Oscar-nominated movie ‘The Whale’ is all about Moscow, Idaho. What are the odds?

'The Whale' movie poster

2022: A year of murders and movies in Moscow town.

The other day my wife and I had a date afternoon. The babysitter was coming. We were going to Tacoma to get some lunch. And well, what else could we do, other than get lunch in the middle of the afternoon?

The lunch place was near an art house, so we decided to catch us a movie. However, we have five children and getting out is a big deal. Our knowledge of new releases playing in theaters is very limited. Mostly we know about what Disney Plus is pitching to us at the moment. Is it a soulful story of a girl who turns into a panda or the soulful story of a black man’s soul escaping heaven?

We don’t really know either way. The kids prefer video games. Being therefore completely ignorant of what films were even playing in theaters, I checked the web.

I asked my wife, “Do you wanna see the movie about the English teacher who’s estranged from his daughter? Or the one about the queen whose corset gets tighter and tighter?”

That’s both a joke and true, because those were the two options at the Grand Cinema on that particular Saturday.

Jessica says, “Given those choices, I’d watch the one about the English teacher.”

And so we did. At some point in the film, pizza’s ordered – important plot point there – and there’s a knock on the door. They say that it’s “Gambino’s.”

And I think that’s funny, huh? Look at that. The box even has a little fedora on it and the word ‘Gambino’s.” I lean over to my wife and I’m like, “That looks just like Gambino’s in Moscow.” But I guess there’s not too many different ways to do a pizza logo other than like the word “Gambino’s” and a fedora maybe? I don’t know. Then I notice that the nurse in the film is wearing a fleece with a Gritman Medical Center logo on it. Somebody was found dead in the river near Lewiston. Wait, is that a Book People bag hanging next to the door?

It’s too bad theaters are so dark because no one was able to see the stupid look of realization come over my face when I finally came to understand that this movie, The Whale, was set in Moscow, Idaho.

The screenplay was written by Samuel D. Hunter, who indeed grew up in Moscow.

Today we’re gonna talk about The Whale because it received multiple Oscar nominations this week. The odds of a Moscow based movie being made are honestly pretty good. More than one. But they’re all indie films which none of us have ever seen. This one you will hear about while you watch the Oscars.

We’re on the Compass of Power, not Movie Gripes Tonight, so we’re gonna talk about the place of this movie. That involves politics because as we say here on the Compass of Power, “Place is politics.”

We will talk about the role of religion in the film, the role of academia, of art and sexuality, and how every one of those themes is reflective of the culture of the Palouse in general and of Idaho and Moscow in particular.

And look, I did not intend for this podcast to become the all about Moscow, Idaho cast. I promise I will move on. Unless this helps me monetize somehow. Because my goal in life is to transcend human knowledge and monetize my assets.

What are the odds that 2022’s most revolting, quadruple homicide and one of its most dazzling motion picture films would be set in a small North Idaho farm town where I lived, where I went to college, where I worked? The opening is there and I gotta throw the punch.

On the murder side of the news, I would like to say that I am feeling like I called it go back and listen to the episode entitled, “Moscow, Idaho and a Cultural Blindness to Evil.” I recorded that episode before Brian Kohberger was arrested and charged with murdering four University of Idaho students in November. But in that podcast, I realized that I and a lot of other people who know Moscow were ignoring a simple explanation for the gruesome killing of innocent people.

Maybe it was done because it was evil. Maybe this was a murder planned out with victims added later and the work possibly of a serial killer. I will stop right here and say that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. However, nothing about my sudden realization has in any way been undermined by the revelations in the case. I would say the opposite.

Kohberger turned out to be a student at Washington State University in nearby Pullman. And you cannot talk about Moscow, Idaho, and the University of Idaho with talking about WSU and Pullman Washington. See that episode.

That’s not our topic today, though. Our topic is, while the news media is showing the “shocked and horrified by brutal homicide” side of Moscow, a Hollywood film is showing the “fat man emotionally locked inside his own guilt, literally locks himself inside small Moscow apartment” side of Moscow.

