Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Age old story of a beautiful actress who gets bored and invents something. 

Quick synopsis: The life of Hedy Lamarr, actress, producer, and inventor it turns out. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: She sued because the name of the woman in Blazing Saddles was named Hedley Lamarr. Mel Brooks said, “she never got the joke.”  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Hedy was friends with Howard Hughes and they dated. She’d lob ideas at him and would allow her to meet with many of his top scientists. 

My Take: Most people have probably never heard of Hedy Lamarr unless you are over the age of 60 or so. However, she has one of the most interesting lives I have ever seen. Let’s take a look at the highlights: 

  • Won a beauty contest at the age of 12 
  • Started starring in movies and was in a…ahem…explicit one at 18. It isn’t explicit today but things were way different back then 
  • Escaped the Nazis 
  • Came to America, became a film star 
  • Invented a device for frequency hopping that is still used today for things like Bluetooth 
  • Got married 6 times 
  • Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (posthumously) 

The documentary hits all the highlights and doesn’t shy away from the fact that she could also be downright weird and abrasive as well. 

If someone says a beautiful woman can’t also be smart, just show them this. Then punch them. (Disclaimer: Figuratively, not literally. I don’t advocate violence. They are stupid, though.)  

Verdict: A very good documentary. Go watch.  

If You Liked This Try:  

  • Presidents at War 
  • Hitler’s Circle of Evil 

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well, that was all very unpleasant.

Quick synopsis: The life and death of Aaron Hernandez who was a great football player and multiple murderer. So, he had that going for him.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: It’s really unnerving seeing Hernandez acting normal at press events after he just straight up killed people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Aaron Hernandez killed people but isn’t technically a convicted murderer. If you die before your appeal is heard, then your conviction is vacated. That’s nice for him.

My Take: Honestly, you just feel bad at the end of this.

You have Aaron Hernandez who killed multiple people. He also was probably in the closet. Probably abused by his father. Enabled in a lot of situations. Probably had head traumas.

You start to feel bad for him and then quickly remember all the people he assaulted and murdered. Or the daughter he left behind. And the numerous other people left in his evil wake.

The 3 episodes are roller coasters. They keep pulling back the layers of the onion and it just gets worse and worse. The most effective is the phone calls made from jail that were recorded. They are unnerving in a lot of ways.

There is one major problem throughout the documentary. Some of the major threads are not quite proven but more explored. They posit Hernandez was gay, but other than a high school boyfriend it is not entirely clear that it’s a fact. The discussion of his brain and CTE is similarly not explored enough for my tastes.

Verdict: This is really interesting and does a lot of digging but lacks focus on what it’s trying to say. Worth the watch.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Abducted in Plain Sight
  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers
  • John Adams

The Book Was Better: In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick Vs. In the Heart of the Sea

Quick synopsis: The story of a whaling ship sunk by a whale in the Pacific Ocean and the fight to stay alive after.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Moby Dick exists partially because of this story. Don’t hold that against the book if you were forced to read it in high school. This is a lot more interesting!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Philbrick is, as usual, chockfull interesting information. Specifically, why whalers needed to go to the Pacific, how whaling was done, and especially the culture of a whaling town.

Book vs. Movie: I think it is important for me to point out that Ron Howard is a prolific Hollywood legend and his name will be remembered for a long time.

His movie still sucks, though. And it broke my HEART! I was so excited for this movie. The story is amazing, and the cast is perfect. The aesthetics are amazingly fake. The story is changed from reality in very strange ways which are totally unnecessary. Tonally, it never actually picks a genre. This needed to be like Master and Commander, but instead comes off as trying to be action/adventure/horror/meditation on human suffering. It fails at all of them.

The book? The exact opposite. You understand the entire lives of these men and where they come from. Their personalities come alive and you understand how and why they do everything they do. The ones who survive are scarred forever and you feel for them. Philbrick’s book is the perfect mix of story and history. He nails both of them.

Verdict: Not even close. Skip the movie, read the book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
  • Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman

Musing: On Pandemics

What’s this musing about: Well the coronavirus is really screwing up everyone’s lives, isn’t it?

My sister-in-law (Hi, Terri!) asked me about some of the other pandemics that occurred through history a couple days ago. And by “asked me,” I mean I took it upon myself to tell her about them.

As of March 21, 2020, the coronavirus has infected over 278,000 people and claimed 11,570 according to CNN/Johns Hopkins.

In comparison to the two “big ones,” namely the Black Death and the Spanish Flu…well thank God “it’s only” the coronavirus.

