Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Consensuses form so quickly now -- faster than frost on a window pane. The vice presidential debate had barely ended last night when agreement emerged from within the vast media morass that Joe Biden had forcefully redeemed the honor of the Obama Administration, Paul Ryan did all right by himself and running mate Mitt Romney, and Martha Raddatz of ABC News had done a much better job at moderating than puffy and pompous Jim Lehrer did at the presidential debate earlier this month.
Biden got mixed reviews, though, for his gallery of reactions -- including smiles and outright laughter -- which viewers could see via split-screen on the TV networks airing the debate from Danville, Ky. Biden's laughter at Ryan's remarks seemed inappropriate much of the time, and his glances to the moderator as he laughed seemed to compromise Raddatz's neutrality, as if she and Biden were conspiring grown-ups and Ryan a mere toddler. Biden is 69, as anchors and reporters noted, and Ryan 42.
But at least Biden made the age difference work for him rather than against him, which may be what all the smirks and guffaws were designed to do. As a piece of theatrical calculation, it was certainly no more offensive than Mitt Romney's frequent interruptions of both Obama and Lehrer during their debate. Apparently rude and boorish behavior is okay during debates, or at any combative event, because all's fair in war, and what's love got to do with it?
All's just about fair in television, too.
Even though he seemed fluent and well-versed on policy and procedural matters, Ryan still came across as a trifle creepy on the air. The fact that his shiny black hair comes to a point on his forehead has inspired some wags to dub him "Eddie Munster," in honor of the ghoulish sitcom character. There is a resemblance, though in appearance only. Ryan tried to remain as calm as Obama -- without becoming lethargic and passive, as Obama did -- and let the legendarily high-strung Biden flop and flutter around like a new breed of Angry Bird.
When one candidate wasn't interrupting another, or interrupting Raddatz, or when Raddatz wasn't interrupting Ryan (Lehrer had seemed to interrupt Obama more than he did Romney, so maybe it all works out), Biden simply interrupted himself. The man has a very hard time finishing sentences. A word-for-word transcript of his remarks would probably give the impression he was rattling off gibberish much of the time.
But television's pictures can mercifully distract attention from even sloppily assembled words; maybe this debate will go down in history as similar to the very first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, back at the dawn of the '60s (or the twilight of the '50s, whichever), after which it was declared that those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon "won" while those who saw it on TV knew that Kennedy did.
Sensibly enough, the two vice presidential candidates were seated during the debate, with Raddatz between them at a horse shoe table. Perhaps only presidential candidates are required to stand up for the duration.
This was "a great night for our ticket," trumpeted blowhard David Axelrod, Obama advisor, on NBC (which had probably the most thorough and engrossing post-debate analysis); and speaking of similarities to TV characters, didn't Axelrod play "Maude's" husband in another life? And another era? Either that or he was one of the characters in the "Popeye" movie. Of more value on NBC was Andrea Mitchell's latest "Truth Squad" report on which alleged facts the candidates had mis-reported, intentionally or otherwise, during the debate.
One reason it may not have mattered to viewers that Biden was overly aggressive at times, or that he used his half of the screen to ridicule his opponent (obliviously orating in the other half), is that he came across as somebody with heart, and heart has been in short supply in the campaign so far, despite the fact that all candidates are quick to rattle off convenient anecdotes about little old ladies or adorable tots they have met along campaign trails.
Biden's emotionalism was a welcome contrast not only to Ryan's chilliness but also to the methodical, deliberative and sometimes icy demeanor of his own running mate, as least as that running mate came across in the presidential debate. "He does not lack for passion," Judy Woodruff said of Biden on PBS, and there was something reassuring and compelling about this, although one's reaction may have much to do with one's own generational perspective.
Maybe Obama was analog and Ryan digital. Analog with its imperfections but also its warmth. Digital with its scientific precision but also its cold numerical pallor. In their ways, the Democratic and Republican tickets each include a combination of the two; in the Obama camp, it's the president who's digital and the veep who's analog while just the opposite is the case with Romney and Ryan. This only refers to their media temperatures, not to who's a liar and who isn't.
So it was that David Brooks on PBS said of Biden that "he was more real" than Ryan and, presumably, than Obama. "More real" -- the kind of phrase that makes curiously perfect sense in the mad mad media age.
If Raddatz can be faulted, it would probably be for devoting too little time to the all-pervasive issue of the economy. The 90-minute telecast began with a lengthy segment on foreign policy, with special attention to Libya, Iran and Afghanistan -- not that these issues lack urgency. If Raddatz had a mantra, it was "be specific"; she wisely kept issuing that directive, or that plea, to the candidates, not that they necessarily obliged.
Among Ryan's prepared "quotes" was this capsule criticism of the administration: "What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy," he said in the first ten minutes or so of the debate -- and then, almost word-for-word, he said exactly the same thing in the last ten minutes of the debate.
Biden on the other hand turned on the folksy charm with words like "stuff" (decorously substituted for "bs" in its long form) and "malarkey," as in, "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey." He said of a Ryan statement, "Not a single thing he said was accurate," to which Raddatz countered, "Be specific!" (Were any other baby boomers reminded of "Be specific, say Union Pacific"?).
Sometimes Biden was almost maddeningly vague; it was occasionally impossible to tell the antecedent when Biden was accusing "them" of this or that. Did "them" mean the two Republican candidates, or the Republicans in Congress, or all the Republicans in the country, or what? But again, he brought such "passion" to his arguments that it may not have mattered, at least at that moment, whether they made complete sense or not. Parsing out his sentences in the aftermath of the debate -- as someone is bound to do -- will be a pointless exercise, because Biden and the world have moved rapidly on. He had used his "air space," as NBC anchor Brian Williams called it, wisely and shrewdly, and it was now history.
Ryan, meanwhile, was fond of declaring, "This is not what a real recovery looks like" more than once (as he seemed to say most things) when criticizing Obaman economic policy. And -- you know what's coming, don't you? -- this was not what a real debate looked like, either, but these election-year donnybrooks rarely are. While the audience for the vice presidential candidates will no doubt prove to be smaller than that for the presidential encounter (already it's been reported that use of social media was much less frenzied), these guys put on a much better show.
Did they change any minds? We don't know, but it's likely they did change the minds of anybody who thought the election is year is boring or insignificant. Maybe Biden and Ryan should meet once more and, again, let the sparks fly where they may.
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