Friday, 29 April 2016

Sport by Numbers: Number 3

Today's sporting number comes from the hotly contested series from one to fifteen. These are the numbers that cover the action for all but the most lunatic of sporting occasions and, as a result, have come to be associated with all kinds of different personalities and disciplines. Number 3 is the number that AC Milan retired in honour of their stalwart defender Paolo Maldini; it is also the number carried by the legendary Dale Earnhardt throughout his career in stock car racing.

However, it would have been remiss of me to not award my number 3 to the Sultan of Swat. The 20th Century saw the invention of many things that we now accept as facts of life without really thinking about them and one of these was international sporting superstars. George Herman "Babe" Ruth was one of the first and, over a century on from his Major League Baseball debut, he remains one of the biggest. If he hadn't been born, someone would have had to invent him.

George Herman "Babe" Ruth 1895-1948

Friday, 22 April 2016

Sport by Numbers: Number 33

Today begins a new series of pictures combining sport and the iconic numbers associated with some of its greatest practitioners. I'll be trying to add a new one every Friday morning, but you know what I'm like. Flaky.

Keen-eyed viewers will also notice that I am not doing them in any kind of order, least of all numerical order. This is a deliberate strategem on my part to make the project seem like more fun and less like a self-imposed prison. Where, of course, the gaoler is me and the terms are fairly lenient. Flaky, you see.

Anyway, the first entrant is probably best known to British people as the co-pilot in the 1980 disaster comedy film Airplane! but the majority of Americans recognise him instead as perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Virtually every other rival he has for that title is also on my list awaiting being drawn by the way, so don't panic too much.

He is also an excellent reminder that US sporting greats can appear in motion pictures and not subsequently murder their wife.

Number 33: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: Countdown To Looking Glass

Countdown To Looking Glass is an unlikely name for a film but it has a similarly unlikely premise: financial instability caused by a banking collapse suddenly intensifies the significance of a regional dispute in the Middle East, one that quickly descends into a proxy war between the Soviet Union and NATO forces which threatens to spill over into a global conflagration. None of this could ever happen.

As the new Soviet-backed, some say puppet, regime get down to business in Oman, the Western news media swing into action to help placate and inform the viewing trillions. The responsible souls of the major news outlets understand the significance of their role and would never dream of trying to spread panic or propaganda. They are our true heroes.

The disaster movie-as-faux-real-time-news-coverage is not an unusual concept, nor did it begin with Countdown To Looking Glass - 1983's Special Bulletin is a notable earlier example. However, Countdown has a few interesting twists and tweaks to the format designed to keep things fresh and interesting. Firstly, they engage the services of real life contributors: veteran American TV news stalwarts Eric Sevareid and Nancy Dickerson both appear as themselves as a senior analyst and senior reporter respectively. Additional opinion is provided by US Senator (and five-time former Presidential candidate) Eugene McCarthy, defence analyst Lincoln Bloomfield and Congressman (and all-round right wing diarrhoea cannon) Newt Gingrich. Although it is perhaps debatable as to the exact degree which each of the above understood what was actually going on, it nevertheless adds an interesting vérité to proceedings.

Patrick Watson and Newt Gingrich in Countdown To Looking Glass (1984)
Don Tobin reports in Countdown To Looking Glass, shortly before kissing his ass goodbye

The second change to the format is that the real time news coverage is broken up by portions of melodrama, dealing with the real lives of both the lead anchor Don Tobin (played by Canadian news veteran Patrick Watson) and Washington reporter Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver). We watch on day by day as an increasingly anxious Tobin yaks on to his wife about the likely outcome of the unfolding crisis and, more significantly for the story, we see Waldorf's romantic relationship with a White House staffer lead to exclusives, high anxiety and heartbreak. Having gone to the trouble of getting real world contributors to weigh in on an entirely fictional story, these soap opera-style interludes could have been an eccentric move on the part of the producers. But oddly, it works: Shaver's story in particular has some very interesting and incisive points to make about the way that news events and the news media have become so interdependent as to have become self-sustaining; the exclusive story she uncovers from inside the Oval Office seems to have the potential to help defuse the spiralling situation only to be held back by the station's editorial policy.

It's all so grindingly predictable. This would ordinarily make for a damning condemnation of any film, but in this case it is not: the unfolding news coverage portions of the piece are done well enough that any despondency you feel tends to be despondency at the worst excesses of global politics and its vainglorious pride, its high ideals at the expense of the lives of its people. Sobering stuff, not least when - on the cusp of a nuclear exchange in the Strait of Hormuz - Newt Gingrich justifies the action as being crucial to the United States' vital stewardship of freedom and democracy around the world. Gallingly, this is something which required no acting talent at all on the Congressman's part because it also happens to be what Gingrich (in company with all of his contemporaries on the right of American politics) really thinks. Thanks, America.

Countdown To Looking Glass gets a spine tingling EIGHT out of ten Disaster Points.

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