The Wind Rises: a dishonest, cowardly film that supports current Japanese militarism

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises / Kaze tachinu” (2013)

Miyazaki’s swansong film is a fictional biography of  aeroplane designer and engineer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 and which was used in other aerial including kamikaze campaigns by Japan in World War II. The film is curiously devoid of the historical context from which it arises and I suspect the director is not fully aware of how much the central character of Horikoshi and his career are a banal reflection of his own. There’s also an underlying theme which has been present throughout Miyazaki’s work since “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and that is a spiritual one: the impermanence of life, the thin line between physical reality and the world of dreams, of transcendence beyond the physical, which also turns out to be the world of death.

Horikoshi might be an odd choice for a subject of a farewell piece. The film though manages to reference a number of other Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films in several scenes and motifs that are threaded throughout: one can find very subtle reminders of flicks like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Laputa: Island in the Sky” and even more nature-themed films like “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”. The Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni who inspires Horikoshi and is the object of the Japanese man’s hero-worship might have stepped straight out of the Studio Ghibli classic “Porcorosso”. There’s not much here that Miyazaki hasn’t done before in style of animation – if anything, his depiction of human beings is still as cartoonish as it was nearly 30 years ago in “Nausicaa …” – and in some ways he’s even gone backward in the way he has placed female characters in positions of passivity and subservience to men. The film also has some personal resonance for Miyazaki as his father once ran a factory that produced parts for Horikoshi’s planes.

The film starts with Horikoshi as a young boy dreaming of being a pilot; unfortunately he wears glasses, and his dream goes awry. In a second dream, he meets Caproni who is surprised that a young Japanese boy has intruded into his dream but then realises that they both share a love of aeroplanes. Caproni tells Horikoshi that designing and building planes are better than flying them and Horikoshi, waking up, resolves that he will become an aeronautical engineer. To that end, he applies himself zealously to his studies. In the meantime, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing conflagration that all but consumes Tokyo pass him by but not before he unexpectedly meets a very young girl and her mother whom he helps to safety.

Time flies and Horikoshi, after a rough start with a plane design company that crashes during the Great Depression, ends up working for a company that makes planes for the Japanese military. He designs a military plane for a naval competition but it fails to pass and his employer sends him away on holiday. During this rest, Horikoshi is reunited with Naoko, whom he helped years ago, and they fall in love and become engaged in spite of the fact that she is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. A German tourist warns Horikoshi of the perils of working for an authoritarian and militaristic government.

Horikoshi enjoys renown for designing a fighter plane that surpasses current German technology and is the pride and joy of Japan. However this renown is short-lived as is also his marriage to Naoko. Horikoshi lives to regret the destruction that his invention, with all the work and sacrifice that have gone into it, has brought to the world. That he continues to live is due to the hopes and trust Naoko has invested in him and to the message that Caproni brings to him in a dream: that though he (Horikoshi) has invested and exhausted his creativity in a being that was beautiful but which brought hell to humanity, nonetheless he lived to see his dreams come true.

The historical setting and Horikoshi’s career provide opportunities to question Japan’s militaristic ambitions then (1920s – 1940s) and now but Miyazaki adopts a very peculiarly ahistorical stance in the way he deals with episodes in Horikoshi’s early life and career. The depiction of the Great Kanto earthquake and the fire that destroyed Tokyo in the quake’s immediate aftermath are bloodless and matter-of-fact; there is no sense of the panic that must have swept through the fleeing crowds – in fact everyone treats the catastrophe with calm and leaves the devastation in an orderly fashion! Perhaps this treatment is deliberate to illustrate the all-consuming nature of Horikoshi’s obsession; episodes in the film dealing with his friendships with fellow work colleague Honjo and his superiors suggest that Horikoshi is indeed oblivious to insidious changes in society around him. However there can be no such excuse for the film’s jump from the time of Naoko’s death (which must have been some time during the late 1930s) to the period just after 1945, when Horikoshi walks through a field of destroyed Japanese military planes and gazes down on Tokyo once again destroyed, this time by Allied war planes visiting total destruction as revenge for the Pearl Harbour attacks. An entire war spanning half the world in which tens of millions died in battle, suffered poverty and starvation, and were subjected to torture, rape, mutilation and hideous medical experimentation at the hands of the Japanese, and still undergo anguish because of Japan’s reluctance to apologise for war crimes, has been overlooked.

The character of Jiro is poorly developed and not likely to appeal to a wide audience. This could have been the film’s strength: Jiro’s colourless personality may be taken to represent the everyday worker bee in Japanese society who does as s/he is told, keeps his/her head down and rarely complains or speaks out. His/her life is spent in work and diligent obedience and is curiously detached from society even though his/her concerns revolve around the group and maintaining the correct relations with others. Apathy and lack of involvement in political, social and economic concerns are hallmarks of such worker bees. If anything, such people tend to be political / social / economic conservatives. The relationship with Naoko is a stereotyped one that might have sprung out of a 19th century Italian opera. Even so, when Jiro is forced to see the consequences that his work and creations have brought to Japan, and to know that there is not much he can do to atone for the damage done, his reaction is bloodless; he is unable to bring himself to express contrition. His god Caproni can no longer help or inspire him and the spirit of Naoko, superficially comforting, drifts away to leave Jiro in an existential hole.

“The Wind Rises” could have been a great film that treats seriously the responsibility of all individuals to question their roles in society, how the work they do may or may not be advancing human society, and how they might be blinded by personal ambition and egotism and be subject to manipulation by others or government into pathways that lead to destruction. Instead Miyazaki has avoided asking hard questions of himself and others in depicting his characters as robots and the way they proceed through their lives as cut off from the currents flowing through Japanese politics, society and economy.

