real thing, a capital “A” American, a loyal friend, and strange as it may seem, the show’s true hero. Through all six seasons he’s been the plotline’s foil, the hunter whose prey is right under his nose, a situation resembling, as others have noted, that of Walter White’s FBI agent brother-in-law in Breaking Bad. But Stan is something else. He’s big, a man with stature and a face that would fit on Mt. Rushmore. Above all, he’s the ultimate Nice Guy. He likes people, not necessarily a qualification in his line of work. The standard Hollywood FBI agent is the one Hannibal Lecter dines on with “some fava beans and a nice chianti” in The Silence of the Lambs. As lived by Noah Emmerich, Stan can appear at once formidable and hapless. At the end, there he stands, stunned, careworn, benighted, bereft, yet towering in defeat. In The Americans’ defining moment, the whole enterprise sits on his shoulders. Rhys and Russell, like their characters, are extraordinary actors who have appeared before us for six years in a dizzying dazzling array of disguises. Stan’s big craggy face endures, the image of the hard truth the series ends on.

Talking about his years with The Americans, Emmerich says, “Acting is an odd life in terms of that continuity and consistency and predictability. I’ve never had it. Now I’ve had it for these past six years, and it’s been really nice. I’ve acclimated to seeing the same people every October and having the semblance of a family, so it’s really hard to say good-bye to these people …. That intimacy, it’s a special environment.” That’s Stan speaking (“it’s been really nice”). Very much a part of the “family” is his KGB rival in love and war Oleg (Costa Ronin), who can’t help liking and respecting him. As with Yogi, who cannot like Stan? In fact, Oleg and Stan are the closest thing to a true romance in the series, whispering in one another’s ears side by side in their last scene, in Oleg’s cell.

At the moment, the critical consensus is that the finale of The Americans is a triumph worthy of a great series. After the long slog through the later seasons, however, the question is whether the series is worthy of the finale. The actors more than earned it, but did the writers? One of the major flaws of the concluding season is that Elizabeth spends so much of her time killing people in a discredited cause.

Action Painting

Now we’ve just finished and mostly enjoyed the first season of BBC America’s Killing Eve, where the life or death interplay of rogue MI-5 agent Eve (Sandra Oh) and the charming psychopath who calls herself Villanelle (Jody Comer) is infectious, the blood flows like wine, and clever lines abound, giving the show its giddy charm. The repartee reminded me at times of the witty heroics of Diana Rigg’s swashbuckling Emma Peel in the great
sixties show
The Avengers. But by the time Killing Eve arrives at the moment of truth we’ve been waiting for, where the disarmingly human Eve (a true character in the Yogi Berra tradition) and the devilishly cute Villanelle land side by side on the same bed, everything swerves off course, frenzy rules, and the two star-crossed lovers lose definition, becoming like figures swept up with gobs of blood-red paint in a gory action painting. Perhaps the “oops-we’re-on-for-a-second-season” element explains the hysterical denouement.

The Quest

Until we struck gold in A French Village (Un village français), which I previewed in a previous column, my wife and I had tried and given up on Seven Hours, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Collateral, and Unforgotten, the last two particularly disappointing because we were hoping they would give Nicola Walker something worthy of her talent. If you’ve seen her in River, Last Tango in Halifax, and as Ruth in MI-5, you know what we were looking for. She’s the essence of character. Give her the right part, and “everything is illuminated.”

We had the advantage of watching the seven seasons of A French Village, 1940-1945, from occupation to liberation, within a span of about two weeks. Even with the all-but-predictable falling off in the last two abbreviated post-liberation seasons (too many issues to resolve in too little time), of all the great series we’ve seen in the 21st century, this is the one that comes the closest to the television equivalent of literature. And of all the forces that make it great — writing, directing, music, cinematography — character is the key, the core, the Nicola Walker illumination. Again, thinking back to Walker’s character in MI-5, you know she’s at risk, you know for all her spirit and intelligence and inner beauty that she (like most of her colleagues) may die violently, and you want to close your eyes and look away when you see it coming. Her Ruth was that real — that precious. Now imagine at least a dozen characters in one show who have the same value, the same vivid reality, whose deaths or near-death moments leave you feeling awe, in a hush, watching, waiting, dreading. It’s the sense of flesh-and-blood humanity under the gun that makes A Village in France so special a viewing experience. In the fictional town of Villeneuve characters gaze into one another’s eyes on the point of death, whether it’s two brothers who never got along, or a couple who are falling in love even at the moment one has been ordered to kill the other, or a communist and a capitalist collaborator about to die in front of a firing squad exchanging a look and sharing an endgame laugh together because both have refused the last rites and sent the priest packing.

Now that I think of it, there’s no room for nice guys like Stan or characters like Yogi in Villeneuve, not under circumstances so grim. It’s actually preferable to find these qualities in unlikely people like the driven but very human police chief Jean Marchetti (Nicholas Gob) who is enchanted by a Jewish Scheherazade, sends her mother to a death camp, guns down a German officer to save her and her baby (his child), and ends up casually committing the most unspeakable act in the series.

Then there’s Heinrich Müller (Richard Sammel), who in the first two seasons seems perfectly cast as the blond, blue-eyed reptillian Gestapo officer, a morphine addict who uses burning cigarettes as instruments of torture. In time Müller transcends the stereotype and becomes a fascinating character. When asked what he liked best about A French Village, Sammel said, “It’s having the time to tell a man’s story and the time to reflect on it and the time to grow with it. That’s the invention and the benefit of a series, anyhow. You find a lost treasure and that lost treasure in TV or cinema is time. Normally, you tell a man or wife’s or couple’s story in an hour and a half. Here, we have seven years.”

Playing the Game

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking whether he thought there should be a 1942 season. Roosevelt’s response has come to be known as the “Green Light Letter,” in which the president said that baseball must continue for “the morale of the nation.” The same is truer than ever today.

Baseball quotes are from mlb.com; the Stan Beeman quote from an Entertainment Weekly interview, Richard Sammel’s from a conversation on YouTube.