Coronavirus:

Death Toll: 11,570

Mortality Rate: Less than 1%

Spanish Flu:

Death Toll: 17 million to 50 million (over the course of 1 year)

Mortality Rate: 2.5%

Scary Fact: Spanish Flu killed more people in two days than are currently infected with the coronavirus.

Black Death/Plague (for you true nerds, only talking about the second one):

Death Toll: 75 million to 200 million (over 4 years)

Mortality Rate: 80%+. Basically, if you got it, you were dead.

Scary Fact: The Black Death reduced the world population by 21% (conservatively). For the coronavirus to do that it would need to kill 1.6 billion people.

I’m going to go wash my hands again. Be safe people!

More reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu

Black Death by Stephen Porter

Abducted in Plain Sight

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: WHAT THE EVERLOVING F—?!

Quick synopsis: Jan Broberg was sexually molested by a family friend. You will meet her and a string of some of the dumbest human beings you have ever seen.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: She was kidnapped more than once. By the same guy.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: “It’s just kid’s stuff.” Yeah, when you get to this part just try not to scream at the TV.

My Take: Oh. My. God.

Here’s a fun game. Try and guess within the first ten minutes who you will want to punch the most other than the disgusting child molester. You will be AMAZED how quickly that list grows.

I audibly cursed at the TV at least 3 times. I did not believe what I was hearing. I legitimately thought this may be some sort of dark spoof of the true crime drama.

It is not. This happened. All of it. And you will want to commit murder. A lot of murder.

Jan Broberg should not be able to even function as a human being with what she went through and how many people let her down (including the two people who never should have let it happen). Instead, she somehow helped write a book and do lectures on this. Oh, and wait until the courtroom scene at the end with her molester. She’s a badass.

Ever hear someone say that being “into” children is just their “thing”? Have fun feeling super gross!

Verdict: Want to rage? Watch this. You will rage.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers
  • John Adams

The Polar Bear Expedition by James Carl Nelson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: We invaded Russia? We invaded Russia!

Quick synopsis: Story of the Polar Bear Expedition, where the Allied Powers at the end of World War I invade near Archangel, Russia to…. well no one was quite sure what the hell they were doing there.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yeah, we actually invaded Russia and stayed there a bit after World War I ended. Who knew?!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This has to be one of the dumbest moves by a U.S. President ever. Woodrow Wilson eventually agreed to sending U.S. troops to Russia to protect military equipment and reopen the Eastern Front. Or maybe to fight the communists. Wilson’s orders are so horribly unclear no one was ever really sure.

My Take: This whole scenario was so weird.

Americans sent to Russia to help end the war. The war ends and the Americans remain. Until people really start complaining and mutinying. This entire story is the archetype of the question, “Why the hell are we even here?”

Nelson moves through the episode pretty fast and covers seemingly all the major functions and units for the Americans. He adds some interesting anecdotes and really gives time to those who were killed during the battles.

Nelson definitely takes the time to show just how badly run the entire operation was while making sure the soldiers doing the fighting are seen as the heroes they are.

And another historical cliché is confirmed. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Verdict: Good book on a little known event in history. Very high level, so it won’t satisfy military history buffs looking for tactical breakdowns. And if you don’t care about World War I at all then you should skip this.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Michael Zuckoff, Lost In Shangri-La
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists

Sea People by Christina Thompson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Where the hell did they come from?!

Quick synopsis: A look at the people of Polynesia: how’d they get there and how do we know (or not know, actually).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Page 147 contains the term, “cow-titty.” You’re damn right I giggled.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We have made amazing strides in science. We can tell things like how old the Earth is and tell the relationships of people through their DNA.

Guess what we can’t figure out? How did the sweet potato get to Polynesia?! It’s native to North America only! How did it get there?! No one knows!

My Take: This book had a high probability of reading like a textbook. Dry facts and scientific studies which would bore the hell out of you. Luckily it doesn’t!

Polynesia is one of the coolest places to me. I love reading sea voyages about the early explorers in the area, especially my man Captain Cook. I am obviously not the first person who thought, “how the hell did anyone even make it out here? It’s water, water, water.”

Thompson does a great job of breaking down these thoughts by looking at how the people and languages dispersed through the regions and even how they physically got there. Well, kind of. Simply, we are still not 100% sure and probably never will be. Which makes the whole thing even cooler!

Seriously, look at a map and find Easter Island. How the hell did the first people get there? They must have been nuts! I love beachfront as much as anybody but come on be realistic.

Verdict: Enjoyable book which is more analysis than stories. Probably won’t be a fun book for people not interested in the area or only want a fun story.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Scott Ridley, Morning of Fire
  • Martin Dugard, Farther Than Any Man

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Drink this Kool-Aid! The book I mean.