I feel quite bad at having been taken in by the film’s beauty and the pathos of Naoko’s suffering and death; I now believe that this is a dishonest and cowardly film that insults the millions of victims of Japan’s rise to power and crushing defeat in the 1930s and World War II. What makes it worse is that as I write, Japan under Shinzo Abe’s government and with the approval and push of an incompetent US government, itself not content with paying and funding fascists in Ukraine to oust President Yanukovych or arming jihadi fighters in Syria against President Assad, has adopted a more militaristic and aggressive approach and is quietly pursuing more nuclear energy production, with a view perhaps to manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear power, even after the meltdown disaster at Fukushima in 2011. “The Wind Rises” could have served as a warning to Japan not to pursue such militarism ever again.

 

Apocalypse Now (Redux): an illustration of how war fashions society and individuals in its own image

Francis Ford Coppola, “Apocalypse Now (Redux)” (2001)

The actual plot is very basic: sometime during the Vietnam War  – a newspaper clipping on Charles Manson’s trial suggests the year may be 1970 and there is mention also of President Nixon – the protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission by his superiors to hunt down and kill renegade US colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The mission seems fairly straightforward enough but in the nightmare that was the Vietnam War, Willard’s quest turns into a personal surreal and hallucinatory descent into inner hell. As his boat takes him up the Nung River and deep into Cambodia, Willard learns more about Colonel Kurtz’s history from the dossier given him and is drawn to the man’s contradictory character. It seem that Colonel Kurtz had been a model soldier and leader and was mooted for a position as General in the US Army. Willard learns that Kurtz was rather too efficient at his job, using methods and tactics to kill Viet Cong which his superiors “disapprove” of and has now become deranged.

On his way to the river that will take him to Kurtz, Willard and the four men he travels with (they are all known by various nicknames) encounter a rag-tag bunch of characters and witness some strange incidents: there is the eccentric and trigger-happy Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, recklessly orders an air strike on a Vietnamese village and then directs his men to spray napalm fire into a forest, turning it into one huge inferno. Kilgore helps Willard and his men reach the Nung River where the group commences to travel on its own. Crewman Lance (Sam Bottoms) is spooked by a tiger and wastes ammunition trying to get rid of the animal. Sailing upstream, the men come across a US supply depot show featuring some Playboy bunnies which ends in chaos with soldiers punching one another over the girls. An encounter with some fisher-folk on a sampan goes awry when one of the crew goes berserk and machine-guns everyone; when the crew decide to take an injured woman on board their boat and seek medical help, Willard cold-bloodedly shoots her dead. Later the US navy boat is attacked by unseen assailants who kill crew-member Clean (Lawrence Fishburne), leading to a simmering conflict between Willard and the boat’s skipper Chief (Albert Hall).

A surreal episode follows in which the crew are entertained by French colonial plantation owners who might have stepped straight out of a time-machine from 20 or 30 years ago. On resuming their journey, the crew soon reach their destination which turns out to be a savage fiefdom of mountain tribal folk in awe and worshipping a living god who turns out to be … Kurtz, living in a temple surrounded by corpses. Kurtz imprisons Willard and taunts him by killing one of the crew members and throwing the dead man’s head into Willard’s lap, and then lecturing Willard on his own theories of war and civilisation. For a while, it seems as if Willard will end up as yet another of Kurtz’s victims but there are some surprises in store.

The film is noteworthy in part for its technical work and cinematography which often render the setting very dream-like and psychedelic in parts. The night-time scene during which Willard’s men panic at the presence of a tiger is rendered in blue and green light, thus heightening the fear of the unknown that the men feel. At times, viewers can well believe that as the US navy boat continues on its journey, it is entering another very ghostly dimension in which conventional beliefs about morality fall away and men like Colonel Kurtz become truly and dangerously free; there are shots in which mist rises from the waters and envelops the boat as it sails. The crew-men’s use of hallucinatory drugs, their liking for the psychedelic rock music of the period and their increasingly fragile mental state add to this viewer’s impression that they are physically as well as mentally entering another world in which everything is somehow brighter, darker, deeper, more vivid and more dangerous, spiritually as well as physically. For much of the film, the cinematography is beautiful and unearthly, and the film’s leisurely pace combined with long scenic shots of forest, river and above all the mist rising over the river have the effect of plunging viewers deeply into a world, seemingly a paradise at times, far away from the reality of war.

The music soundtrack is significant to the film also, and never more so than in the climactic scene (in which a song by The Doors is playing) in which Kurtz is made to confront his own mortality and the full awfulness of human (and by implication his own) cruelty, darkness and the hollowness to come. In this scene also, Willard (who throughout the movie has been studying the military dossier on Kurtz and has come to identify with the man, his background and motives) finally bonds with Kurtz in spirit and action. Oh all right then, here comes the spoiler: Willard kills Kurtz with a machete.  Here at last the film makes a profound statement about the effect of the Vietnam war on individuals like Kurtz and Willard and, through them, on American society: war as an entity seizes people and refashions them in its own image and values, turning them into total killers, and then unleashes them onto the rest of the world. Initially when the Americans brought total war to Vietnam, they imagined they could control it with their technology, their ideals and beliefs, and their goals; but the war ends up controlling America heart and soul. One imagines that when Willard returns to “civilisation”, he will be handsomely rewarded and celebrated as a war hero and role model for future generations of soldiers to follow … but spiritually and morally he is dead inside.

