Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Lord of the Rings" and the World Wars

In preparation for “The Hobbit,” which I enjoyed a great deal, I watched all three of the original "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) movies again.  While I’m relying to some degree on the faithfulness of director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the novels, the shadows of World War I and World War II, two of the central events of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, clearly leave a major mark on the epic saga.

Tolkien served in the British military during World War I and fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of the “war to end all wars” that ushered in modern war.  Trench warfare and advanced weapons like machine guns produced higher casualties than previous conflicts, leaving soldiers with tremendous psychological scars.  Steven Spielberg depicted this new kind of fighting well in “War Horse” (2011).  See href>>

By the end of the three films, Frodo Baggins is not remotely the same person he was when he left the shire at the outset of the “Fellowship of the Ring.”  Haunted by his wounds, both physical and mental, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), or shell shock, as it was called during World War I.  This dynamic is clearer now that it was when “Return of the King” premiered in 2003, as the Iraq/Afghan wars were still in their early stages, and the media has been saturated with stories regarding PTSD as those wars have wound down.

Throughout the movies, characters talk of the menace growing “to the east,” and Mordor likely represents an allegory for Nazi Germany, which lay east of England and France.  Furthermore, in “Fellowship” there is discussion of Mordor rising once again, just as Germany did following its defeat in World War I; Sauron could also easily be seen as a stand-in for Hitler

Haunted by the memory of the Great War, the leaders of the major powers in Great Britain, France, and the United States took extraordinary steps to avoid another conflict during the 1930s.  Allegories for this war-weariness are heard throughout the movies. In the “Two Towers,” the Rasputin-like Grima warns about the “warmongering” of those in King Theoden’s court, a charge frequently leveled at Winston Churchill and others who disagreed with the conventional strategy of appeasing the Axis powers.  Once Gandalf frees Theoden from the evil Saruman’s control, the king still wants to avoid open war with Mordor and takes the people of Rohan to the shelter of Helms Deep.  Finally, despite the clear danger posed by the alliance of Saruman and Sauron, Treebeard doesn't believe that he and his brethren in the forests are threatened.

Fearing the armaments race that led to World War I, Western leaders did not prepare militarily as the threat from Germany and Japan mounted during the 1930s, as a young John F. Kennedy demonstrated years ago in Why England Slept (1940).  Indeed, isolationist sentiment was so powerful in the United States that the U.S. Army was the 17th strongest in the world as late as 1939, a mere two years before Pearl Harbor.  France, which had suffered the most during World War I, developed an extremely defensive posture with its Maginot Line.  In “Return,” Gandalf is frustrated when he finds a Gondor completely unprepared for war, even as the Orcs march toward the kingdom.

Once World War II began, the Nazis often found eager allies in the countries they occupied.  Locals such as Marshal Petain in Vichy France and Vidkun Quisling in Norway cooperated with Hitler either for selfish reasons or out of a misguided attempt to avoid bloodshed.  Indeed, “Quisling” became a new word for “collaborator.”   In LOTR, the key quisling is Saruman, whose betrayal of Middle Earth and alliance with Sauron seems to spring from a belief that the Dark Lord cannot be defeated and that he can attain power by working with Sauron.

Tolkien always denied that LOTR was an allegory for World War II, though that seems difficult to believe after watching the three films.  As “The Hobbit” proceeds, it will be interesting to see the influences on that novel, which was published before the war began.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Homeland," Season One

I just finished watching the first season of Showtime’s “Homeland” and the show easily lives up to the hype generated by its sweep of this year’s Emmys.  Powered by strong performances by Clare Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin, it provides another interesting commentary on America as the nation moves into our second decade of the post 9/11 era. (HUGE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

Developed by “24” writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, “Homeland” replicates the tension of that ground-breaking program, but is dramatically different in its approach to terrorism.  The show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Danes), is not a field agent but a CIA analyst who is more Jack Ryan than Jack Bauer.  Like Bauer, though, she is relentless in her desire to keep American safe at all costs, breaking protocol and laws to do so, even if she does not engage in torture in every other episode.

Echoing the original “Manchurian Candidate” (1962), the pilot begins with the return of Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a presumed dead American soldier who was captured in the early stages of the Iraq War in 2003.  Having been told by a source that the other side has turned an American POW, Mathison begins a relentless pursuit of Brody, believing that he has become an agent for Al Qaeda.

Like many recent programs such as CBS’s “Person of Interest,” “Homeland” focuses on the psychological costs of the decade-plus war on terror on those fighting it as well as the threats posed by terrorism.  Haunted by her failure to foresee the 9/11 attacks, Mathison is obsessed with preventing another domestic strike.  In the pilot and then again in each week’s opening credits, she tells her boss and friend Saul Berenson, “I missed something once before.  I won’t…I can’t let that happen again.”  He replies that it was ten years ago and that “everybody missed something that day.”   Played by Patinkin, Berenson himself is so fixated on his job that it has destroyed his marriage.

