Reviews

E-Ring

Cynthia Fuchs

No one else could make this dialogue sound like poetry quite like Dennis Hopper, so misfitted for his role as a Pentagon Colonel that he seems perversely perfect.


E-ring

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Dennis Hopper, Aunjanue Ellis, Kelly Rutherford, Sarah Clarke
Network: NBC
Amazon

If only the Pentagon was run by soldiers, and not those snivelly civilians. This is the simple premise of the even simpler E-Ring, Jerry Bruckheimer's latest bequest to Planet TV. Civilians, we all know, don't know the costs of war or its true rewards, enduring tragedy, earning camaraderie, and testing moral fiber, but instead imagine that war has to do with winning and gaining control of property.

E-Ring presents the inner workings of the Pentagon as a series of tensions among official divisions -- the administration, the CIA, the Defense Department (DOD), and the Joint Chiefs. Everyone has something to say in this mix, and hardly anyone agrees on cost effectiveness, strategy and policy, and most important during these terrorized days, security. The pilot opens with a moving description of the Pentagon's business by its newest newbie, Major Jim (JT) Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt). "The security of the nation depends on the men and women who serve in the five rings of the Pentagon. Before any military action can be taken, approval must come from the outer, and most important ring, the E-ring." It sounds kind of cosmic in this rendition, an effect enhanced by the camera's gaze from on high at the familiar building, allowing you to imagine all the power, intelligence, and good intentions that go on inside. And then it cuts to the soap opera, and all such noble notions fall away.

Which is not to say that the series -- with a first episode directed by Taylor Hackford, who knows how to frame a shot and give great lighting -- doesn't work overtime to maintain some semblance of respect for the Building (as insiders call the Pentagon-as-institution). In fact, the grand soundtrack, busy-looking montage sequences (particularly those showing series of signatures on official, pink, Pentagon forms authorizing warlike activities), slow motion battle or "extraction" scenes (as these are the activities undertaken in the Pilot and in "Snatch and Grab," which airs 29 September), all suggest the work of the Pentagon is rather magnificent.

At least that's the ideal. Much of the time leading up to these swelling-strings moments is spent arguing with snotty country club golfer and political appointee Richard Woodley (Gabriel Olds) ("Who's never met a mission he ever liked") and legal advisor Samantha Liston (Kelly Rutherford). His first day on the job -- after 14 months in Afghanistan doing heroic duty -- sets a pattern: he's called in to deal with a Chinese asset, Kit Yee Cheung (Jennifer Chu), whose identity as a spy has been found out, and who needs help to escape, according to established protocol.

The suits are predictably hesitant to rescue her: does she really have info on Chinese stealth technology? Is she worth the risk, after six years of loyal service solicited by the CIA? And what about sending in the nearest available means of transport, a nuclear sub? What happens if Chinese satellites pick it up and officials read it as a sign of aggression? JT has an answer for all these concerns, the Marine's oath never to leave behind a comrade. Apparently this is the fundamental difference between suits and soldiers: soldiers care about one another, no matter who they are. Suits count dollars and forsake duty as a matter of course.

Luckily, Jim finds an ally right off in his new CO, Colonel Eli McNulty. As played by Dennis Hopper, McNulty is crisp and ornery, but also just this side of delirious when uttering his gonzo army-guy dialogue, much as you might expect the Photojournalist to be, were he hired to look after Colonel Kurtz's munitions. Just listen to him barking initial orders over the phone, roused in the middle of the night and standing in pretty filtered light in his boxers: "Get your ass down to the office," he grrrrs, "We have a raging bull going down. Sgt. Pierce is in 1E239, she'll download you. Get the 411 from the CIA and be at the ball ASAFP."

No one else could make this sound like poetry quite like Hopper, so misfitted for this role that he seems perversely perfect. He ends his tirade by announcing that if the major has screwed up, "Your ass is grass and I will defoliate you." He might as well have added, "And with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack," but instead, he hangs up and turns to his dog and asks if he has to "go poopie."