Significantly even though this is a film about the Vietnam war, very few Vietnamese people appear save as extras: all the violence and the suffocating insanity are provided by Americans. Everywhere in the film where Americans group together, the viewer gets the feeling that violence, madness and mindless killing will result … and the viewer is usually right. It would make no difference if Willard were to meet Kurtz or not and Kurtz, when he does appear, comes across as a very ordinary if rather eccentric fellow: no more and no less mad than his fellow Americans, he epitomises the perfect robotic killing-machine made so by the demands, expectations and rewards of the military culture that took him in as a young man.

The film perhaps makes too much of its theme of human nature as essentially contradictory and capable of both good and evil, and not enough of that theme’s dark twin which is that human nature also reflects back to society and to us the values and behaviours prized and rewarded by that society. Kurtz is what he is because American society has rewarded him with war medals and increased status in the army and society generally while pretending to ignore his amorality and brutal methods. Eventually he reaches a state where he realises that American society is essentially as amoral as he is, in celebrating him first and secondly fearing and rejecting him for much the same reasons it celebrated him originally – because he is too efficient at what he does. Having reached his pinnacle and finding no satisfaction in it, just emptiness, he submits to his society’s final judgement over him. This is really what makes “Apocalypse Now” such a powerful work, not least because we are still so reluctant to acknowledge that as social creatures we are highly malleable, we reinforce what society wants from us and in turn allow society to mould us even more in particular directions. If war seems to be the permanent state of the world, it is because that is what our society celebrates. We need not invoke biological explanations to explain our war-like and avaricious behaviour and actions towards others.

The film remains one of Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest directing achievements from the 1970s; it’s a great pity that his work after that decade declined so much.

The War on Bugs: a study of “Starship Troopers” as a satire on American and Western fascism and cultural brainwashing

Rob Ager, “The War on Bugs” (2012)

Researched, written, edited and narrated by Rob Ager, this documentary examines the themes of the science fiction film “Starship Troopers” made by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in 1997. This film was the third of three SF flicks Verhoeven made, the earlier two being “Robocop” and “Total Recall”. Additionally Ed Neumeier worked on the scripts for “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers”. The documentary’s style is fairly basic, depending in the main on running excerpts from the film which Ager’s narrative refers to. It is divided into short segments dealing with different aspects and manifestations of the themes of “Starship Troopers” that satirise fascist tendencies in American and Western societies.

Ager begins with a brief history of how he began watching “Starship Troopers” and thinking it a clever adaptation of James Cameron’s film “Aliens”.  Over time, he became fascinated with Verhoeven and Neumeier’s aims in writing and developing the script from the original eponymous Robert Heinlein novel and turning it into a superficially B-grade movie heavy on satire and irony. Ager quotes an interview in which Neumeier explained why the film was developed as a comedy and satire: he and Verhoeven believed its themes would be delivered more effectively in a humorous cartoony way as opposed to a dramatic approach which would have the effect of being preachy and didactic.

The film quickly begins to delve into the research that Verhoeven did on fascism, its history and its symbols. Verhoeven studied the history of the US during and after World War II, noting the country’s ready celerity in invading other countries such as Vietnam, Grenada and Panama so as to impose and maintain a particular political-economic-social order and prevent these and other nations from following independent paths. The political philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is cited as an influence in the way Verhoeven develops the propaganda of the fictitious state that wages constant war against insect-like aliens on another planet.

The bulk of the film is devoted to explaining aspects of the fictional imperialist space empire of the future Earth in which Anglo-American society and its values dominates throughout, and how these political and social aspects mirror or parallel tendencies and developments in current Western society. Under various subject headings such as “Lies”, “Media”, “The War on Everyone” and East vs West”, particular issues that Ager notices in “Starship Troopers” are brought out and explained in detail. Of particular interest is how Ager draws attention to parallels in the way the war in “Starship Troopers” is sold to the gullible public and how the War on Terror has been promoted to audiences in the US and beyond – yet the film was released several years before the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in September, 2001!

A real eye-opener is Ager’s investigation of how political correctness and agendas promoting equality and egalitarian values, multiculturalism and social diversity actually mask racial prejudice, and how fascist governments and politics can hide behind supposed tolerance for other races, religions, different sexual orientations and other outsider groups. This of course is actually an old divide-and-rule tactic used by power elites in the past though the actual divisions may vary: over a hundred years ago it was one group of working-class people against another (as in, say, poor white people against poor black people) or one brand of Christianity against another (as in Protestants versus Roman Catholics in parts of the Anglosphere), now the dividing lines are along life-style issues (such as the interests of gays or a particular sub-set of gay people in their community against those of the general heterosexual community) – but the desired effect of dividing people and weakening them through culture wars is the same: a small privileged elite, all sharing the same or similar values, emerges on top.

The main gripe I have about the documentary is that Ager’s accented narration does go very quickly and viewers may need to watch the film a few times to catch and absorb all that he says. Possibly also a frame-by-frame investigation would have assisted in Ager’s bringing out the film’s concerns in more detail and enabled viewers to question aspects of Ager’s analysis as well. Ager’s investigation is subjective and viewers more or less have to try to keep up with it and accept it at face value.