“Homeland” also shows the strain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put on military families, who have been carrying the burden of multiple deployments in the dual conflicts over the last ten years.  Like many Iraq/Afghan veterans, Brody comes home with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Upon his return, the government tries to make Brody a popular symbol of the increasingly unpopular wars.

“Homeland,” like the latter seasons of “24,” also explores the critiques of the war on terror that have emerged as the nation has gotten further away from the attack on the World Trade Center.  Brody’s disaffection with the government is crystallized by a drone attack in Iraq that results in the death of a terrorist’s son he is teaching to learn English.  Now allied with the Bin Laden-like Abu Nazir, Brody wants to take revenge on the Cheneyesque vice president who ordered the attack when he was head of the CIA.  

While “Homeland” offers an extreme take on the anger over the drone attacks, many have questioned their wisdom.  As the US has withdrawn ground troops from the Middle East in recent years, drones have become our primary weapon in the battle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Still, some have questioned if the civilian casualties caused by these attacks are offsetting the gains the U.S. has made by killing terrorist leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Season one concludes with Brody unable to follow through on a suicide bombing that would have killed the vice president as well as much of the cabinet.  Nevertheless, he remains a candidate for Congress with close access to national leaders.  Perhaps the arc of the show will now follow the plot of the remake of the “Manchurian Candidate” (2004), with Brody eventually running for high national office.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Red Dawn" and Cold War Culture

The release of the remake of “Red Dawn” (1984) takes us back to the Reagan era when the Cold War still dominated American culture.  Amazingly, an entire generation of Americans has come of age with no memory of this period when the battle with Soviet communism animated American life and politics.  Indeed, the original “Red Dawn” remains an artifact of a time of heightened tensions when war—either conventional or nuclear--between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed a real possibility.

Once the Cold War began in the late 1940s, its themes quickly worked their way into popular culture.  Horror films such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) were also metaphors for a communist takeover of the country.  “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) famously showed how the Russians might use our own anti-communist demagogues to sow division and gain a foothold in the country.  Fears of nuclear war appeared frequently in movies, especially in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when films such as “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “Fail-Safe” (1964) premiered in theaters.

Science fiction also got into the act as the original “Star Trek”(1966-69) featured an UN-like Federation of Planets facing off against the warlike Klingon Empire, who represented the Soviet Union.  At the end of “Planet of the Apes,” (1968) Charlton Heston discovers that a nuclear conflict has ravaged the planet, displacing humanity from its place atop the evolutionary pyramid.  Though they did not disappear, such themes appeared less often during the 1970s when the Cold War moderated under the détente policies of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

Following the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, superpower tensions rose to levels not seen since the 1950s and early 1960s.  Reagan rejected the more compromising policies of his Democratic and Republican predecessors and promised a tougher stance against Soviet aggression around the world.  Not mincing any words, Reagan referred to the USSR as the “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  His administration significantly increased defense spending and arms control negotiations between the two countries broke down as Reagan and our NATO allies placed Pershing II missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet missiles in the Warsaw Pact.  Fears of the possibility of nuclear confrontation returned and were exacerbated by the fact that it was often unclear who was running the Kremlin as leadership passed quickly from one aging and ill leader to another between 1981 and 1985.

As with the early days of the Cold War, movies and television again reflected the anxieties of the time.  “War Games” (1983) and “Terminator” (1984) suggested that computers might precipitate a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers that could virtually destroy humanity.  Absent from the first two films, the Klingons returned to the Star Trek universe in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984) as they fought to gain control of the Genesis Device, a nuclear allegory that could either bring new life to dead planets or destroy existing life on already-habitable worlds.  ABC aired “The Day After” in 1983, a television film that tried to realistically depict the aftermath of a nuclear war on the people of Kansas.  It became the most-watched television movie of all-time, provoking national discussion about the dangers of the arms race.

Some films were far campier as Sylvester Stallone, then at the peak of his star power, starred in two films with Cold War themes.  In “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985), Stallone’s John Rambo returns to Vietnam to free American POWs that have been held since the end of the war, defeating both Vietnamese and Russian troops in the process.  In “Rocky IV,” Rocky Balboa fights the steroid-enhanced Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Moscow, eventually defeating the much larger Russian while winning the enemy crowd over in the process.

The original “Red Dawn” fell firmly into the campy category.  After Soviet troops attack Colorado with help from their Cuban allies, a group of young fighters led by Patrick Swayze retreat into the mountains and start a resistance group called “The Wolverines.”  An extremely violent movie, it was one of the first to feature a PG-13 rating.  I’ll spare readers the rest of the plot details, but “Red Dawn’s” plot did tap into the anxieties of the era, albeit in cartoonish fashion.

It is for this reason that I believe the remake will fail as a commercial venture.  No foreign nation today causes even remotely the anxiety that the USSR did during the first Reagan term.  Nothing better reveals this than the fact that the remake’s initial cut featured a Chinese invasion of the United States, but the studio vetoed this plotline because they did want to lose the potential profits from the burgeoning Chinese market.  While fears of China pervaded the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama and Romney competed to show who could be tougher in protecting American jobs from low-wage labor, not American lives from Chinese military aggression. In the final version, the studio altered the villain’s uniforms from Chinese to North Korean, but they also don’t pose the threat the Soviet Union once did. 

