on Dunkirk, a masterpiece

I saw Dunkirk last night, in IMAX — the way you, too, should see it. Because it is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and it deserves to be seen at the proper scale.

Christopher Nolan’s greatest work is technically ambitious, riding a spare script and largely anonymous cast to create a movie of incomparable intensity that delivers a powerful emotional payload.

I can’t stop thinking about it. I haven’t, in fact, since I left the theater last night. So I’m going to write down some stuff about it, and see where that gets me.

I.

My favorite style of painting is impressionism. (Sometimes, I phrase this belief of mine as “the only good kind of art is impressionist” — but I’m trying to be more inclusive.)

A great Monet painting captures the beauty of reality, despite not striving to capture reality down to the finest detail. Through abstraction, we see the greater truth.

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I think that’s what Nolan is doing in Dunkirk.

One of the first things I noticed is that the lighting in scenes — particularly in those set on Dunkirk beach — is often inconsistent from shot to shot. A scene that begins under heavy cloud cover might then be bathed in hazy sunlight or feel more like dawn.

This felt, initially, like a practical choice, given the difficulties of shooting on actual beaches with minimal computer-generated effects. However, on reflection this feels more like an intentional choice by Nolan. He’s aiming to capture a feeling — the disorientation of being stuck on a beach, waiting for either deliverance or death — and inconsistencies in lighting only heighten that feeling.

Throughout the movie, Nolan chooses ambiguity over detail. I could not tell you the name of a single character, and a quick pop over to IMDB informs me that some major characters are literally unnamed — Cillian Murphy’s character is called “Shivering Soldier.” Somehow, this choice works (which I’ll talk about more in a couple of paragraphs).

There’s almost no mention of military strategy or tactics, or the relative positions of the Germans and the British. Instead, Nolan keeps it simple. The British are surrounded, and the unseen Germans are going to destroy them all if they don’t evacuate.

All we’re given to go on is the three-part structure, each with its own timeframe — the beach (one week), the sea (one day), and the air (one hour). The timeframes are never purely in sync. The one moment, late in the movie, that we see from all three angles is not shown in cross-cut, but rather from one perspective at a time.

What we get, instead, are impressions. We get disorientation. We get fear. We get tension — more tension, frankly, than most of us can handle — followed by some of the most powerful moments of catharsis I’ve felt in a motion picture.

Like a great Monet, the impressions are more powerful than reality could ever be.

II.

The most common criticism of Dunkirk, upon reading some critics and IMDB commenters, focuses on the characters. One reviewer stated: “as a film it lacks emotional firepower due to the absence of a strongly written protagonist […] it’s impossible for this film to not feel cold and empty.”

To start with, I was crying at the end, so clearly some people don’t find it cold and empty. And maybe it’s unfair to go after a reviewer who gave Batman v Superman: Punching in the Rain seven out of ten stars.

But let’s parse this “strongly written protagonist” nonsense.

If I were being completely uncharitable, I would suggest that “strongly written protagonist” in this review is standing in for the desire for a “heroic” character. A man — a strong man — a strong man with a big-ass gun who kills lots of Germans despite overwhelming odds. Maybe he has a wife at home, or a kid, or some other emotional attachment that makes hims “strongly written.” Maybe he has some really obvious flaw that leads to some sort of comeuppance late in the second act, followed by third act redemption. Wow. So strongly written.

Nolan is doing something more subtle than that here, something that adds to the deeper meaning of the story.

Dunkirk, fundamentally, is about survival in the face of overwhelming odds, the things the need to survive does to people, and whether survival can be a victory in its own right.

Each of the characters wants to survive because they’re human beings. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles’s impossibly young soldiers, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s flying aces, Mark Rylance’s ordinary sea captain, and Murphy’s shellshocked soldier aren’t supposed to be special in any way, or in some way marked by their past or their relationships. They’re just people in an impossible situation trying to work their way out of it, reacting in different ways.

You see them struggle, throughout the movie, with choices. Do I try to sneak on this medical boat? Do I kill a young man who doesn’t speak English? Do I keep flying even as my fuel has started to run out? And so on. Their actions, even when not expressed through words reveal more about their characters than a small Polaroid of a young English lass in Hardy’s cockpit ever could. There’s no fact we could have learned about their past — save a perfectly dropped detail about Rylance’s character — that would have improved their character arc. That’s the mark of a strongly written protagonist.

Again, Nolan is using these stories to build to a more general truth, a broader moment of catharsis.

He paints in broad strokes, sure. But they’re strong strokes.

III.

My grandfather, Peter G. Andrews, was in the Royal Navy in 1940 — the year Dunkirk takes place.

Originally stationed upon the HMS Edinburgh, he was there when that ship was sunk by torpedoes in 1942.

Though he passed away in 2014, I still remember his story about the sinking. Forced to jump from his ship to a neighboring ship, over the frozen North Sea, his main consideration was to not end up with two broken legs. After making the jump, and finding his legs unbroken, he realized his mistake.

He had had enough time to fetch his heavy winter coat before the Edinburgh sank — and now, on a ship near the Arctic Circle he would be very cold.

I’m, of course, paraphrasing a bit. But he always told the story with the sort of nonchalance and dry British wit that characterized all of his stories. Maybe seventy years of hindsight will give that to you.

What you don’t always feel, in the stories and even in many war movies, is a sense that you are just a microscopic part of something bigger. War is basically too big for any one of us to actually comprehend. Instead, we’re left with the small moments of personal victory — of triumph and sacrifice, maybe, but also just staying alive for long enough to tell your story.