 

 

 

The Syrian Diary: a valuable historical document giving an alternate viewpoint on the Syrian civil war

“The Syrian Diary” (Rossiya 24, 2013)

Made for Russian television, this documentary follows Rossiya 24 reporter Anastasia Popova and a Syrian army unit she is attached to (or embedded with, depending on your point of view) as the soldiers move through parts of Damascus to flush out and fight so-called “rebel” soldiers of the Free Syria Army. The documentary makers are unabashedly firm supporters of the Assad government and Syrian army forces. As such, this film is a valuable historical document as it shows a snapshot of the Syrian civil war from the point of view of pro-Assad supporters and also interviews three women with first-hand experience of the war and its effects on civilians. Given that so much Western mainstream news reporting about events in Syria is extremely biased against Assad, the intention being to support without question US desires to invade Syria and depose Assad, alternate opinions and ways of viewing the conflict, however dispassionate, are needed and very welcome in creating and developing a more complex and nuanced picture of what is happening on the ground.

The film’s narrative structure is not always too clear from the jumpy collages of individual accounts spliced hurriedly together. We jump from one interviewee to another but a few people dominate: Yara Saleh, a reporter herself; Bassem, a soldier who has lost a father and brother; Bassem’s wife Nadia; a middle-aged man; Mikhail, a reporter; and the widow of Amir, a friend of Bassem and Popova, who was tortured and executed by FSA forces. Through these people and others, we see themes developing: the loyalty and support for Syrian army troops demonstrated by the Syrian public, who turn out in their droves to hail and congratulate the soldiers; the soldiers’ willingness to die for Syria, their discipline and good natures; the bewilderment of Syrians at the lies being built up around their country by Western governments; and the barbaric behaviour of the FSA men in their treatment of civilians and the way they butcher their victims.

Call it propaganda, yes, but the film does flesh out what many alternative underground news media websites and other outlets have long suggested about the FSA forces: many if not most come from other countries (Libya and Saudi Arabia are mentioned), the fighters are young, illiterate, ignorant of their history and their Islamic religion, and untutored in the ways of the world. The fighters swallow whatever lies they are told by Saudi-funded Wahhabi “sheikhs” who most likely know nothing of Islam and its principles themselves. Disturbingly, the film mentions that many FSA fighters are on drugs and commit outrageously brutal and sickening acts of violence and desecration while under the influence of these drugs. Where these substances come from and who is supplying them and why are never known: one does not need an IQ in triple digits to guess that these drugs are most probably psychoactive substances made in some First World country and then delivered to middlemen parties in Middle Eastern petro-sheikhdoms who supply them along with weapons, ammunition and willing if gullible young men to Syria.

There are heart-breaking scenes of Amir’s treatment by the FSA rebels who obsessively film everything they do and then release the videos to Western news media with claims that government troops carried out the atrocities. A segment on Syrian soldiers praises their stamina and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brother soldiers and their country, and portrays them as a sober and disciplined fighting force. A small section shows the soldiers goofing around on a bicycle and talking and laughing with children. Something of the generosity and hospitality of Syrians themselves, their religious tolerance, their reverence for their land and their love of a good time with lots of rhythmic sinuous music and dancing shines throughout the documentary.

Only the most obtuse can come away unmoved by this documentary. I recommend this film to all viewers following the news about Syria’s internal conflict and who are heartily sick of the Western news media’s performance in covering the civil war.

The Grand Illusion: meditating on the effects of war on society and people’s loyalties

Jean Renoir, “The Grand Illusion” (1934)

Jean Renoir’s film is a moving meditation on war and its effects on the traditions of early twentieth century European societies. Aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) are French prisoners of war held together by the German army during World War I. The three men plot to escape from their prison and succeed; later they separate and are caught by the Germans. This time, they are transferred to a fortress to be watched over by the German aristocratic officer Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The German officer and the French officer discover they have a great deal in common and together ponder what war does to men of their class and why their class wages war. Later Boeldieu plots with Marechal and Rosenthal on another escape attempt. The two commoners – Marechal is a working-class mechanic and Rosenthal a middle-class banker – escape but Boeldieu is caught, badly wounded.

The film makes a good point that people are united through common class interests instead or inspite of national, ethnic and linguistic interests. Once Marechal and Rosenthal escape a second time, they quickly begin arguing and nearly come to fisticuffs on occasion. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu acknowledge that political / social revolutions and war will sweep their kind away and the world will soon be dominated by the issues and obsessions that interest middle-class and working-class people. Questions of loyalty, duty, nationalism and patriotism arise: which of these counts for more than the others?

The actors play their roles with great sensitivity and dignity: Stroheim in particular as Rauffenstein, who has already seen war and been deeply affected by it, his body shattered in a number of ways, embodies honour and the finer qualities of humans, even if towards just another of his own class who happens to be his enemy. Likewise Boeldieu has a noble spirit which aids Marechal and Rosenthal’s escape but eventually costs him his own life. Marechal and Rosenthal are portrayed with great sympathy – one has to remember the film was made at a time when anti-Semitism and anti-German feeling were rife in France – and even most minor characters are notable for their humanity, wit and good humour.

Renoir’s direction is very deft, moving the plot and its themes along at a brisk and no-nonsense pace. Filming methods including the use of deep focus and some interesting experimentation with framing shots and long takes are presented in a nonchalant way. The countryside plays a surprisingly large part in the film but it’s the social landscape and the relations among the different social classes that most interests Renoir. Viewers certainly feel that times are a-changing because of the war: Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein agree that war is hellish for the plebeians but a necessary function that gives the upper classes their raison d’être. In some respects, that observation rings as true now as it did in the 1930s: the elites may have changed with regard to their childhood backgrounds and how they obtained their money but they still rely on war, whether actual physical war or the war between different social strata and social groups and sub-cultures, to keep the hoi polloi firmly under the heels of their jack-boots.

For a war film, this movie actually does not feature any war and espouses friendship and brotherhood between and among people across societies of the same social level. This is very much an anti-fascist / pro-socialist film that celebrates a common humanity and the love that humans can have for each other that transcends artificial barriers and traditional loyalties.