A classic scene from the original “Red Dawn” shows Russian troops outside that preeminent symbol of American capitalism, McDonald's. Of course, this scene did become reality because Russian troops eventually ate at McDonald's a few years later—in Moscow!  After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, he implemented policies supporting glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic liberalization).  As a result of the latter, foreign investment slowly entered the country. Unable to control the impact of his reforms, Gorbachev and the Soviet Union fell because of the economic stagnation of 75 years of Communist rule as well as four decades of American containment policies.  America won the Cold War and the original “Red Dawn” became a relic of a bygone era.  Still, the remake’s debut reminds us that a generation ago two nuclear-armed superpowers stood toe-to-toe with the potential to destroy humanity.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Skyfall" and the Post 9-11 World

I highly recommend “Skyfall,” which is the best Bond movie in some time.  Combined with “Casino Royale” (2006), Daniel Craig has reinvigorated the franchise and banished the memory of the Pierce Brosnan era (1995-2002).  Like the “Batman” series, the Bond films have made a dramatic and welcome transition from the frivolousness of their 1990s incarnations to the more realistic post 9-11 era.

Reminiscent of the “Bourne” series,  “Skyfall” demonstrates the increased seriousness of espionage films since 2001.  Craig’s Bond offers none of the quips associated with previous iterations of the character, most notably Roger Moore, who played 007 throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s.  Instead, he seems deadly serious and focused on defending England from terrorism.

In “Skyfall,” Bond has to contend with the threat from Javier Bardem’s Joker-like villain, Silva.  Like Heath Ledger in “Dark Knight,” he plans a series of elaborate attacks to sow chaos.  Silva’s final aim is to embarrass and kill Judi Dench’s M.  To do so, he launches deadly attacks on the headquarters of MI-6 and other real targets.

Unlike the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 Brosnan films, the threats posed by Silva are relatively realistic.  Gone are bizarre plots by Rupert Murdoch wannabes (“Tomorrow Never Dies”), strange characters who can no longer feel pain (“The World is Not Enough”) or evil North Korean military officers who somehow became English businessman (the embarrassing “Die Another Day”).

The three films starring Craig have been prequels that show him evolving into something resembling Sean Connery’s original Bond.  Q makes a welcome reappearance in “Skyfall,” though he provides Bond with gadgets that are not as over-the-top as previous films, such as the invisible car Brosnan uses in “Die Another Day.” 

In testimony before an oversight committee, M firmly established 007’s move from the Cold War to the war on terror, noting that the world’s threats are no longer nations, but individuals.  “How safe do you feel?” she asks, right before another attack.  With Craig playing Bond and (SPOILERS) Ralph Fiennes succeeding Dench as M, at least the Bond franchise is safe. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 3, Episode 8, "The Pony"

Two separate arcs revolving around Nucky Thompson’s wife Margaret as well as his mistress Billie Kent reflect the changing roles of women and attitudes toward sex during the Roaring 1920s.  Kent’s evolving career also reveals the emergence of feature films during the crucial decade.

After she sees a woman lose a baby in the hospital she supports early in the season, Margaret became involved in efforts to educate women about sex and pregnancy. Her plans, however, are complicated by the fact that she is working within the confines of a Catholic hospital.  In “The Pony,” It turns out the woman’s health problems revolved around an attempt to end her pregnancy before it came to term.  Despite her husband’s desires, she doesn’t want any more children and asks Margaret to help her acquire a diaphragm.  Margaret complies and asks a doctor friend for two, one for the woman and another for herself.   Margaret’s personal request is likely an attempt to facilitate her own affair with Nucky’s partner in crime, Owen Slater.

Indeed, family size declined as the use of contraception rose in the early 20th century.  In 1900, the average woman mother gave birth to 3 or 4 children.  By 1920, this number had fallen to 2 or 3.  Enabled by contraception as well the greater anonymity provided by big city life, more and more people also engaged in premarital sex.

As a flapper living on her own, Billie Kent also reveals key aspects of gender roles during the era.  More and more women had their own dwellings as ¼ to 1/3 of women lived in private apartments.  When Nucky offers Billie financial security for life, she responds like a stereotypical “New Woman” of the time, saying, “I’m on my own… I have been for years…I like it.”

After Nucky muscled an actor to perform in Kent’s play on Broadway, she also moves into the burgeoning film industry.  Following the success of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, movies boomed after World War I as ticket sales doubled and 20,000 new theaters were built.  As portrayed in last year’s Oscar-winning movie “The Artist,” the exaggerated movements of silent film can be seen in Kent’s tryout.  See href>” for more on cinema in the 1920s.

Kent’s fate is uncertain at the end of the episode and Nucky’s involvement in Washington politics intensifies during this episode.  With 5 episodes left, It seems season three is heading toward a compelling conclusion.