Dunkirk somehow captures that feeling, and it’s a function of Nolan’s impressionistic choices in both style and character. (It’s also, of course, down to a team of fantastic collaborators that are outside the scope of what I want to talk about here, but particularly Hans Zimmer’s score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography stand out as contributions that deserve little gold statues next February).

That’s why the end — which I won’t discuss in detail — hit me so hard. The end is triumphant, as the story of Dunkirk has always been in the British national mythos, but it’s also intimate and personal. The feeling of relief that the characters feel as they drink a cup of tea — the same feeling that the audience feels that the gunfire has finallystopped — is universal.

It’s how my grandfather might have felt. It’s how any one of us might have felt.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

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Peter G. and Peter F. Andrews, approximately 1995.

 

Very brief reviews of the books I read at the beach

I recently returned from Rehoboth Beach, where I spent five days lounging with my family and reading books. Here are my brief reviews of the eight books I read.

Note: Reviews are based on the grading system at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. I trust that these reviews will be informative to you, the reader, as transcripts from my school would be.

Reviews

My Beloved World, Justice Sonia Sotomayor: HH

The Science of Interstellar, Kip Thorne: CR

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu: HH

Point Made: How To Write Like The Nation’s Top Advocates, Ross Guberman: P

Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang: H

Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders: H

TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz: CR

Straight Man, Richard Russo: P

The Columbia football team should wear Columbia blue uniforms

As any longtime reader will know, this blog is pretty much exclusively limited to topics that are so myopic that they are only interesting to me.

This particular post is probably the ultimate example of that vision, as I’m going to rant for a bit about the color of Columbia’s football uniforms.

Last year, in conjunction with the beginning of a “new era” in Columbia football, the Lions introduced a radical redesign to the traditional Columbia blue shirts that the team has worn for eons. The home uniform is a color called “anthracite,” which is a fancy word here meaning “really black-ish gray.” The road uniform is white, but the main trim color is also “anthracite” rather than Columbia blue.

This morning, I woke up to this tweet, announcing that this weekend Columbia will wear an alternate uniform for the first time.

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Setting aside the misspelling of “Wien Stadium” — which, as the location where Columbia plays its football games, is a word you’d think the appropriate people would spell correctly — these new navy alternate uniforms are not horrible. In fact, they’re perfectly good alternate uniforms. They have an appropriate amount of Columbia blue (sleeves, numbers) and aren’t “anthracite.” That’s enough for me.

But that doesn’t change the overriding point. I hate this entire uniform set so much, because none of the uniforms are Columbia blue.

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Which one is my favorite? I hate all of them.

In these seven uniform combinations, Columbia blue is the fourth most prominent color after white, “anthracite,” and navy. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but the color Columbia blue is literally named after Columbia University. It should be one of the predominant colors that a team representing the university wears on the field.

There is no such color as “Columbia gray.” Though I do have a friend from Columbia named Gray. I suppose I could call him Columbia Gray.

There is also no such color as “Columbia navy.” There is a color called “Yale blue.” This color is basically navy blue. Columbia should not look like Yale, which is a different school, located in Connecticut.

I believe that head coach Al Bagnoli and athletic director Peter Pilling sanctioned these sacrilegious strips because they wanted to encourage a clean break with a losing past. And they’re certainly right that the Columbia football team has been very bad. In the 6.2 seasons of Columbia football I’ve had the burden to witness, the team is 10-52.

It might even have made sense to get a new uniform design. The Lions wore their last set for twenty games in 2013 and 2014, and the Lions lost all twenty of those games.

But to cut Columbia blue — the color that represents the University, the color named after the University — down to a mere accent, just because “anthracite” is more menacing or masculine or whatever stupid justification the marketing people at Nike cooked up for the athletic department, is insulting to the school, its alumni, and the entire point of the football program.

(After all, wearing Columbia blue didn’t stop the basketball team from winning the CIT.)

Frankly, I would rather the team never win another game than to continue to dress like a parody of a “serious” football team. Columbia football does not lose because they wear Columbia blue. They lose despite wearing Columbia blue.

I hope that Bagnoli and Pilling realize this and change the primary uniform in time for the 2017 season.

Columbia’s uniform history (2010-present)

It may not be worth tracing Columbia’s recent uniform history, but I’ve already done the research so I’m going to write down what I found.

Going back through the Columbia Spectator’s football archives is truly one of the saddest journeys a person can make. It’s filled with hilarious-in-retrospect sentences like “Pete Mangurian brings a wealth of experience to Columbia” and “it’s no secret that the Lions had a difficult 2013.”

As far as I can tell, the Norries Wilson Lions (2010-11) always wore monochrome at home — Columbia blue tops and Columbia blue pants — while alternating between blue and white pants on the road.

After large screaming man Pete Mangurian took over the program, the 2012 Lions stopped the monochrome look. Columbia blue tops were matched with white pants at home, and the team wore the reverse at home.

As part of Mangurian’s plan to restore the team to respectability, the Lions unveiled beautiful new uniforms before the 2013 season. For two years, the Lions wore Columbia blue tops with no crazy striping and piping paired with sleek white pants trimmed in navy accents at home, with the mirror-image white tops worn with either white or blue pants on the road. A subtle stripe added to the helmets completed the look.

This was a gorgeous, simple set of uniforms, and Columbia never won a single game wearing them. In two seasons, the team went 0-20, culminating in the resignation of athletic director M. Dianne Murphy and the dismissal of Mangurian. In three seasons, the man who said he wanted to use the “W” word — “win” — won exactly three games, finishing on a 21-game losing streak.