Dirty Wars: a persuasive indictment of the US government’s War on Terror with something hidden and unexpected

Richard Rowley, “Dirty Wars” (2013)

Part documentary, part personal testimony, this is a searing documentary following investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill across the Middle East and the United States as he follows the scent of a secret war waged by a secretive military force within and authorised by the US government and its agencies. Initially he visits a remote community (Gardez) in Afghanistan where local people tell him of an assault by unknown US soldiers late at night on a family celebrating the birth of a baby. The assault leaves a man, local police chief Mohammed Daoud, and three female family members dead and another man, related to all three women, in shock and harbouring suicidal thoughts and anger at the US army. After interviewing the family, Scahill hunts for details on who the attacking soldiers were and who was in charge of them, and discovers that the attack had been ordered by the head of a secret paramilitary force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), embedded within the US government and acting on orders from its executive.

The trail takes Scahill to a poor desert community, al Majalah, in Yemen where he learns that a Cruise missile fired by a US destroyer has killed a number of nomadic people in a camp. Whereas the US forces in Gardez removed traces of their presence and even paid some compensation to the family who lost their relatives, in al Majalah Scahill finds that the US attack left plenty of evidence; the difference between the two attacks is that the US is not officially at war with Yemen. Further on in the documentary, as Scahill discovers that the US War on Terror has extended to Africa as well as western Asia, he travels to Somalia to speak to warlords there and learn about the role they play.

Back home, Scahill does more research on lists of people targeted by the US as terrorists and turns up the name of a US citizen, Ansar al Awlaki, a Muslim preacher who initially helped the US government after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks but later was repelled by the Bush administration’s brutal actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and began advocating resistance. Scahill interviews Ansar al Awlaki’s father Nasser al Awlaki about how his son became radicalised. In the course of making this film, Scahill learns of Ansar al Awlaki’s killing by a US drone and then of Ansar al Awlaki’s 16-year-old son by a drone as well.

The documentary is well made for its subject matter: it is an indictment of the US government’s resort to use of a paramilitary force, one that may well have a psychopathic agenda of its own, to harass and terrorise Muslim peoples across the globe with impunity; and it gives an insight into the often dangerous work carried out by foreign and war correspondents. We see a tiny part of Scahill’s feelings about the work he does, how thankless it can be: he is stonewalled by US Federal politicians and military generals, and ridiculed by US TV news media hosts in the course of his investigations and attempts to bring his revelations to a wider public audience. He finds ordinary life as an American difficult to readjust to after his hair-raising, adrenalin-filled adventures in Afghanistan and Somalia.

The pace of the film, the quick editing and Scahill’s presence in the majority of the film’s images and in voice-over suggest that “Dirty Wars” was deliberately made in the style of a mystery thriller; the problem though is that mystery thrillers usually have closure and this particular mystery thriller doesn’t really have one. Fortunately Scahill is up to the role of mystery detective: good-looking with a clear voice, something of a lone wolf, he obsessively chases leads on his computer, collects clues and puts them together, plasters and pins up lists on his office wall. His private life is all but non-existent. The use of close-ups puts viewers uncomfortably close to scenes of action, even car sickness at times, giving them the same POV as Scahill’s: this is a clever if sarcastic comment on the embedding of news reporters with US army units in war zones.

Viewers will rightly be horrified that a secret war using missiles and drones is being waged by a paramilitary force obeying the personal orders of the US President on innocent and impoverished peoples around the globe. Audiences might also feel some despair that a US citizen was targeted for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights violated when he was killed. After all, if al Awlaki and his son could be killed, then might not other US citizens also be targeted simply for being relatives or friends of suspected terrorists who have yet to be caught and charged with crimes?

Throughout the film, Scahill refers to things hidden that are out in the open (as in the JSOC being a hidden force committing war crimes openly) but there is one thing hidden yet open that he does not mention: the people he visits in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia are generous towards him and ply him with tea, hospitality and as much information as they feel they can give. In particular, Nasser al Awlaki, on learning that he has lost both a son and a grandson, welcomes Scahill and treats him warmly: the meeting between the two men and the silence between them, Nasser al Awlaki looking grave while Scahill is visibly upset and contrite, are very moving indeed. The warmth and openness of the Afghans, Yemenis and Somalis contrast strongly with the manner of many of the Americans portrayed: porcine politicians, supercilious and shallow talk show hosts, and one rather creepy military trainer incriminate themselves as corrupted and hollow people.

As long as there are people like Nasser al Awlaki in the world, there is some hope that the rest of us will learn that grace and compassion are better weapons to bring people together to solve considerable problems than raining brutality, death, terror and fear on people.

 

The Hidden Fortress: majestic epic tale of honour, loyalty and friendships across social barriers

Akira Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Inspiration for George Lucas’ “Star Wars: A New Hope”, the 1978 space-fantasy flick that spawned an industry, this unusual historical drama road movie tells an epic tale of honour, loyalty and friendships forming across social barriers from the point of view of two lowly peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). Originally they had hoped to fight on the side of the Yamana clan but they arrived too late at the battlefield and were forced to bury the dead soldiers. After a few other mishaps, they are taken prisoner again by the Yamanas and forced to dig for the rival clan Akizuki’s gold in a castle. The prisoners inside rebel and the two peasants escape. They find some gold marked with the Azkizuki clan’s emblem in a river and this leads them to General Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune) who is protecting Princess Yumi (Misa Uehara) from the Yamanas. The unlikely quartet form a plan to escape through Yamana territory to a third clan’s territory. Their adventures are many and varied: they acquire a fifth companion, a farmer’s daughter (Toshiko Higuchi), along the way; Rokurota sees off a number of soldiers and fights a duel with an old foe: and the groups nearly loses all its gold, hidden in firewood, when compelled to participate in a village fire festival ritual to hide from the pursuing Yamanas.

