Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman

Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***

Movie Review: A Very Long Engagement

Jean Pierre Jeunet is one of my favorite filmmakers. Three of his films would make my hypothetical all-time favorite movies list: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and Amelie. Now I can add a fourth to that list, A Very Long Engagement (2004).

With Jeunet’s trademark lush cinematography, A Very Long Engagement is a romantic film, but one that doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war both physical and mental. The film’s story begins on January 6, 1917 – exactly ninety days before we watched it – when five French soldiers are court-martialed for self-mutilation. There punishment is to be thrown out of the trench into No Man’s Land where presumably the Germans will take care of their execution. One of the victims is Manech Langonnet (Gaspard Ulliel), a young man engaged to Mathilde Donnay (Audrey Tatou).

Three years later Mathilde is still convinced that Manech is alive and will return to her. She begins a search to find him by looking for all the other men who were in the trench that day and their families. What follows is a mix of mystery as Mathilde pieces the story together with the grim realism of war contrasted with romantic flashbacks to Mathilde and Manech’s youth. There’s also a political message of the social injustices of war that find the poor and powerless stuck in the trenches. A Very Long Engagement is also very funny at times.

Overall this is a brilliant film that’s got me still trying to untangle it’s complexities long after it is over. I have been wanting to see this movie for a long time and it was worth the wait.

PS – Despite all appearances I’m not really watching French films to the exclusion of all else.