Friday, May 03, 2013

Why War? Why Not Big Projects? Wally Hickel - The Movie

I got an email invite to see the premiere of "Alaska, the World, and Wally Hickel" from Paul Brown.  I thought back to a meeting I had with Paul some years ago.  He was up here just starting the film. . . and now it was done.

So I looked up the old post to show the beginning of this project and it turns out my memory is very vulnerable to suggestion.  We met in April 2009, but he was up here scouting out Alaska for a Common Cause chapter.   Good thing I have a blog to keep me grounded.  But I also saw him since then and he must of told me he was working on this project. 

portrait of Wally Hickel
Wally Hickel is bigger than life here in Alaska.  I first heard of him before coming here - when Nixon made him his Secretary of Interior.  He surprised us all when he wrote a letter to Nixon after students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State.  (One of the people interviewed claims to be the person who leaked the letter to the press. Based on the others interviewed, this may well have been a new revelation.) When I got to Alaska he was businessman Hickel again, but jumped into the Governor's race as an independent in 1990 after Arliss Sturgulewski won the Republican nomination.  She would have been the first woman governor and a good one.  But Hickel took the election.

My opinion of Hickel went back and forth and toward the end, when he began talking about the Owner State and getting strongly involved in pushing communication and exchange among Arctic Nations, he showed a leadership, passion, vision, and integrity that Alaskans, and the nation, need more of.

The movie reflected this hard to pin down Alaskan.  It more than hinted at weaknesses - portraying him as a man who didn't read much (he was dyslexic it said), as an impulsive decision maker, over confident (various people said he "believed his own stories"), and that he loved attention.   Overall though, this is a very positive portrait.  

Was he just lucky he got to Alaska when the opportunities were good for a charismatic young man who who could work hard?  I think that helped a lot.  Probably in a more established city and state he might have been lost in the crowd.  But the movie also portrayed him as making people feel good to be around him, as having an infectious enthusiasm that made people believe in his projects, and a perseverance and self confidence that made things work out.

I think the movie spent a little too much time on his departure from the Nixon administration and omits any explanation of how or why an apparently healthy young man in the early 1940's managed to stay in Alaska to start his career instead of enlisting or being drafted to fight in World War II.

Was there a health reason?  Was he a draft dodger?  A secret pacifist?  The National Governor's Association website bio of Hickel says,
"During World War II, he served as a civilian flight maintenance inspector for the Army Air Corps."
Is there something here that would help explain his support of the anti-war activists during the Vietnam war? 

Executive Producer of the film, Ken Mandel, in an introduction to the film said they only had 60 minutes to cover a lifetime and they had to make choices.  He also offered the Hickel quote about war in the title of this post, which further tickles my curiosity about this.

No film or book can tell the whole story of a man.  Others need to fill in other aspects and other details.  This is a reasonable film that celebrates the things Hickel did well, hints at some of the flaws, and left me pondering the differences between those who take action after careful analysis and those who think after they act.  (The movie mentions the Hickel highway he had built through the tundra to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields that destroyed the permafrost and had to be abandoned to hopeless summer mud, leaving a scar across the landscape with an unmentioned pricetag.)  The Hickel portrayed in the movie seems to be a man with great integrity, great vision, and great confidence in his own greatness.

I talked to Paul Brown after the film and in this very short video, you get a sense of how Hickel affected people. (This is also about as close as I've ever had the camera to someone's face. I'm not sure how this happened. Sorry Paul.)

It was fitting that the movie premiered in a ball room of the Captain Cook Hotel, a hotel Hickel built in downtown Anchorage shortly after the 1964 earthquake to show confidence in Anchorage's recovery.  And it's still a world class hotel.  

The film will be on shown on Alaska Public television (KAKM, KTOO, and KYUK) on May 9, 2013 at 7:00 pm.  In Fairbanks (KUAC) on May 26. 

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