Throughout their many travails the peasants are tempted by their greed to make off with all the gold and/or to report Princess Yumi’s movements to her mortal enemies. The haughty tomboy Princess Yumi learns how the poor and lowly subjects of her realm live and saves the farmer’s daughter once or twice. Rokurota spares his foe after defeating him in the duel and the foe repays him in gratitude. Subtle and not-so-subtle lessons about friendship, honour, reciprocity and the importance of teamwork and collective survival over the traditional social hierarchy are learnt here.

The film has a grand epic scale which sometimes means that some scenes are extended well beyond the point they make: the duelling between Rokurota and his old enemy, in which they stampede all over the battle-ground and nearly take down the entire army camp with them, seems far too prolonged, and other scenes in the film also drag on far too long. On the other hand, the fire festival celebration is joyous and raucous and would do many Hollywood musicals of the 1920s – 1950s proud. The cinematography often emphasises the vast richness of the land over and against which the action takes place: grasslands are rippling in the breeze, stony landscapes are extremely harsh and unforgiving on the humans who labour in them, oases of thick undergrowth and bubbling springs really are as refreshing as you can imagine. The pity about making this film in Japan in the late 1950s was that colour filming had only just arrived in the country and Kurosawa probably had to make a difficult decision about making the film in colour and reducing the majestic scale that he wouldn’t to work on, or keeping the style, sticking to the budget but filming in black-and-white.

Acting is quite good though the actors play very stereotyped characters and there really is not any obvious character development apart from what can be inferred from characters’ speech and actions. Tahei and Matashichi more or less remain cowering, greedy wastrels until near the very end. Princess Yumi’s headstrong nature doesn’t serve her much until one of the film’s climaxes.

Plot is quite slow to develop – it doesn’t get going until about halfway through the film – and once it does, it’s basically a string of near-comedy skits in which the characters’ lives are complicated by unexpected incidents that also test their mettle. There’s a mix of slapstick, serious action, plenty of soapie-style drama, situation comedy and, with Toshiro Mifune at the helm, plenty of macho-man heroic derring-do. The historical setting – some time during Japan’s Spring and Autumn warring states period from the 15th to 16th centuries – provides a war-time context in which the old social values are breaking down and new ones based on genuine human feeling and equality of all humans are being born.

The style of the film, the adventure road movie plot that teaches characters more about themselves than they realise, the landscapes and the majestic sweep of the filming ensure that “The Hidden Fortress” remains a true family-oriented classic in spite of its length and the sometimes silly or convoluted story-telling.

Overdoing the satire and toilet humour in “Team America: World Police”

Trey Parker, “Team America: World Police” (2004)

A silly and puerile satire on American society, culture, the nature of power and the celebration of style over substance, “Team America …” was inspired by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s love of the old 1960s “Thunderbirds” television series in which marionettes featured as actors in spy and thriller mini-dramas that appealed to adults and children alike. The use of marionettes lets Parker and Stone get away with all the bloodshed, gore and body fluids they can afford to hurl at the screen, plus all the profanities they can think of which have some insight into human character. The tale of a novice initiated into a secret team of armed specialists, dedicated to saving the world from evil, who loses his way, repents and seeks forgiveness, and has to earn his way back into the team by foiling the schemes of a mad mega-villain is a familiar one but one done fairly well (and sometimes over-done) with lashings of slapstick comedy.

Gary is a Broadway actor hauled suddenly away from a performance by the mysterious Spotswood who is the head of Team America, the counter-terrorist unit dedicated to ending terrorism with as much violence and gratuitous destruction of world-famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza as possible. Spotswood wants Gary for his acting skill. Initially Gary performs well in an important mission to foil a nasty terrorist plot to destroy the Panama Canal but this results in most of the Egyptian city Cairo being razed to the ground and people around the world protest Team America’s actions. Guilty at the destruction he indirectly caused, Gary leaves Team America. The others struggle without him but against the machinations and forces of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and a suicide bomb attack that destroys Team America’s headquarters, Spotswood and his four remaining TA members struggle and fail. Kim Jong Il then proceeds with his plan to nuke the world behind a cover of a peace conference in which Hollywood actors spout loads of hot air about working with North Korea and convince world leaders that Kim is a peace-loving regular guy. It’s down to Gary to save TA so they can all save the world from further terrorist attacks.

The film criticises the gung-ho, self-centred attitude of US military forces, the laughable reliance on faulty intelligence (which turns out to be mainstream media reports and soundbites) and the presumption of celebrities that their status as celebrities gives them the right to pontificate to others. A number of blockbuster Hollywood action films are also sent up as is much of the music, of which the bulk is faux country. There’s the obligatory romance between Gary and Lisa, a TA member. Songs are very much part of the action with Kim Jong Il stealing the show in this respect when he sings “I Am so Ronery”.

Characters are undeveloped (deliberately so perhaps) so Parker and Stone go for an excessively melodramatic approach and a profane style of humour to flesh out the story. Repetition of toilet humour and poking fun at actors who take themselves seriously substitute for wit and clever situation comedy. There’s probably far too much in the way of familiar film tropes and elements like Gary being down and out in a bar late at night and his laughable conversation with Lisa one evening before they indulge in sex all night long. The satire is laid on thickly and the film runs out of creative and inspirational puff before the film’s halfway mark.