The Whale received Academy Award nominations for best actor and best actress in a supporting role. Both of these nominations for Brendan “George of the Jungle” Fraser and Hong Chau are totally deserved.

I’m probably gonna spoil the ever-loving bejeebers out of this plot because I want to talk about the movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, but I’m just gonna go there. I’m not going to really talk about the plot because that’s not my point. The point is to talk about the place. This is just a warning that I don’t know what I’m gonna say here.

Am I qualified to be a movie critic? I would like to refer back to my Moscow creds, because Moscow, Idaho, bizarrely has a strong theater position tradition of which I took part. I mean, when I was a kid, every summer we’d go to Moscow and we’d watch the Repertory Theater. They had a professional theater over the summers. That’s a big deal because most acting, in case you didn’t know, is done for free. But they did in fact pay people to come and act through the summer.

We typically would take in a Rogers and Hammerstein musical and some Shakespeare, and I think they typically did like a murder mystery. My mother loved it. We all went there and we watched it and we’d go to the Pantry at the University Inn.

The Hartung Theater is still there, built in 1973. Which takes us to the glory days of when we had Patrick the Starfish as a student. That’s right. Bill Fagerbakke voices Patrick Star in SpongeBob Squarepants. He also played Dobber and Coach, if you wanna go way back. And more recently he was in How I Met Your Mother.

Fagerbakke was raised in Rupert, Idaho, and played football for the University of Idaho Vandals. He did his first acting bit, as I understand it, in Godspell. He graduated in like 1981.

We have a legitimate, known person from the University of Idaho! That’s our claim to fame. Up until now, now we have The Whale.

While I attended the University of Idaho, I saw every single play produced there during that time. And the theater program, at least when I was there, was robust enough that there were many theater kids. I thought of them as the marching band kids or whatever, the accounting kids. There’s plenty of them and you knew of them. And it was a large program within the university, shall we say.

I feel like I saw multiple productions of that Sam Shepherd play Fool for Love. Oh, what a terrible play too. I mean, it’s, it’s probably good, but oh so miserable.

In all those student written plays and vignettes and things that I saw in the 1990s – and that I assume are still being done at the University of Idaho – there were some common themes. And those themes make up the backbone of The Whale.

Now what’s interesting is, none of this is true about Pullman or Washington State University. In fact, while I was a reporter covering Washington State University WSU went through a closure process for the theater degree and program. I left before that was resolved, but it looks like it is gone now. I just was perusing WSU’s website and it looks like they still have some student run theater, maybe an improv group, but there’s no degree. There’s not a big program. You’re not like selling tickets. So far as I can tell. Could be wrong.

I do remember going to WSU and watching Equus. Oh, the chinkle-chankle.

But let’s recap here.

Moscow, University of Idaho, 11,000 students. Has a robust, long-running theater program with some legit Hollywood connections.

Pullman, Washington State University, eight miles away, 21,000 students. They’ve got an improv group.

But – they do have a criminal justice program, in which the accused killer Kohberger studied. Yes, he was a WSU student. The Cougars may wipe the floor with Vandals when it comes to football or literally any other sport you could name. But in the public relations battle of 2022, victory to Idaho, I say.

Onto The Whale. The first person you encounter in this story, outside of a bunch of online students looking bored, is the protagonist Charlie. And he is fat. We better just talk about that right now because what people will remember about this movie is what that it was the Fat Guy movie. Charlie is what the doctors would call “morbidly obese,” which turns out to be a pretty darn accurate term in a narrative sense.

Corpulent. Sweaty. Especially early in the film, we are circling this enormous man way too closely. We are getting too intimate with his bulbous folds. We want to back up. We are in horror. In fact, director Darren Aronofsky makes such good use of like our compulsive revulsion that some activists are angry about it.

They’re like, “Why do we treat large people like monsters?

