By Richard Brody ~ The New Yorker
Woody Allen’s Amazon miniseries, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” set in the late nineteen-sixties, is a tale of a dogmatic young revolutionary, played by Miley Cyrus.
Woody Allen’s six-episode miniseries for Amazon, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” which runs just less than two and a half hours in total, is, in effect, his “American Pastoral.” Like Philip Roth’s 1997 novel, it’s a vision (a comedic one, where Roth’s is tragic) of a liberal suburban household, in the late nineteen-sixties, that’s thrown into turmoil by a young woman who commits an act of political terrorism. It has the virtues and the faults of Allen’s later films—which is to say that his ideas come to the fore in sharp focus, sketched with clear and decisive lines, but sometimes the sketchiness detaches them from the context of lived experience and turns them merely assertive and hermetic.
Allen also does something in “Crisis” that he hasn’t done in a while—he acts, co-starring as Sidney Munsinger, a frustrated novelist who made a good living in advertising and now, with his literary career stuck in a rut, is looking to reëstablish himself commercially by writing a television series. He and his wife, Kay (played by Elaine May, the great director and performer, who also hasn’t acted in quite a while—not since Allen’s 2000 film “Small Time Crooks”), live in a palatial home in a suburb of New York; she’s a marriage counsellor who sees her clients in a home office. Then chaos comes through the door, in the person of Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a young woman who is a lifelong friend of the family (she’s descended from the people who raised the orphaned Kay), and who is a wanted fugitive after bombing a draft-board office and shooting her way out of prison.
Lennie needs a place to hide while awaiting the next move—a flight to Cuba, organized by the other members of her political group, the Constitutional Liberation Army. The hyperneurotic Sid wants to turn her in and get her out—he’s desperately afraid of being arrested as an accomplice (giving rise to some sordid jokes about prison rape), and he resents her eating his smoked sturgeon and leftover Chinese food. (When she asks to take a bath, Sid answers, “You cannot use our fluids!”) But Kay insists on taking Lennie in for as long as necessary.
Soon, however, the Munsinger household falls strongly under Lennie’s sway. The couple have a house guest—Alan (John Magaro), the son of their friends, who’s studying for his M.B.A. at N.Y.U. Alan meets Lennie and quickly becomes infatuated with her; she gives him some political reading material, which he finds very persuasive. Soon, he’s ready to abandon his fiancée, Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan), a wealthy débutante, and his career in finance, to run off with Lennie and join her as a revolutionary in exile.
Kay is also entranced by Lennie. She is moved, first, simply to protect the young woman. But then she finds herself moved by Lennie’s political self-justifications, and she, too, reads the political books (works by Mao and Marx, among others) that Lennie gives her and finds them persuasive. What’s more, Kay gets an extra charge out of the danger resulting from Lennie’s presence. Lennie needs some clandestine errands run in order to make her escape to Cuba, and Kay is enthusiastic about putting the thrills of action into her life—or, rather, into her and Sid’s lives, because she ropes him into the plot as well.
In “Crisis,” Allen writes himself back, in current form, into an time in which he was actually already anachronistic. Allen made his great breakthrough, with “Annie Hall,” not at the beginning of an era but at its end. He was already older than forty; he had twenty years of show biz behind him, and his nineteen-sixties weren’t an age of protest and activism but of trying to establish himself, tooth and nail, as the filmmaker that he had decided to become. “Crisis in Six Scenes” starkly conveys the wistful—yet not regretful—sense that his sixties were secondhand and spectatorial.
Above all, however, the core of the series is the secondhand experience not of the sixties as action but of the sixties as political rhetoric. It isn’t only Alan and Kay who are transformed by Lennie’s presence. Kay also delivers the political literature to the members of her book club, mainly elderly women, who become comically enthusiastic acolytes of violent revolution, spouting Mao’s aphorisms and eagerly, if obliviously, anticipating bloodshed. Kay, the members of the book club, and Alan (in other words, a dozen women and one callow young man) all come under the influence of the dogmatic, overheated, and secondhand rhetoric of a young woman who gets it from the books of certain repressive dictators—and, well, the young revolutionary’s name is Lennie, or Leni. (As Sid tells Kay in the midst of their cloak-and-dagger adventures, “Good thing she didn’t give you ‘Mein Kampf.’ “)
This readiness of many people to fall for the virtuous-sounding but hollow, reckless, dangerous, and destructive rhetoric of dictatorial revolutionaries is the very through-line of the series. In that sense, “Crisis in Six Scenes” isn’t just Allen’s “American Pastoral”; it’s also his version of “Radical Chic”— Tom Wolfe’s vision of a social set in the nineteen-sixties, his social set, whose members came under the influence of a romantic ideological illusion and found themselves unintentionally spouting cant and defending terrorists and tyrants. It is also about the brainwashing of middle-class people by the idealism, the intellect, the charisma, and the vulnerability of a young woman who is a sort of political celebrity, even, for her supporters, a political victim and martyr—and that’s where its ostensibly historical subject leaps ahead to reflect Allen’s view of the present day and, for that matter, his place in it.
Allen presents his Sid as the one sane man who, despite—or rather, because of—his neurotic inhibitions and practical artistic ambitions and ideals, remains invulnerable to such flights of grandiose and vapid thinking. As a portrait of the sixties, this relentless satire of revolutionary action serves to justify the course of Allen’s own ideas and activity, even as he hints at admiration for the fervor and daring of the revolutionaries themselves. But, looking at today, he presents his own fortress, his own ambitions, and his own ideals as coming under siege through the rhetorical contagion of a young woman and her mostly female followers. This depiction of women in thrall to radical rhetoric—who, as a result, put Sid’s settled existence and artistic pursuits, his reputation, and even his freedom at risk—is not hard to read as a veiled response to the sexual-abuse allegations that have lately come back to haunt him. If there’s any doubt as to the reflexive element in the series, it’s underlined with a bold, even cavalier explicitness, in a scene in which Sid gets into a sticky encounter with the law—one that involves a secret connection to a young woman that could cost him years in prison. In the end, he gets out of trouble, thanks to his literary fame.