The film-makers take no prisoners as they rip into jingoism, faux patriotism and ignorance of other people’s points of view on the one hand, and earnest social consciousness and so-called “left liberalism” on the other, demonstrating in one fell swoop the shallowness and arrogance of both positions, and by extension the superficiality of Western culture generally in worshipping surface appearances, celebrity and power. One troubling aspect is that in Gary’s climactic speech invoking the nether regions of humans, there is the suggestion of the US having a duty to intervene in other nations’ affairs where necessary; the “there must be some other way” option of leaving people alone and letting them solve their own problems is never considered.

Casablanca: redemption is found in romantic war drama set in a sea of spies, intrigue, deception, rebels and fugitives

Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca” (1942)

One of Hollywood’s finest gems, “Casablanca” initially presents as a romantic drama in the middle of war. It’s 1942, France is ruled by Germany and Nazi forces occupy the city of Casablanca in Morocco, where human refuse in the form of refugees, spies, fugitives, thieves, freedom fighters and others have washed up in the hope of gaining exit visas to Lisbon and thence to the United States. In the middle of this maelstrom stands a night-club, the Café Americaine, owned by the cynical, hard-bitten and world-weary Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). The club acts as a focal point for conspiracy and intrigue, secret deals, desperate gambles and illegal transactions. It draws in a petty crook, Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who boasts to Rick that he has obtained two letters of transit from two German couriers he murdered and which he plans to sell later. The Nazi authorities are on the look-out for him and Ugarte beseeches Rick to hide the letters before he runs off. Rick takes charge of the letters but before Ugarte can carry out his plan, he is arrested by officers of the corrupt Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and whisked away, later to be killed by the Nazis.

At this point, several important characters walk into the club, though not all at once: Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), a business rival who wants to buy Rick’s club and hints that he knows where the letters of transit might be; Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” fame), the Nazi leader on the hunt for Czech resistance leader Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid); Laszlo himself and his young Norwegian wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Lund sees the night-club’s pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson), recognises him and asks him to play the song “As Time Goes By”. Rick hears the notes and storms over to berate Sam, stopping in astonishment when he sees Ilsa. In 1940, Rick and Ilsa had been lovers in Paris before the Nazis marched into the city; at the time, Ilsa had believed her husband dead and had not told anyone that she and Viktor were married. When the Germans arrive, Rick and Sam had closed down their Paris club and fled to Marseilles, thence to Africa, but not before Rick had tried (and failed) to persuade Ilsa to come with them. The unexpected arrival of Ilsa leaves Rick reeling. Much later, when the club closes and everyone has gone, Rick stays back; Ilsa makes a surprise visit and Rick lashes out at her.

The following evening in the club, Ferrari tries to buy the letters of transit off Rick but he refuses. The Germans in the club start singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” and in retaliation, Laszlo who has just arrived, rouses the audience to sing “La Marseillaise”. For that act of rebellion, Strasser forces Renault to order the club closed until further notice and everyone leaves. Later that evening, Ilsa visits again to obtain the letters of transit – Ferrari having tipped her and Laszlo off during the day – and threatens Rick with a gun.

Ilsa confesses to Rick that she still loves him and explains the misunderstandings between them caused by the context of the war two years previously. Rick agrees to help Ilsa and Laszlo at the cost of his future and ropes in Renault to assist in a vaguely thought-out scheme that depends as much on serendipity and coincidence as on foolhardy daring.

The plot is creaky and strains credibility, especially towards the end, but the film was not expected to be a blockbuster and the script was changed many times with three script-writers working on an unpublished stage play. The characters tend to be one-dimensional but the cast lend considerable charm and individuality: notable among them are Claude Rains who steals every scene he appears in as the slippery and corrupt Renault, Bergman as the innocent and girlish Ilsa, Greenstreet as wily Ferrari and Lorre as the self-serving small-time crook Ugarte. Having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Veidt, finding himself as a Nazi villain, plays the role with po-faced relish. Wilson shines briefly as Sam, Rick’s loyal assistant and go-between for Ilsa. Even minor characters are noteworthy: the pickpocket (Curt Bois) displays split-second smoothness in his two or three scenes; Sasha (Leonard Kinskey) is comic as the bartender infatuated with regular customer and Rick’s sometime gal pal Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau); and Carl (S Z Sakall) is a treat as the club waiter and Rick’s accountant. Two Bulgarian refugees (Joy Page and Helmut Dantine) play very small but significant roles in changing Rick’s attitude towards helping Ilsa and Laszlo. Henreid, who receives third billing behind Bogart and Bergman, is perhaps the least effective in a crowded and talented ensemble of actors notable for their international origins and the tortuous paths many of them had to take to appear in a Hollywood film.

The obvious stars of the film of course are Bogart and Bergman: their roles might have been tailored just for them.  The chemistry between the two is obvious and never were a pair so different in age and origin so well-matched. Bogart’s stoic and stony appearance and his hard-edged manner that supposedly gives nothing away are a contrast and foil to Bergman’s youth and angelic beauty: there are several close-ups of Bergman’s face throughout the film, her charm and flawless looks lighting up the screen and compensating for the character’s limited range of expression. Their acting can be subtle and the range of complex emotions Bogart and Bergman express through their expressions, body language and movements, and how these round out their characters and make them the stand-out features of the film, is at times astonishing and very moving.