Well, as this film very nimbly shows, it’s because we find them disturbing. That may not be right, but the writer, director, actors are all putting that emotional lever to maximum work right off the bat in the show. You find yourself leaning back in your seat to try and create some distance. You really hope this guy doesn’t stand up because that seems like it will break some of his bones. Wait, is that Brendan Fraser in a fat Suit?

Man, give that guy an Oscar. Best use of prosthetic stomach since Weird Al. And I don’t mean Daniel Radcliffe’s six pack in that other movie. Geeze, Brendan Fraser. Wow.

Now that we have the Oscar nod out of the way, we meet character No. 2. And we get into some very, very Moscow, Idaho. I don’t know if you know this, but Moscow, Idaho is not known for morbidly obese people. The Palouse is a farming area founded mostly by like Germans and Scandinavians. It’s pretty laissez fair, not too adventurous. But Idaho itself is rich with recreational opportunities. And the vibe in Moscow, Idaho, is very Portland, Oregon. Everyone is a rock climber, a whitewater rafter, or at least dresses like they are. But the character that shows up number two in this film is not an outdoor type.

He is the clean-cut-white-boy-on-a-mission character. He’s a missionary. This is Thomas, played in the film by Ty Simpkins.

If you are at all familiar with Mormons, you would think that Ty is one of them. He looks and he acts like the familiar missionaries – the friendly, helpful, full-of-zeal-for-Jesus-Christ kids that come to your door and ask if they can tell you about the Book of Mormon. Also do favors for you.

Here’s the political geography for you, vis-a-vis missionaries in Idaho. Many, many Mormons call Idaho home. About one in five adults in Idaho is a Mormon. But this is a regional thing. Remember, Idaho shaped like a big letter “L.” That panhandle to the north where Moscow is located was deliberately created as a gerrymandering technique to protect the Pacific Coast control over what is now Washington state. They split the democratic vote between what is now eastern Washington and North Idaho. And by doing that they ensure that the population base of Washington stayed on the coast.

That’s why Moscow is in the state of Idaho, even though there’s only one road connecting north Idaho to south Idaho. And Boise is 300 miles and one time zone away. It’s also why the University of Idaho is in Moscow. It was a sort of pork-barrel payment to the people of North Idaho in exchange for the fact that they lost control of their political future for all time.

North Idaho is religiously eclectic. It actually has one of the largest populations of people who subscribe to no religion in particular the “nones.” It has a strong presence of Native American Catholics who got their start with Jesuit missionaries to the area prior to the arrival of white settlers.

Southern Idaho, as the old joke goes, is northern Utah. It is somewhat true. Southern Idaho is a long, long way from Moscow and there’s a very strong Mormon presence. In many southern Idaho cities, Mormons are culturally dominant. Again, you literally are just north of Utah, which is you know, was founded by Mormons.

That’s not the case in Moscow. Moscow lacks a single dominant religion and that makes them vulnerable to takeover, like literally vulnerable.

Back to the movie. One of the things I think this film does well is, if not deliberately, they tend let people go astray, take advantage of our expectations. And our first impression of this young Christian kid character Thomas is that he must be clean cut. You know, he has that vibe. Right or wrong, I feel that Mormonism in popular culture has like a very fresh and clean and, and optimistic attitude. Sometimes they’re held up for almost as a joke, which isn’t fair. But I don’t think they’re held up as particularly evil.

As events unfold in the film, you start to feel like, maybe he’s just the zealous Christian kid. Maybe he’s a little rebellious, too. Don’t know. We’re starting to feel some vibes about his parents. He’s contrasted strongly with that estranged daughter we heard about in the synopsis.

Ellie is clearly mad at her dad, Charlie and she doesn’t behave in a very religious manner, let me put it that way. She is the foil to the clean-cut kid. And now we’ve got some Moscow vibes going in full strength. Because let me tell you, a lot of those student written plays and vignettes that I had to watch, they featured these sort of Mormon-ish kids from southern Idaho grappling with their conservative homes.