In 2015, Al Bagnoli broke out the current gray monstrosities, accented with navy and Columbia blue and with the word “LIONS” written on the pants for some reason. The Roar-ee Lion logo replaced the letter C on the white helmets — the only positive development of this uniform set.

Making matters worse, the team only wore gray pants, so at home the Lions looked like a team of lead pencils while on the road they looked like led pencils with a really, really sharp point. So far this year, though, the Lions did break out white pants for their road matchup against Georgetown, easily the best possible combination. And this weekend against Princeton they’ll wear navy blue for the first time, prompting this fun rant from me.

Hire me, Jeffrey Lurie

Pictured: me, age 10, drafting some passing plays.

There is, truthfully, only one job I’ve ever wanted — to be the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

When I was six or seven, the Eagles were very bad. (The exact age is not important; they were very bad both of those years.) So I sent a letter to Ray Rhodes, the head coach, with a couple of plays written out that I thought he should try in a game. The letter was most likely written in crayon.

You may laugh at this story. However, Ray Rhodes never used the plays I sent him, and not long after that he got fired. So I think that, in fact, I had the last laugh there.

Now, despite the obvious football acumen I displayed at age six or seven, I have not yet been made the Eagles head coach. The position has only been open twice since I sent that letter. The first time, in 1999, they hired Andy Reid. As I was seven years old at the time I can’t fault the Eagles for passing over me.

The second time, in 2013, they hired Chip Kelly. I was in college and had my sights set on becoming the head coach of the Columbia Lions, so it didn’t seem like a great time to throw my hat in the ring.

But now, three years later, Kelly is gone. The position is open again. And this time the Eagles have to hire me, because I have a foolproof plan to turn the Eagles into Super Bowl champions.

Now, I am going to publicly reveal my plan. I realize that this will make it possible for my “competitors” to steal my plan and present it to the Eagles before I do. However, this is a risk I am willing to take, because I know that I alone could actually successfully execute the required steps. (Megalomania is, in my opinion, one of the most important traits for a successful football coach.)

Offseason

  1. Construct a rocket.
  2. Using said rocket, fire the following Eagles players into the Sun: Kiko Alonso, Riley Cooper, Byron Maxwell, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford.
    1. I have no idea whether disposing of these players via Sun-rocket will help or hurt the salary cap, but I don’t really care. What matters is sending a message.
    2. I will try to lure LeSean McCoy onto the rocket too, just on general principle.
  3. Get some good free agents.
  4. Use the first pick in the draft to acquire QB Jared Goff from the University of California.
  5. Use the remaining draft picks to acquire guys who are really, really good at football.
    1. Possibly use some sort of telekinesis to prevent other teams from drafting the players I want?
  6. Cut Donnie Jones, the punter. I like Jones, hence why he’s not going on the Sun-rocket. But I don’t like punting. My team will never punt.

Training Camp

  1. Hold practice the maximum number of times allowed. Gotta make sure those players know the plays.
  2. Wait, I should probably have some plays written down.
  3. Write down a bunch of really good plays.
  4. In order to avoid comparisons to Chip Kelly, I will instruct my players to play as slowly as they possibly can.
  5. I will also instruct my players to actually try on defense. As this is a completely foreign concept to the current Eagles, this will presumably take the majority of training camp.

Preseason

  1. Hire random Eagles season ticket holders to fill in for my guys in the preseason. This has three benefits: the actual players won’t get hurt, lots of Eagles fans will achieve their life-long dreams, and opposing players will be cowering in fear.
  2. If this specific cunning plan is not allowed, I will intentionally lose every game. It is important to keep expectations as low as possible, so as to quell any potential uprising among the fan base.

Season

  1. Win 10 to 13 football games.
  2. Spend all non-football time buttering up the local media. If you don’t talk to them enough, they will attempt to stir up the local populace to burn you in effigy.
    1. Have a list of prepared pithy sound-bites for press conferences.
  3. Make the playoffs.
  4. Win in the wild card round (if necessary).
  5. Win in the divisional round.
  6. Win in the conference championship.
  7. Win the Super Bowl.

After the season

  1. Go to parade.
  2. Never buy a drink for myself in Philadelphia again.

Now, you might observe correctly that I have no experience being a head football coach. Or a football coach. Or a football player. Or, for that matter, winning anything in Madden without turning the difficulty setting to “Ridiculously Easy.” But I did come in third place in my fantasy football league this year. Seems like that’s plenty of qualifications.

And I’m willing to admit that this plan might be missing a few things. For example, nowhere did I explain how I intend to dress on the sidelines. (I’m thinking sunglasses and a green pullover, but I’m open to refinement on this point.) Overall, though, I think it’s a very solid plan.

In conclusion, Mr. Lurie, there is a popular saying that I am quite fond of. “Shoot for the moon, but remember that if you miss, you will be floating off into the inky blackness of space with no hope of survival or rescue.” I think it applies to this situation.

I look forward to leading the Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory, hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy in front of millions of screaming fans — or failing spectacularly in the attempt.

The music in Age Of Ultron is really bad

It’s rare to enjoy a movie, actively, for almost the duration of its running time, and yet walk out of the theater feeling a little cold.

But that’s how I felt about Avengers: Age of Ultron, the most recent movie in a long series of movies with a colon in its name — a series which will continue with Terminator Genysysys, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and presumably its companion film Gone With the Wind: Civil War.

