Slow Burn: The Road to Iraq
A new Slow Burn is always a point of interest in this household.
Last season, Slate’s dependably rich podcast series brought listeners to Louisiana in the ’80s and ’90s, where season host Josh Levin traced the rise of the former Klansman David Duke as a political phenomenon and culture-war barnacle.
Slow Burn’s latest effort shifts the time frame to tackle a subject that’s much closer to the present, as in, we continue to be there. Hosted by former New York editor Noreen Malone, the season looks at the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was necessary because … wait, why was it necessary again? Retaliation for 9/11? Weapons of mass destruction?
Well, I suppose that’s the thing, right?
I was 12 when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, back in 2001, and watching from my native Malaysia, I wasn’t all that conscious of what exactly was happening, much less why the United States decided to bulldoze its way into Iraq a couple of years later. Now, almost two decades later, chiefly by osmosis and news consumption, I’m generally aware that, somewhere in the rationale that led to all this, sat a big, fat lie.
The what, the who, and the why remain elusive to me, which is why I’m eager to dig into this one.
Shipworm, a new “feature length” fiction podcast that drops today, has one of those classic techno-thriller conceits that’s perfect for a mid-budget weekend movie tucked somewhere within the Netflix carousel — which, I imagine, is part of the point.
Here’s the premise: A troubled doctor, played by Broadway veteran Quentin Earl Darrington, wakes up one morning to find a voice in his head. He believes he’s been implanted with an untraceable earpiece — whether this is true constitutes part of the mystery — and speaking to him is someone calling herself “the Conductor,” played by Miriam Silverman, who proceeds to tell him to do everything she says or his family gets killed.
If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s reminiscent of the Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance,” which follows a teenager navigating a nightmarish scenario in which he’s blackmailed to commit strange and occasionally illegal acts by a mysterious figure. It’s also vaguely similar to one of my all-time weekend wallpapers: the 2002 thriller Phone Booth, which features a pre-Farrellaissance Colin Farrell stuck in the titular box, where he’s terrorized by a moralizing Kiefer Sutherland, whose extremely recognizable low growl of a voice simply oozes from the other side of the phone.
Shipworm, however, is much less viscerally thrilling than “Shut Up and Dance,” and much less fun than Phone Booth. But it does do some genuinely interesting things on a purely technical level, which is why I’m still recommending it … with some reservations.
While there’s a cinematic nature to the whole enterprise that makes it more than intriguing, Shipworm is weighed down by its writing. The dialogue is stiff, clunky, and pockmarked with pretentious asides, leading to performances that never quite settle into your ear. It’s also excessively heavy on exposition, which presumably falls from the creative team’s negotiation of the constraints: There’s no narrator, so the characters have to do all the explanatory lifting, which ultimately cuts into their capacity to just live and breathe as characters.
I know I’m kicking this thing in the shin, but I’ll make two points strongly in its favor. First of all, I really do appreciate the ambition. A feature-length audio project isn’t exactly unprecedented, but the notion of creating something that’s essentially a B-movie thriller purely as a podcast is a somewhat novel experience, and novelty is always welcome. The second is the sound design, which doesn’t just deliver on the basic stuff (setting scenes, creating a sense of place, conveying change and movement) but achieves some real highs in the seaborne third act, balancing between meteorological chaos and underwater serenity.
• NPR’s Invisibilia returned with a new season and a whole new iteration, complete with new hosts: Kia Miakka Natisse and Yowei Shaw.
• In honor of publication day for World Travel: An Irreverent Guide from the late Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, a quick shout-out to Carbface for Radio, which Woolever hosts with Chris Thornton, a.k.a. Shit Food Blogger.
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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