A common theme, which we again find in The Whale is sexuality. You know, grappling with a gay or lesbian identity in the face of disapproval or confusion. Our movie features a gay college instructor Charlie who left his wife and daughter for a former student. Now he’s in poor health and he’s visited by this young Christian missionary kid. He wants to save Charlie, but is he trying to save Charlie from his bad eating habits or from his gayness? We’re not quite sure.

Simultaneously, Charlie’s trying to connect with his A-religious daughter who hates his guts for leaving her. This setup is frankly just like all the other student drama you may find at the University of Idaho. I mean, at one point while watching the whale, I leaned over to my wife and I was like, “I feel like I’m back in college watching the play, but I’m sober.”

And guess what? The Whale was a play. It was adapted for the film by the playwright Samuel Hunter.

The director and cinematographer make majestic use of the tight confines of Charlie’s apartment. And oh, the gorging scenes. You feel like you are watching a whale feeding frenzy caught on camera by National Geographic. And with this deep string music underneath, I was a little terrified myself.

However, in its weaker moments, this movie feels like it’s a one-set stage play being recorded by the guy who couldn’t land a speaking role. It just starts to feel like it’s a play. And if this was all The Whale was, questioning the role of parents and religion and self-determination being who you are, plus a lot of time spent talking about English assignments, it would basically be the same as every other darn play ever put on in Moscow, Idaho.

If this was all The Whale was, questioning the role of parents and religion and self-determination being who you are, plus a lot of time spent talking about English assignments, it would basically be the same as every other darn play ever put on in Moscow, Idaho.

But this is not Napoleon Dynamite, and it’s not about growing up in southern Idaho. It’s written by a guy who grew up in Moscow. So the question every character asks of Thomas the missionary is, “Are you from New Life? Isn’t that a cult?”

Big reveal here, folks.

New Life in the film is a stand in for the real world New St. Andrews College. New St. Andrews is not Mormonism. It got its start in the 1990s in Moscow. It is a religious college associated with the Presbyterians. And these guys are hardcore.

They are biblical fundamentalists who just hold as a core tenant of their faith that the Bible is literally true. It’s not on the Bible to bend to modern times. It’s on us to understand how what’s literally true in the Bible applies today. And the founder of this is Doug Wilson, as I like to call him, the anti-Wilson.

We are all part of the same clan, but these two Wilsons see things differently. And actually Doug Wilson holds an interesting place in my academic history. He is a good professor. But I think he’s the only professor that ever insulted me on the basis of religion. I don’t think that was intentional, but let me just say that Doug Wilson and Adam Wilson had different views about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday accords back in the day.

That’s what you might expect because the Presbyterian Church is Scottish in its origin, and it is in Scotland we would find old St. Andrew’s. We’ve talked often here about the fighting Scotch Irish, and that is a dominant political and cultural force in many parts of the United States. It’s certainly present in North Idaho. And what’s remarkable about New St. Andrews is that those folk do not mess around. They come straight at you with what they’re about and what they want, and then you get to deal with it. They do not apologize for their existence. And I’m gonna play you a little clip from a video from New St. Andrews that I think illustrates this nicely:

…Half of us worked on construction and half held the spears, shields, bows and coats of mail. And those who carried burdens were trained to labor and work with one hand and hold a weapon to defend it with the other. And all had a sword strapped to their sides and a tool in their hands in the ruins. We live, even while we rebuild them in the ruins, we marry and make love and raise children who raise the walls in the ruins. We craft wine and raise sanctuaries and barns in the ruins We build and we film and we write and we read and we sing and we laugh and play rugby with pumpkins…

“Build and Fight”

I think you get the idea. I mean, they’re, they’re kind of going from like a biblical sort of like we are in the ruins of the church, but we will rebuild the walls to like, also we’re gonna play rugby with pumpkins.