(This isn’t even counting the already-plotted pair of sequels to Age of Ultron — Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Part II.)

Though I have enjoyed most Marvel movies individually, collectively they have one flaw that particularly irritates me: they have terrible scores. The score for Age of Ultron, primarily credited to Brian Tyler, felt like little more than placeholder music. Tyler’s film credits “have grossed over $7 billion,” according to Wikipedia, but I doubt anyone went to the last four Fast and Furiouses or the Expendables “trilogy” to hear Tyler’s music. Danny Elfman also gets a credit for his work polishing Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first movie, the sole decent piece of music in Ultron.

Great scores are something that can truly elevate a movie, and its something that stands in stark relief when you compare Age of Ultron to two movies which share certain strands of its DNA: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight.

Joss Whedon said while making this movie that he wanted Age of Ultron to capture the darker, grander feel of Empire. You know what Empire had going for it? One of John Williams’s greatest scores, including two iconic themes heard for the first time — the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. These two pieces completely transform the film, giving Darth Vader and the Empire a fresh bite of malice while deepening the mysticism surrounding Luke’s training with Yoda on Dagobah.

The Dark Knight is the second film of the most critically-acclaimed superhero movie trilogy of all time, and it is often (in my mind correctly) considered the greatest superhero movie ever made. It is often contrasted as a “darker” and “grittier” movie than any of Marvel’s offerings. It, too, benefits from an epic Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard score, an innovative series of compositions which includes some truly memorable themes. It’s tough to imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the building, whining scream of guitar noise that announces his presence. Zimmer is unafraid of using bold, almost tuneless pieces that ramp up the tension and lend the film its distinct ambience.

After watching Age of Ultron, I can’t tell you whether or not there’s a specific theme or motif for Ultron, or the Vision, or any other character. Even if they theoretically exist within the score, they’re not particularly memorable or distinctive. This lessens the power of individual scenes (i.e. the face-to-face encounter between Ultron and Iron Man, or the moment when the Hulk chooses not to return to Black Widow), and contributes to the paint-by-numbers nature of some of the action sequences.

Combined with an extremely weak ending — seriously, the scenes at “New Avengers Facility, Upstate New York” are varying levels of both boring and annoying — and a dull mid-credits scene, and Age of Ultron didn’t leave much to chew on as I walked out of the theater. As much as I enjoyed most of the movie, I didn’t find it particularly memorable, and Marvel’s unwillingness to commit to the details that shape great films is a big part of why.

Some other thoughts:

  • I cannot believe the line “You know I support your Avenging” wasn’t played for laughs. It’s so self-evidently ridiculous, and this movie is on-the-nose about every other ridiculous thing that happens…
  • Ultron himself, played by James Spader, was the best part of this movie. The concept of “an evil robot trying to take over the world who has the voice and tics of James Spader” works perfectly, and I enjoyed almost all of his screen appearances.
  • This movie had too much track-laying. And I know that’s how Marvel movies work these days, but I never felt like (to pick an example) Captain America: The Winter Soldier was just moving pieces around the board. But the whole sequence where Andy Serkis popped up is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t really get it, and whatever Thor was doing for most of this movie is clearly supposed to be a thing but I didn’t see Thor: The Dark World so I didn’t really get it, and Thanos’s cameo in the mid-credits scene is just a reminder that this movie is merely a pit stop on the way to juicier offerings. I recognize the goal is to set-up future movies, but it’s a disservice to the film and its viewers to do that at the expense of the current movie. This is especially ironic given that Whedon explicitly criticized Empire for “committ[ing] the cardinal sin of not actually ending.” Pot, kettle, etc.
  • I quite liked Man of Steel, which if you believe certain corners of the Internet is a belief that I am alone in holding. It’s cool, I don’t take it personally. Zack Snyder takes a lot of crap for that movie, but I give him credit for making something that has clear directorial choices and style. There’s an argument over at The Dissolve that the final battle of this movie was a direct response to Man of Steel. If so, is that something we really want to celebrate? It’s extremely convenient for the Avengers that the city in the final battle is located in an otherwise deserted valley, that just enough SHIELD ships arrive to save almost every single person, and that the team’s obligatory casualty is easily the least-developed character. We get plenty of shots of Captain America looking heroically stoic and refusing to not save every single civilian, but this was almost a catastrophic tactical decision on his part, because if he miscalculated every single person on Earth would have died! To get to the point, at least Man of Steel makes you feel like there are actual, serious stakes, which it looks like will be fleshed out even further in Batman V Superman. Not something you can say for any of the climactic battle in Age of Ultron.

Game 9: Columbia v. Cornell

The Game, in One Word: Preposterous.

The Game, in Four Words: Columbia 27, Cornell 30.

Was It At Least A Good Day For A Football Game?

“Football weather” is really an ambiguous term, if you think about it. I mean, technically all weather is “football weather,” in the sense that there are very few types of weather in which it is completely impossible to play football. Theoretically you could play football in a hurricane, though I think it would make the passing game a challenge. And when I say “football weather,” what I mean — between 40 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, minimal wind, not a cloud in the sky — might be completely different from someone from Wisconsin — so cold that individual fingers start to fall off — or someone from Seattle — so rainy that our bodies begin to swell as we must absorb the moisture in the air — or someone from Florida — does anyone actually watch football in Florida? — and so on. Regardless, when I say that the fifth edition of the EMPIRE STATE BOWL took place in perfect football weather, I trust you will know what I mean.

So, Columbia Lost Again?

Yeah.

How Many In A Row Is That Now?