The earnest, rules-bending JT makes a less immediately good impression on Pierce (Aunjanue Ellis), whose job it is, she says, to keep him and the Colonel "out of jail," by anticipating legal issues, documenting everything as properly as possible (getting those pink papers signed, a process she calls "putting fingerprints on the body"), and ensuring plausible deniability for actions that just go over the line. When he asks her to get coffee, she stiffens up, assuring him, "Whatever I can do to make your life easier, sir, I am ready, but I am not your Stepinfetchit." As she walks off, he smiles at her "spunk," not seeming to understand his own offensiveness.

Jim's arrogance might make him more intriguing than the typical tv hero, though at this point it's unclear whether E-Ring perceives this warrior-man as pompous or righteous (repeatedly, his splendiferous soundtrack makes him seem lofty in the corniest way). He exploits his romance with CIA agent Angie Aronson (Kelsey Oldershaw) but also harbors mild guilt over some past mission in Bogota, where he sent her into a dangerous spot. When he asks her for info as he's trying to end-run the Chinese girl's rescue, Angie has to remind him, "The CIA's in the secret business JT, not the truth business," a reminder that may be more directed at you than JT.

To add to JT's potential ambiguity, his other Friend in the Building is former soldier and current Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Ops Steven Algazi (Joe Morton, whose own framing apparatus ranges from Brother from Another Planet to T2 to Stealth). McNulty says that Algazi "gets it," because he's a soldier, but for the most part, he's reduced to background support, applauding JT's "fresh from the field perspective," which, Algazi says, "might enlighten us all."

The fact is, in the first two episodes, the three gung-ho guys -- McNulty, JT, and Algazy -- all issue orders and then stand and watch the mission go down from the operations room, pacing or running their hands through their haircuts as younger men face and wield weapons in a distant, exoticized land, Shanghai and Afghanistan in these cases. The second episode has the team target a villain associated with Bin Laden (plus, the colonel observes, "He assisted the Chechens in that preschool blood bath in Russia"). The spy assigned to take his photo (for id purposes) introduces Tariq Mahayni (Theo Kypri) by calling him a "rotten piece of garbage," which about sums up his non-speaking role. McNulty complains that Tariq got his degree at MIT: "We educate 'em here and they take big dumps on us over there," and Tariq pops up in frame every time the folks in the States mention his name, in fast-cut shady shots, wearing beard and turban, and tap-tapping on his laptop.

While such onerous enemies necessitate full force, according to the soldiers, they also understand risk. JT is "on the ground" in and around D.C., interacting with real people, not just his fellow mission planners. In the second episode, he's got to deploy his buddy Bobby (Kerr Smith, looking considerably more bedraggled than he did in Dawson's), still stuck in Afghanistan. This means extending Bobby's already over-long 18 months in country a few more days. The Pentagon team sets the illegal "rendition" during the call to prayer ("prime fishing time"), naming greater goods and using a design lifted from John Wayne's The Green Berets ("It's old school," explains JT). When JT worries that he's not cut out for issuing such orders to friends, McNulty sets him straight: "If we don't have warriors in the Pentagon, fighting for what they believe in, then we have good men dying for stupid reasons out there."

Still, JT promises to inform Bobby's wife Beth (Ashley Williams) of the decision. Yet another angry family member who has trouble with the military's absolute control over their increasingly chaotic lives, she accuses JT of having gone over to the bad guys -- the administration's -- side. "What is the damn point of having a friend in the Pentagon," she wonders, if you can't pull a few strings?" When JT offers a platitude (he'd trade places with Bobby if he cold), she's had enough. "You guys, you're all the same. I guess this time, if he dies out there, at least I'll have someone to blame. So that's you."

JT leaves Beth's house, welcome home party decorations on the kitchen table and kids asleep upstairs, he steps over a curb that has painted on it their house number and a U.S. flag. The flag shows up in all sorts of places in the series, here apparently ironically, in the Pentagon probably less so. Embodying this mix of emotions, morals, and politics, JT is looking more complicated than the rest of E-Ring. Maybe the show will catch up to him and throw wrenches into its already reductive, action-movie-derived formula. And maybe Dennis Hopper will pull out his old photos from Cambodia.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.