But they don’t make any excuses for where they come from. And although not mentioned in a couple videos that I went through, including one from Doug Wilson about why he founded New St. Andrews, is why they are in Moscow, Idaho, of all places.

Just Google, “Doug Wilson, new St. Andrews, Moscow, Idaho,” look for some news stories. He has gone on the record many times saying that he picked Moscow as a target. The intent was to find a liberal college town where you could win, where you could take over the culture and bring it back to righteousness, essentially.

This is a little liberal town was lost their way, and they’re going to go there and we’re going to bring ’em around. And as you can imagine, Idaho is not especially liberal place. It’s not known for that. But Moscow, Idaho, being home to farms and a college it had a reputation for being more lenient than most places. And the arrival of New St. Andrews resulted in instant flareups.

There was a topless car wash, I remember this. There was a topless car wash and some people did not like that. And then there was the cry, “How do we get rid of topless car washes? I hate those.”

They couldn’t figure out how to write the ordinance without banning breastfeeding. And then you know, there was this, there’s tinge of morality in that one.

There was also the straight-up battle over slavery, because there was a pamphlet available in the library that was all about “What does the Bible say about slavery?” And surprise, the Bible is kind-of-not-challenging on slavery. I don’t want to hold myself as a scholar here, but there’s definitely not a book titled “Jesus tells you why slavery’s wrong.” On the other hand, as we all know, many religious leaders in the United States from the Quakers to Martin Luther King Jr. looked at the Bible and found justifications for battling not only slavery, but prejudice in all its forms.

So that was a big dust up.

The tone is important here because true to their nature, this branch of Presbyterianism feel like they should just tell you what their plan is. “Our plan is to come here and take over your town.” “Our plan is to believe in the Bible all the way down, and we’re going to make things as close as we can to the way we want them.”

When you come at folks like that on the Palouse, it’s jarring. And at least when I was there, it was this constant issue for locals. They would say, “We like diversity and we want to be tolerant of everyone’s lifestyle. But then if we hold that position, how are we supposed to oppose these people who are definitely doing things we don’t like?”

While that was a political and social dispute, the real estate area got interesting. And this is where we can kind of tie this back into the quadruple homicide.

New St. Andrews started in downtown Moscow and there was immediate conflict between that and the bar scene in Moscow, Idaho. Moscow has a huge bar and restaurant scene for its size, compared to Pullman, where again, there are almost twice as many students and half as many bars.

We talked about this in another episode, but that dates back to the days when the drinking age was legally lower in Idaho than it was in Washington. Moscow became the destination for students of both universities to come to eat, to drink and have a good time. That’s how you end up with a situation in which, for a long time, on Friday, Saturday night at 4:00 AM in Moscow, Idaho, everyone has just wandered home and gone to bed. A culture of moving between the bars and bed, if you will.

And that’s when those murders happened. Yes, it was a WSU student coming across the border into Moscow because that is far more likely to happen than Moscow students coming across the border to Pullman.  Not to say that there’s like some sort of blame there, I’m just explaining that all of that is part of this constant ebb and flow.

New St. Andrews is an interesting addition to that flow because they’re literally taking up the bar space. As they expand, and they’re very successful, that means they take up more physical space, AKA have bought buildings. And it was a very limited downtown area in Moscow to begin with.

So actually there’s pressure now. The $1 well is an endangered species because it’s losing habitat in Moscow. Where are you gonna get a Colorado bulldog when you’ve only got four spots left to hold bars? Literally the buildings are being bought up and that turned into a battle in Moscow.

There may come a day when Moscow is no longer the Palouse’s bar hub, and WSU students will be more likely to stay at home in Pullman than cross the border for food and drink.

To get back to The Whale the movie, we’re talking about the struggling clean cut kid. The missionary who shows up, who thinks God brought him there to save Charlie.

He’s not gonna have a turn of heart. He’s not gonna turn out to just want what’s best for everybody, forget all this Bible stuff. He turns out to be a little tougher than you think. And a brilliant part about this movie is that I think everyone takes a few turns. Credit to Sam Hunter for writing that way in that you take these kind of archetypal rebellious-girl, missionary-kid, repentant-dad characters and they are all turn against your expectations a few times.