Twenty straight games. The last time Columbia won a football game, the number one movie in America was the instant classic Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part II. It was a simpler time.

Surely There Was Nothing Especially Bad About This Loss?

Hah! Of course there was! For starters, Cornell came into the game at 0-8, and had submitted a series of woeful performances on the gridiron so far this year, so they’re certainly the worst team the Lions are going to lose to this year. FiveThirtyEight even previewed the game as the worst college football game of the year.

But, more entertainingly, the Lions lost the game because they couldn’t do the simplest thing in football — kick an extra point. After a powerful Cameron Molina run gave the Light Blue a 27-21 lead, Columbia lined up to kick the automatic point after. Of course, the kick was blocked. And, of course, the blocked kick was returned all the way to the other end zone by an alert Cornell defender. Confusion reigned in the stands while fans tried to figure out how many points that action was worth. Turns out Cornell got two points for the PAT return, and it was those two points — coupled with the one point dropped by Columbia — that accounted for the three-point margin of victory for the Big Red.

The Norries Wilson “When Will Pete Mangurian Be Fired?” Death Watch

It would be a massive shock if Mangurian survived more than three minutes after Brown beats the Lions this weekend. Mangurian has been a complete and total failure as Columbia’s head coach, somehow managing to produce a worse and worse team every year. His teams were woefully underprepared and equipped with some of the least intelligent schemes ever concocted by a professional football coach. On top of this on-field futility, he has proved to be a malignant presence in the Morningside community, rude and disrespectful towards journalists while blaming almost every on-field failure on his players. His public Twitter presence disappeared soon after the 2013 Tweeting scandal, and his continued silence says more than the empty platitudes he favored ever could. #PunishMangurian, indeed.

(And yes — if Mangurian is fired consider me a candidate to replace him. #HirePete.)

Is Brett Nottingham Injured?

I hope not. The Stanford transfer got out at exactly the right time — and I don’t blame him for doing so. Mangurian’s penchant for yanking quarterbacks back and forth has been just one of millions of things he’s done wrong (one reason he needs to be fired is to make sure he doesn’t ruin talented freshman Anders Hill). Nottingham worked his ass off for the Lions, sacrificing a full year of his life to get ready for the season and being recognized for it by earning the captaincy. Mangurian gave him three and a half games under center.

Best CUMB Joke of the Day

“As well as the power of Spec’s executive editor going up, the comment count on Bwog going down, and attorney general Eric Holder at an all time sorry for persecuting journalists, the band now presents an all-star halftime gala salute to investigative journalism!”

The joke here is that Holder, a Columbia College and Law School alum, was actually at the game. Why he was subjecting himself to this football game is beyond me, but my understanding is that he was quite a good sport about it with the Band afterwards.

Stray Thoughts

  • You’ll notice I’m light on actual football analysis this week. To be honest, there’s not much to analyze. These two teams are both very, very bad and run very, very basic schemes very, very poorly. The only minor notes I’ll offer are: (1) Hill scored on a bootleg touchdown which was probably the only creative play the Lions have pulled off all year, and (2) the playcalling on the last desperate drive was ridiculous, as it seemed designed to get the Lions to the end zone by about 10:00 left in the sixth quarter.
  • For some reason, one of the giveaways at the game was pink foam whale hats. Surprisingly comfortable.
  • Shout-out to the Park Terrace Deli — located at the corner of 218th and Broadway, it makes some pretty excellent sandwiches at a much better price than you’ll find at Baker. I remain partial to the “Godfather,” which is hot roast beef, provolone, and horseradish — I tell them to hold the onions.
  • This is probably the last thing I’ll write about this team for a while, with the exception of my upcoming application for head coach. Not much more to say except good riddance.
  • It’s time for basketball season. Roar Lion Roar.

Game 3: Columbia vs. Princeton

The Game, in One Word: Fumbled.

The Game, in Four Words: Columbia 6, Princeton 38.

Was It At Least A Nice Day For A Football Game?

Emphatically, no. The heavy rain started well before kickoff and continued through much of the first half, though things mostly cleared up after halftime. Columbia’s FieldTurf surface prevented the game from turning into a mudbowl, but there was a lot of ugly football for the small, covered-up crowd.

Four Things I Think I Think

1. The first half was the best the Lions looked all year. They played tough defense, forcing two turnovers, and moved the ball well through the ground and the air. Cameron Molina played well, with over 100 yards receiving and another 45 on the ground. The Lions even had their first lead of the year! But the offense couldn’t find paydirt — one drive stalled at the Princeton 29, leading to a missed field goal, and the Lions couldn’t breach the end zone after either Tiger turnover.

2. Princeton’s last drive of the first half broke the Lions, as they moved 98 yards in just two minutes to take the 10-6 lead. Agonizingly, the drive continued despite a fumble by Princeton jack-of-all-trades Quinn Epperly which bounced in and out of the arms of several Lion defenders. Epperly also scored the touchdown, punching it in from the 2 as the clock expired — not without controversy, however, as it was extremely unclear whether the Tiger talisman ever actually made it into the endzone. Traditionally, that is a prerequisite to scoring a touchdown, a point made quite loudly by Pete Mangurian as the officials walked past. The Tigers would pile on four more touchdowns in the second half.

3. The lack of a stud wide receiver is really killing Columbia right now. Brett Nottingham must wonder whether his guys ritually coat their gloves in butter before each game, because many of his best throws were simply dropped. The receivers aren’t getting any separation from the cornerbacks, which leads to turnovers — Nottingham’s two picks weren’t great decisions on his part, but they were both the result of plays where receivers failed to come open for him. Whatever injuries are bothering Connor Nelligan and Isaiah Gross, hopefully they heal very soon.