Quick synopsis: The story of Jim Jones from his childhood to Jonestown and the mass suicide of over 900 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” as a saying is because of this story. 900 people committed mass suicide or in the children’s case, were murdered. Yeah, it’s a really screwed up reference!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Jim Jones actually did some nice things! He did try and promote racial equality, donated a lot of money, and helped some people get back on their feet. Yet, still responsible for a mass suicide and child murder. He and Hitler must have the most interesting conversations while burning in hell. Good.

My Take: This is an awesome book for two very big reasons.

First, Jeff Guinn researched the hell out of his subject. Guinn has an amazing amount of material on Jones, even from when he was a child. I have read a lot of books and it does not get more thorough than this. Additionally, Guinn does not let the details slow down the narrative. He builds the story and does not take a side. He does not shy away from pointing out when Jones did good, but also shows the fraying around the edges of his psyche.

The second reason this book is amazing is that Jones is a psychopath with contradictions. Guinn finds an example which makes you rethink Jones. Apparently, there was a woman in his childhood who treated him well during tough times with his family. Jones never lost touch and always made sure to drop her a friendly line until the end of his life. Whenever you read about this level of evil, they almost always keep up relationships until they not longer have utility. Jones seems to break that mold a bit. And as I mention above, if you didn’t know how it ended, this book might be about the burgeoning career of a great leader in racial equality. Instead…

Verdict: Fantastic book that is both in-depth and a riveting read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl on the Velvet Swing
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar

Togo (Disney+)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m not crying. You’re crying. Shut up.

Quick synopsis: The story of Togo, the most important lead sled dog in the Nome 1925 Serum Run. It became what we know today as the Iditarod.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You probably heard of the Iditarod and a dog named Balto. Balto ran 55 miles of the journey in awful conditions. Togo ran 260 miles. I’m going to go punch a wall.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The lowest temperature with windchill during Togo’s leg of the run was -85 degrees. Not a typo, people.

My Take: This movie made me feel many feelings.

First, let’s get the actual history clear. Diphtheria hits Nome, Alaska mostly effecting children. A cure exists. That cure is in Anchorage. If you don’t know the topography of Alaska, then I will tell you this is a major problem. The big thinkers say they can fly there with this somewhat newfangled thing called an airplane. It’s too cold and it will never work. What’s the plan? Mushers and sled dogs. 674 miles in subzero temperatures.

Now, let’s discuss the movie. It’s Willem Dafoe doing a very subdued Willem Dafoe performance which works quite well actually. There is the crisis interspersed with flashbacks to Togo being a gigantic pain in the ass.

As I am a history nerd and this is one of the most amazing stories I had ever read before seeing the movie, I had my eyes peeled for them to go Hollywood all over this thing. Thankfully, they were very respectful of the history and the people (and dogs!) throughout. If you are a parent, don’t actually tell your kids what happened to Togo. You won’t be able to explain it and they will be pissed and upset.

Other than that. It is spot on.

Verdict: If you love dogs, then this is for you. If you don’t love dogs, then you are a serial killer. Move on.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles (read it read it read it read it)
  • Chernobyl (HBO)
  • Saints & Strangers (TV miniseries)

Deadliest Sea by Kalee Thompson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I hate fishing.

Quick synopsis: The story of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger and subsequent rescue by the Coast Guard in 2008.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: People have been revived from drowning an hour after they were thought dead. This may be dubious. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When a rescue helicopter tries to lower people onto a boat via their metal gurney, they have to wait for it to touch the ground otherwise you get electrocuted by the static electricity caused by the helicopter.

My Take: This is a good “rescue at sea” book. What makes this different from a lot of other books of this ilk is that there is a lot of things done right instead of a lot of things done wrong.

Since this occurred in 2008, many of the safety features ignored for years are actually on the Alaska Ranger when it sinks. Most books covering sea rescues follow a very familiar pattern. Boat owners and officers are incompetent and lazy then the boats sink and most of them die. See any of the books below for this storyline (but they are still good!).

However, in Deadliest Seas, the story is only half right. The Alaska Ranger actually had the water survival suits, the strobe lights, and the life rafts. Now, the owners and captain still didn’t take care of the ship as well as it should have, but most of the crew were saved by the Coast Guard and a Good Samaritan boat.

It makes for a much longer story than you would usually see and actually illustrates that life saving equipment actually saves lives. What a concept!

Also, Alaska is really cold.

Verdict: A really good rescue story. If you don’t care about sea rescues at all then skip it. However, how can you be one of those people? They are very exciting!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours