Ronan the Accuser: ‘Catch and Kill’ is a Terrifying, Paranoid Study in Power
Possessed of near total recall, an opportunistic eye for detail, a strong sense of narrative structure, and a vivid flair for language, Ronan Farrow also has a healthy sense of the absurd. Not only is this self-deprecating son of actress Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen conscious of how improbable his place in the world is–a former U.S. State department official, a former on-air NBC correspondent, a current New Yorker investigative reporter, a 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service winner–he’s also profoundly self-aware of others’ awareness of this and how thoroughly absurd life itself can be.
In last year’s War on Peace, his memoir-qua-polemic about the sidelining of American diplomatic influence, this quality manifested itself in subtle ways. The odd phrase tips ever-so-gently into knowing inelegance, an Afgani warlord displays sartorial tackiness, a high-level diplomat speaks “with a locked jaw and the clipped, mid-Atlantic cadence of a 1940s movie star.”
The late, larger-than-life Richard Holbrooke, arguably a Farrow father-figure, cast a huge shadow over War on Peace. Imposing and inappropriate, his colorful presence alone lent a welcome ridiculousness to a pessimistic examination of an institution of worldly importance at true risk of going to seed. Studied, erudite, and passionately committed to his themes, Farrow isn’t above a wink or three. My man is funny, bordering on smug. He’s a puckish Jane Mayer in training.
In Catch and Kill, Farrow finds himself tracking a different, if no less controversial, grizzly bear: the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. This time out, though, the absurdity is more pervasive, deeply sinister, and thoroughly baked-in, because Weinstein is simultaneously stalking Farrow, Farrow’s sources, and Farrow’s peers at other outlets pursuing the same story via Black Cube, a private intelligence agency with ties to the Israeli military.
A Black Cube source leaked a cache of internal memos and communications to Farrow, so, out of inventiveness or informed convenience, Catch and Kill ping-pongs between the author’s experiences reporting and attempting to air his story and the Three Days of The Condor-esque conspiracy invisibly trailing him, closing in. There are, necessarily, fewer guffaws to be had; many of these come courtesy of Farrow’s ludicrous boyfriend Jon Lovett, a former Obama administration official and current Crooked Media podcaster. There are more bathic moments, like this searing aftermath of a confrontation with Noah Oppenheim, Farrow’s boss:
I moved through the cubicles of the Today show newsroom and up the stairs to the fourth floor, with battery acid in my mouth and red parentheses in my palms where I had pressed nails into skin.
Or consider the point where our protagonist bellies up to his new, bleakly absurdist status quo:
But I was starting to take precautions. I was memorializing sensitive information in longhand form. I was moving new documents into the safe-deposit box. Eventually, I’d consult John Tye, a former whistle-blower on government surveillance practices who founded a nonprofit law office called Whistleblower Aid. He set me up with an iPod Touch with only an encrypted messaging app installed, connected to the internet through an anonymous Wi-Fi hot spot purchased with cash.
Later, he started visiting a firing range, and learned to fire a gun.
Weinstein, who for decades allegedly pawed, assaulted, and raped actresses and subordinates, threatening them with promises, pay-offs, and NDAs, threatens to consume Catch and Kill whole. Weinstein is simultaneously everywhere and everyone in this book, allegedly. He is the operatives shadowing targets; the bizarre texts blowing up Farrow’s phone and thus tracking him globally; the casual associates mildly threatening Farrow out or selling him out; the compromised journalists and PR flacks promising to share information with Farrow and other reporters in hot pursuit; The National Enquirer, buying victims stories and stashing them in vaults; NBC management perpetually hemming and hawing about whether to finally air an exhaustively researched, legally vetted story about his wanton, psychologically-damaged monstrousness. He is absolute power–his misbehavior an open secret previous writers had never been allowed to actually crack in print or on-air–and he is terrifying.
Every time Farrow and his producer Rich McHugh think the story is ready to break, NBC inexplicably pulls back. While this protracted tug of war plays out, the pair engage in a media-source dance with brave victims, including Asia Argento, Rose McGowan, Mina Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, and Brooke Nevils. Their detail-heavy stories, which Farrow eventually reported in The New Yorker and reproduces here, are bloodcurdling: the practiced manipulation from dinner invitations that translate into hotel-room discussions, the begging, the rages, the lunges, the rapes, and the many bolted doors barricaded with furniture to keep him at bay. (Farrow masterfully foreshadows the awfulness of disgraced Today anchor Matt Lauer early on, and literalizes it viscerally later.) It is impossible to read this book without trembling with righteous anger at least once.
Farrow’s Weinstein stories ultimately make their way into the world and help fuel the prevailing #MeToo moment. But his larger point in Catch and Kill is one about power, the sort of unchecked, vicious power that destroy civilians, reporters, and even entire media entities. It takes a village to satiate a monster: hundreds or thousands of associates, contemporaries, politicians, agents, fixers, and others who value money and connections over morality. Power is why Hillary Clinton suddenly doesn’t have room in her schedule for an interview while Farrow is preparing War on Peace. Power is why Farrow’s book agents keep calling him to ask how the story is coming–a story he hasn’t told them about. Power is why once voluble sources suddenly clam up and stop returning calls.
(Little, Brown, October 15, 2019)