4. I continue to be baffled by the cornerback play of this team, as they too often let their receivers go free without turning back to the ball. On Princeton’s last TD pass of the third quarter, sophomore defensive back Jared Katz completely lost his man in the end zone. From my vantage point, it looked like Katz tried to shove the receiver out of bounds, and believed he had been successful — of course, the receiver simply reset and hauled in the easy catch. (Another interpretation would be that the receiver pushed off, but from my angle that didn’t seem to be the case.) The Lions were marginally better in pass defense today, coming up with a few good break-ups, but this is still the weakest part of the team.

The Norries Wilson Memorial “When Will Pete Mangurian Be Fired?” Watch

Fourteen straight losses must weigh on a man, and we saw the first real flashes of anger from Mangurian today. After the above-mentioned touchdown, Mangurian let the officials have it, relentlessly, until he was assessed a personal foul penalty. Now, I don’t think this is a bad foul to take — it cost the Lions nothing, as the kickoff was likely to be a touchback anyway, and seemed to reject some of the passivity the head coach has shown all year.

But, once again, this passion didn’t come out in the game plan. The Lions were huge underdogs, but Mangurian again and again refused to go for it on fourth down, try any trick plays (or moderately creative ones), etc. The incredible writer Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball on Twitter) and others have talked about “David strategies” vs. “Goliath strategies” — basically, the idea that a heavy underdog can and should attempt strategies that have more risks but the possibility of a big payoff, because otherwise it will be nearly impossible to get a win. Mangurian appears to believe the opposite. (And, on defense, I can’t remember the last time this team did anything interesting schematically.)

I still think it’s unlikely that Mangurian is fired before season’s end. But, if Dianne Murphy were to pull the plug, it would almost certainly happen after the Penn game (week 5) or the Dartmouth game (Homecoming, in week 6). The pressure of Homecoming, where the Lions haven’t won since 2000, might push Murphy to make a move immediately before or immediately afterwards, if it seems necessary to placate an embarrassed fan base. The Lions must be competitive in the next two games to take that option off of the AD’s table.

Best CUMB Joke Of The Day

“Princeton’s most selective eating clubs: The Cap and Gown, The Tiger Inn, The Pastel Sweater.”

Is Brett Nottingham Injured?

No.

Phew. So, are we feeling optimistic after the game?

Not really. It’s hard to sit through a good first half, played in the rain, and watch it all come crumbling down so quickly. Columbia still seems very far away from being a competitive team. These next two weeks — both on the road — will take us to the halfway mark of the season. If they still haven’t scored more than ten points in a game by then, perhaps it would be better to burn Baker Field to the ground than suffer through another Homecoming disaster.

Stray Thoughts

  • I didn’t see my good friend Roar-ee today! Maybe he doesn’t like the rain very much.
  • Nothing particularly interesting in the uniform matchup. The Columbia coaches wore black instead of their usual light blue, which would make a great alternate uniform for the Lions. (Such a thing wouldn’t be unheard of in the Ivy League — Penn has both red and gray alternates, while Dartmouth actually has an alternate helmet.)
  • Props to new placekicker Noah Zgrablich for his lime green kicking shoes, which if I have to guess are borrowed from the other kind of football.
  • I enjoyed the Princeton Band’s second-half renditions of music from The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed nothing else about the Princeton Band.
  • If you — yes, you! — are actually reading these posts: firstly, thank you. Secondly, feel free to offer some feedback on what you like (or don’t like) about these recaps and I will do more (or less) of those things! Leave a comment here or “tweet at me” @pfandrews.

Game 1: Columbia vs. Fordham

Sometimes, you have to give the people what they want. Or, in this case, what they definitely don’t want. I’ll be posting some thoughts and analysis after each Columbia football game I attend this year.

The Game, in One Word: Inevitable.

The Game, in Four Words: Columbia 7, Fordham 49.

Four Things I Know I Think

1. In the battle of offenses, Columbia was the Model T to Fordham’s Ferrari. The Lions found no success either on the ground (59 yards on 18 carries) or in the air (106 yards on 16 completions, 32 attempts) — and most of those 165 yards came on a 78-yard drive which ended the game! Meanwhile Fordham piled up over 600 yards of total offense and, using a tempo offense with lots of option football, seemed to move the football at will.

2. The Lions front seven was the standout unit of the game (for CU, as all units were inferior to Fordham), putting a surprising amount of pressure on Fordham QB Mike Nebrich. Roy Schwartz had a huge sack when the score was still 14-0, dropping Nebrich twelve yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-ten play. Credit is also due for a blocked field goal in the third quarter.

3. Columbia’s secondary, however, was atrocious. Nebrich completed 66% of his passes, and the incompletions were more on throws or receivers than on the defensive backs. The cornerbacks don’t attack the ball in the air — in fact, often they didn’t turn around to see it — and were unable to defend many passes as a result. The tackling was also awful — on one touchdown, the receiver caught the ball at the two with a defender ready to make the tackle, but a quick cut-back from the receiver and the defensive back completely overshot the play.

4. The much-maligned offensive line held their own today, allowing no sacks of Brett Nottingham. Though he was under pressure a few times, the Rams were largely kept at bay. This doesn’t apply to the running game, as there was little space for anyone to run, but Nottingham had the sort of pass protection he’ll need to stay upright all season.