The Liz character as played by Hong Chau is a great example of a Moscow character to me. Her backstory is that she was adopted by leaders in the New Life, the “New Life” church but had a falling out with the whole darn organization over the way her brother was treated, her brother being Charlie’s partner. And I just wanna say that Hong Chau deserves huge props for her performance because it was so efficient. The way she was able to convey things with gestures and pauses — very impressive.

But if we’re talking about the cultural geography of Moscow, I thought she was a great addition because she is totally acculturated there and not in a good way. She is mad at individual people, she’s mad at the way a family treated someone she knew. And I think that is familiar.

When you have those sort of tight-knit religious networks, you’re going to find people on the outs with them. Doesn’t matter what the religion is, doesn’t matter what they believe. You will find people who are alienated, who either have to conform more than they want to in order to fit in, or are looking for some kind of accommodation for their reality. In the case of Liz, her brother was gay and the church just could not deal with that.

Again, this constellation becomes more and more familiar as a Moscow phenomenon. You’re dealing with the professor character, who is trying to get his students to write something true. It is a classic just-give-me-art kind of a thing, which I understand is real and artsy. But is still very collegiate.

You also have this durable question of religiosity and God. No one in this film shies away from talking about God, about what God wants or does not want from them. This I think is very unusual from a West Coast perspective. Where I am at now on the West Coast, religion is kind of a verboten topic because you don’t want to offend anyone. You don’t want to assume something about their religion, I think is the way we rationalize it. But I think in practicality, the actual offensive thing is to discuss religion at all.

These are all aspects of the culture that are specific to Moscow and they show up in The Whale. I don’t think that in that film they ever say the word, “Moscow.” Not once. I heard them say “Lewiston” once. Did not hear Moscow. So why is this story is based in Moscow?

Clearly Samuel Hunter the playwright-turn-screenwriter was building off of his knowledge of Moscow. And the little things like having Gambino’s in there, or Book People, are nods to his home town. But he’s not a University of Idaho student. He was born and raised in Moscow, born in 1981, the same year that Bill “Patrick Star” Fagebakke. Then Hunter went on, I think to Julliard and the University of Iowa and New York University.

I think it’s interesting because these are themes that developed in Moscow over time, but they are not the University of Idaho experience. The U of I experience, as we have discussed, is often about traveling to a new place, to a little college town where you can finally express yourself. (In fact, in an interview, Hunter said his inspiration was teaching writing at Rutgers University)

So I don’t know why exactly Hunter set this in Moscow, but if you go through his produced plays, they have a strong geographical streak. There’s “A bright new Boise,” one called “Norway,” one called “Pocatello,” one called “Clarkston,” one called “Lewiston.” And there’s another one called ‘Lewiston/Clarkston.”

Are these being sold as exotic locales in New York?

Let me tell you about a place called the Lewis Clark Valley!

Probably not. I mean, what does New York give a crap about it?

Alright, let’s bring it down to brass tacks. Where’s this going?

One, good on ya Hunter for making a career as a playwright doing geographically based plays about Northern Idaho, Eastern Washington, also southern Idaho. Great work. Didn’t know that was a possible career path, but you did good work.

Good on you Brendan Fraser. I felt really bad for you the whole time. But then sometimes not. Cause you’re toying with my emotions like a cat plays with a string.

Mostly I wrote this because there are lots of people who watched this show and thought about the themes and did not care where it was set, did not pick up on where it was set. They were interested in the individuals in their lives. And if there’s one thing I want this podcast to hammer into people is that your individual life is inevitably and deeply shaped by where you live.

And where you live is not just some random product of geography, but a soup of history and society and culture to which you must conform. The Whale has a lot of Moscow in it, and every other play movie song written anywhere by anybody has some bit of place in it consciously or not.

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