Creative Sensemaker

man and woman whistling in car.

A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona   Above image: On the Rocks    Friday 23 October, 2020    Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

Years ago, one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s closest collaborators told me of the personal toll exacted upon the comedian by going out into the world as one of his (now-famous) alter egos – Ali G, Brüno and Borat: ‘It is unbelievably demanding to have to prepare and take part in these prank scenes and set-ups – especially as the characters have got more famous. He never knows what is going to happen. It is incredibly stressful.’

It is now 22 years since Baron Cohen’s Ali G first appeared on The 11 O’Clock Show – a brilliant satirical impression of a young White man from the ‘Staines ghetto’ desperately trying to appropriate what he imagined Black street culture to be, and then gormlessly interviewing the famous (Gore Vidal, Buzz Aldrin, and Donald Trump). 

Next up was Borat Sagdiyev, the roving Kazakh reporter seeking wisdom in Western nations, whose regular appearances on Da Ali G Show (2000 to 2004) yielded a very successful feature film in 2006: Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan
a man giving thumbs up.
Since then, there has been a Brüno movie (2009) and a Showtime series, Who Is America? (2018) in which the increasingly recognisable actor depended heavily upon prosthetics to gain access to his hapless interviewees.

So, it is all the more remarkable that – under the radar, without having his cover blown or attracting media attention – Baron Cohen has made a sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (Prime Video, 23 October).

Already, the film has generated global controversy due to a scene in which the unsuspecting Rudy Giuliani – Trump’s personal attorney – is shown apparently reaching into his trousers in the presence of the actor Maria Bakalova playing Borat’s daughter (who is, in turn, posing as a TV reporter). Borat also has a mission to deliver a particular gift to ‘America’s most famous ladies’ man’, Mike Pence. 

The satire is vividly contemporary, embracing the pandemic, social media conspiracy theories, and the horrors of the Trump administration (it includes the caption: NOW VOTE, OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE [sic]). The greater point being that the world has changed since Borat last took to the road in the US: for a start, the sequel is being streamed rather than released first in movie houses, sadly shuttered in many countries by COVID-19. And – to a shocking extent – many of Borat’s absurdly bigoted views have now, in the 14 years since the first film, been brought into the mainstream by social media and the rise of the populist Right.

…and speaking of Sacha Baron Cohen: don’t miss his performance as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (Netflix). Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the movie tells the tale of the 1969 trial of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago the previous year.

The cast also features Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden (who went on to marry Jane Fonda and become a long-serving California legislator); Mark Rylance as defence lawyer William Kunstler; and the reliably excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt as federal prosecutor Richard Schultz. But it is Baron Cohen – charismatic and whip-sharp as Hoffman, founding member of the Youth International Party (Yippies) – who steals the show, proving once again that he is a first-rank actor, as well as a comedian of genius.

Here are this week’s recommendations:
a young activist at a protest.
I Am Greta


Billions (Sky Atlantic)
Back for a fifth season – and already confirmed for a sixth – the adventures of hedge fund mogul Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his nemesis, Chuck Rhoades Jr (Paul Giamatti), the Attorney General of New York, are now pure escapism in the bleak age of the virus and looming recession. But the show’s class has always depended upon the quality of its two lead performers (Asia Kate Dillon and Maggie Siff are also outstanding) and its capacity not to take itself too seriously. The world of Billions – swaggering deca-billionaires vying for the cover of Vanity Fair – now feels like an alternative universe, pure entertainment remote from the real story of 2020. All the better for it.

I Am Greta (selected cinemas, including Curzon)
Nathan Grossman’s documentary is a smoothly made account of Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary rise from lone school climate striker to a position of international leadership, and, as such, an important record of a remarkable accomplishment. It is less successful as an exploration of character and motivation. But, in an age already drenched with hyper-personalised celebrity, some – including Thunberg herself – would argue that this represents progress.

People You May Know (iTunes)
A must-watch before the US presidential elections, this documentary, directed by Charles Kriel and Katharina Gellein Viken, follows the former’s investigation of the links between Evangelical churches and data-scraping tech companies. Kriel was an adviser to the Commons DCMS select committee’s investigation into fake news and misinformation, and his disclosures about the use of US worshippers’ personal data to assist political strategists are riveting. The film is also excellent on the Evangelicals’ calculated support for Donald Trump as an ungodly man who is nonetheless the ‘instrument’ of God’s work.

On The Rocks (Apple TV+, 23 October) 
Who can resist the creative reunion of Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola, whose directorial debut, Lost In Translation (2003), was one of the great movies of its decade? The theme is more formulaic this time, and the tone more overtly comic: Murray plays Felix, playboy father to Rashida Jones’ Laura, who join forces in a gumshoe quest to find out if her husband is cheating. Though Murray is always captivating, it is Jones – an underrated actress – who gives the movie its emotional depth and heart.
two book covers.