Coaching Questions

Pete Mangurian and Jaime Elizondo’s offensive game-plan continues to be about as aggressive as a baby sloth being cuddled by its mother, and it has to change. The Lions must occasionally be aggressive — it’s a long field! take a shot down it! — in order to prevent opponents from simply stacking the box and playing their safeties close to the line.

A little bit of faith on fourth downs might help as well. Down 28-0 in the third quarter, the Lions faced a fourth-and-one. Seeing this, Mangurian immediately called timeout… then sent Nottingham out to draw the defense offside. As everyone in the stadium knew this was the plan, it did not work, and the Lions simply accepted the five-yard penalty and punted. THERE’S NO HARM IN RUNNING A PLAY HERE YOU’RE LOSING BY FOUR TOUCHDOWNS DURING YOUR HOME OPENER WITH ONE YARD TO GO WHY ARE YOU JUST GIVING UP! (If a man yells on a blog, does it make a sound?) Not coincidentally, that final Lions drive included a huge fourth-down conversion on a pass to Isaiah Gross. When you’re struggling as much as the offense was, it’s hard to justify repeatedly playing it safe.

Is Brett Nottingham Injured? 

Not as far as we know, which is a huge relief. The ballyhooed transfer looked like a man who hadn’t played much football in a few years, which is understandable — and there were flashes of promise. The final drive of the game may have come against Fordham’s second-string, but that’s the caliber of opponent CU is likely to face going forward. His receivers, though, need to catch a ball every now and then when it hits them in the hands.

Was It At Least A Nice Day For A Football Game?

Yes, and then some. Baker Field remains a beautiful place to spend an afternoon, particularly when that afternoon is 75 degrees and sunny.

Best CUMB Joke of the Game

“US News and World Report has once again issued their college rankings, which we all know are an arbitrary metric we use to feel superior to everyone lower on the list and inferior to everyone higher on the list. And sadly, despite the total meaninglessness of the list in general, it does give 58th-ranked Fordham a lot of schools to feel inferior to.”

After watching this game, are we cautiously optimistic or aggressively fatalistic?

Neutral. Some units put in strong performances, and Fordham is the best team the Lions will play this year — but at the end of the day there were still six touchdowns and five hundred yards between the Lions and their opponents. More will be known after last week’s away clash with Albany.

Stray Thoughts

  • The pre-game atmosphere remains outstanding. The band was in full force, the sun was shining, and there were a vast assortment of goodies. I picked up a draw-string bag, schedule magnet, schedule poster, and — in a nice touch — a special scarf given out to all season-ticket holders.
  • (The beer was better than last year, too.)
  • Attendance wasn’t bad, either, with over 4800 turning out, compared to 3800 and 4400 for Columbia’s last two season openers. Nice to see also was a particularly vocal group of students, largely freshmen, including a group with their chests painted spelling out “FOOTBALL?”
  • (The question mark, I thought, was pretty hilarious.)
  • Fordham’s “patriotic” uniforms remain a crime against fashion, taste, and patriotism — but they’re better than last year’s edition, which paired red and blue with maroon. At least this year’s white kits only clashed with the helmets. Columbia, as always, was resplendent in blue and white.

Basketball Commentary — Now Online!

In addition to my written ramblings about Columbia sports in the Spec, last season I had a chance to do play-by-play for some Columbia basketball and baseball games on WKCR 89.9 FM, the university’s student-operated radio station. So, verbal ramblings as well. It was an incredible experience, especially as these two teams both turned out to be quite good.

Some of these broadcasts were recorded, and I’ve edited two of the games into easily-digestible twenty minute versions, featuring all the exciting plays and verbal banter — with my wonderful co-commentator, Miles Johnson — you could want. You can enjoy these clips for yourself by clicking right on the embedded files below!

SOBs

The Hackworth Firing and the 2014 Union

The End of the Hackworth Era

Almost two years to the day after replacing Peter Nowak, John Hackworth was fired today as manager of the Philadelphia Union. An uninspiring start to the season — three wins in sixteen games — after an offseason makeover of the team cost the coach his job. In two years, the coach put up an underwhelming 23-30-20 record.

What will we remember as John Hackworth’s legacy in Philadelphia? Probably the best you can say about him is that he proved to be a relatively shrewd GM. Taking over a team gutted by Nowak, Hackworth trimmed most of his bad decisions (Perlaza, Gomez, Lopez, and Adu) while slowly acquiring cap space and other assets. The deal which sent Gabe Farfan to Chivas USA for what became the #2 pick in the 2014 Superdraft was a spectacular piece of larceny. This year’s offseason signings — particularly Vincent Nogueira, the most talented player ever to wear a Union shirt — were similarly impressive. On paper, the Union have their most talented roster ever.

But Hackworth’s undoing was always on the field. Tactically, Hackworth lacked a coherent program, often stating a clear goal (e.g. “high pressure”) without a solid plan for executing it. He reveled in playing folks out of position — Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler are the most glaring and consistent examples, but let’s not forget that he put Fabinho in at left wing over Cristian Maidana against Montreal this year. Hackworth also seemed to play favorites with consistency, often preferring guys who could run hard (Danny Cruz is the ultimate Hack player) over guys who were technically skilled (I miss you, Roger Torres!). Major acquisitions like Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry were chained to the bench in favor of any number of center-backs playing out of position. And his choice of captain proved to be a major problem — Brian Carroll is a stand-up veteran guy, but he never seemed to command the team nor was his play able to justify his place inked into the XI every week.

Not all of the blame for this season should ride on Hack’s shoulders. Nick Sakiewicz is in part the architect of this mess, and real questions should be asked of his role running the team. The players, too, deserve a kick in the pants — defiantly defending their coach in the face of a miserable run of form, but lashing out at fans rather than accepting responsibility. I for one hope that the style of self-entitlement, led by its chief practitioner Danny Cruz (“thanks to the fans who actually support us” etc.) ends with a manager who will demand accountability.

At the heart of it, all of this tactical malarkey could be forgiven if the Union had won games. But they didn’t, and so it’s time for a fresh start.

The Next Manager

Immediately, Union fans have turned to the question of who will become the third permanent manager in franchise history. At the moment, though, the most important thing is to conduct a thorough and wide-ranging coaching search. Essentially no search was undertaken in 2012 when Hackworth was hired, and that decision cost the Union dearly.

After appointing someone from the original Nowak regime as the Union’s second coach — with unsuccessful results — it’s time for the team to look outside for a new manager. If, however, they choose to stay in-house, there are a few interesting options. Jim Curtin, the interim manager, will have a couple months worth of games to stake his claim to the job. Mike Sorber, the most recent addition to the staff and a veteran of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, would be another option, though it is perhaps telling that he was passed over for the interim gig. Brendan Burke certainly knows how to work with young talent, but as he left the team in the winter in unclear circumstances I don’t know if he’d want to return.

By far the most likely option, though, would be someone who already has MLS experience, and the name that comes to the top of that heap is Jesse Marsch. Marsch was the inaugural manager of Montreal, where his team finished 12-16-6 before he parted ways with the ownership group, along with two years as an assistant with the USMNT. He also has some familiarity with the area, playing his college soccer at Princeton. (This is a fact I will be willing to forgive if he can lead the Union to success.)

Other names being kicked around — although I think they’re less likely — are John Spencer and Steve Nicol. (And I think we can pretty safely rule out Peter Nowak…) There’s also the whole wide world of former and current managers and assistants in Europe and South America; although I would not expect the Union to make a totally random hire, it’s possible they might be able to attract a young, ambitious up-and-comer — the next Andre Villas-Boas? (Actually, scratch that thought.)

The Union might also look at a former player to take the job. The name on everyone’s lips is Veljko Paunovic, the Serbian veteran of Atletico Madrid that played the second half of the 2011 season for the Union. Initially seen as a washed-up old man, Pauno quickly won over the fans and became a key piece of the only playoff team in Union history. He has been coaching the Serbian U-19 side and expressed a desire to return to Philadelphia before, but he would probably need to be paired with a general manager to handle the ins and outs of MLS player movement. Another wild card would be former captain Faryd Mondragon, who recently announced his retirement from Deportivo Cali and is making a final appearance in the World Cup for Colombia at the age of 43. Mondragon was the heart and soul of that 2011 team, and he would bring experience at the game’s highest levels, but it is unknown whether he is interested in coaching — or even whether he’d consider returning to the United States.

Finally, an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head would be hiring someone known traditionally as a women’s coach to take the job. Paul Riley did a great job with the Philadelphia Independence in their one season of existence and is currently the head coach of the Portland Thorns. It might also be worth kicking the tires on Pia Sundhage, the beloved former coach of the USWNT. The Union would break a huge barrier by becoming the first men’s professional team in America to hire a woman as coach — but more importantly they’d be getting a terrific and well-respected coach to build their team.

And, before you ask: yes, I am available.

all this on $2k per week

Football Manager 14 thinks I can run the Union better than John Hackworth

Where Do We Go From Here? The Rest of the 2014 Season

The managerial search will take some time, and in the interim the Union must keep playing soccer games. It’s not time yet to throw in the towel completely — MLS is unpredictable enough that the Union are not definitively out of playoff contention — but the decision-making should be geared towards individual player development and building next season’s squad.

The Union have a strong core — Nogueira, Okugo, Maidana, and Maurice Edu. If Edu is likely to stick around after this season, goal number one should be figuring out the best way to build a team around these four players. I’m envisioning Okugo playing in the midfield here, so that probably sends Carroll and Fred to the bench for the forseeable future. Which combination of wingers and strikers can work the best with these four players? It’ll be a season-long audition for the likes of Cruz, Andrew Wenger, Antoine Hoppenot, and Wheeler — young players who played a lot with minimal returns during the Hackworth era. (I’ve excluded Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey, as we basically know what these veterans can bring to the table.)

The back line is where things get interesting. After the World Cup, the Carlos Valdes situation needs to be settled once and for all. If the Union can bring him back, the entire defense should improve markedly. Austin Berry and Ethan White can settle into life with a former MLS All-Star and World Cup veteran as their center back partner, Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis can return to locking down the wings, and Fabinho can be sent back to his home planet.

Finally, the rest of this season should be about the youth. For all of Hackworth’s expertise as a youth coach, he demonstrated an alarming tendency to let young talents languish. It’s time to see what this year’s draft picks — Andre Blake (if only for the trade value), Pedro Ribiero, and Richie Marquez — can do on the pitch. The promising Zach Pfeffer should also see more time. This isn’t going to be a summer where the Union bring in veterans or make seemingly random trades. The team needs to find out what they have, so that the new manager can move quickly once installed.

Hackworth is gone. For the second time in two years, the Union are starting over — but they’re in a much better spot then they were in 2012. The Vancouver game featured some highly entertaining soccer; hopefully the rest of the season takes the Union towards a long run of success, something this team’s diehard fans dearly deserve.