Although the film concentrates on Rick’s moral development from a bitter, self-centred man nursing personal hurt, unwilling to commit to other people and preferring unhappy isolation, to a more enlightened and understanding man willing to sacrifice his future for others and for noble ideals in the realisation that he is part of a network and community striving for a better world, the film’s major theme is redemption: initially, most major and minor characters are either seeking something or are coasting aimlessly in their lives but by the end of the film, they have experienced a change, have done something worthwhile and by their actions are better people and have gained a new purpose and outlook. Ugarte starts out as a despicable petty thief but by passing the letters of transit to Rick and then (off-screen) denying their whereabouts and dying as a result, he has placed another person’s life above self-gain and redeemed himself. Renault is impressed by Rick’s generosity and vows to fight for French liberation, taking Rick with him to Brazzaville. Laszlo realises that llsa is valuable to him as his rock and accepts her back from Rick. Even Ferrari turns out to be a good guy by referring Ilsa and Laszlo to Rick. Yvonne is inspired by Laszlo’s call to patriotism and roused out of self-pity from being dumped by Rick. The Bulgarian refugees unknowingly inspire Rick and by their good deed get help from him in obtaining exit visas that will take them to freedom.

The film is crowded already with excellent ensemble acting and layers of meaning and messages alike yet it’s to director Curtiz’s credit that he finds many occasions throughout the film for ironic humour that underline character quirks and development, and comment on deception, intrigue and the unhappy circumstances of war and conflict that tear lovers apart and cause heartache and anguish. Renault’s apparent cynicism and penchant for expedience and breaking rules where convenient hide good judgement of character, insight and a quick-thinking intelligence and these quirks are highlighted in a number of quite comic scenes.

No wonder then that “Casablanca” is still considered a classic film of outstanding career-defining performances from several actors and messages that to be honest border on propaganda (one should rise above one’s own needs and circumstances to commit to and serve a greater, nobler cause) in spite of a patchy story and a confused film-shoot in which actors often didn’t know from one day to the next what they were supposed to be doing.

 

Remote Control War: technical detail substitutes for a proper inquiry into the ethics of using drones and robots in conflicts

Leif Kaldor, “Remote Control War” (2011)

“Remote Control War” presents as a sober documentary on the use of robotics in war, conflict and espionage in the style of a TV current affairs article. The narrow focus of the topic prevents viewers from asking the obvious questions: is war a good or bad use of robotics, and why use robotics at all in war? Now that that particular issue is out of the way, the program briskly takes viewers through the use of forms of remote-controlled technology such as UAVs (drones) in modern warfare. Interviews and a voice-over narrative supplied by Ann-Marie MacDonald are the main way in which the program details the types of technology that exist at present and how they are used. At times, the program almost salivates over particular technologies such as multi-purpose robots that can be used to plant or find and detonate mines, and rescue injured soldiers and civilians. The “balance” of the program lies in the number of interviewees who might be said to support the use of robotics in war (several) against those who might be said to disapprove of such use (one or two).

However the program does a fairly good job in calling attention to particular technologies such as robots that can think for themselves and the repercussions that might arise, and to issues such as people’s attitudes towards the use of drones and robots to kill enemy combatants. Even here the coverage can be superficial and potentially biased: in covering people’s attitudes about using drones to kill, the program only interviews the people who employ the drones; no people in the communities where drones have been used to kill are interviewed as to their attitudes – these are known only second-hand, through the people killing them via the drones. Most distasteful of all is the focus on Israel’s use of drones in fighting Palestinians, who are elevated to the level of insurgents and therefore treated as a mysterious (and therefore malevolent) enemy.

As the program proceeds and the robotic female voice-over delves into the topic of autonomous robot systems, in which robots themselves will make all the decisions, a minefield (pun intended) of ethics, accountability and responsibility is opened. If an entire robot system prosecutes a war, making important decisions that can initiate a chain of actions leading to further decisions that in turn generate more actions, where ultimately does the responsibility for the damage and misery caused and other consequences of that network of decisions and actions lie? Most responses in the film are that a human will ultimately be responsible for (presumably) the decision to use such a system – but the problem that the film doesn’t address is where in a political or military hierarchy would that human be? Already in many hierarchies (political, military, business and so on), responsibility is diffused throughout which makes difficult prosecution of individuals in a corporation difficult if that corporation commits a crime.

The third part of the documentary comes almost as an after-thought to the previous two parts which dealt almost exclusively with robotics technologies: this section deals with the use of drone air-strikes on Pakistani and Afghan targets by the CIA and the legality of such use by an organisation operating in secrecy. At this point the value of the documentary lifts enormously: the ethics involved in using drones to target and kill particular people in areas that happen to be inaccessible to ground troops are finally addressed. Again though, the views of Pakistanis or people who could represent them aren’t canvassed.

Finally the possible use of drones, autonomous robots and swarm robots on civilian populations is considered. The question of what the consequences might be if terrorists, gangs or other organisations got hold of such technologies becomes prominent. As demonstrated by a group of robotics enthusiasts at a competition, the cost of DIY drones and robots is coming down and making the technologies more accessible to the general public – which means the technologies are also reaching people who might one day turn against the military, espionage agencies and governments. Unfortunately the more likely probability that robotics technology will be used by the military, spooks and governments to spy on citizens and turn cities and towns into virtual panopticon societies does not figure at all.

In some respects this is a very good documentary which shows graphically how the various robotics technologies featured are already being used; the sequences demonstrating swarm robots and how they might be used are particularly riveting and not a little sinister and unsettling. However the film seems hesitant to address certain issues or aspects of issues covered in the film that might imply that Western governments and their militaries would not hesitate to use drones and robots against their own populations. Technical detail is used as a cover to disguise a proper exploration of the troubling ethical dimension that arises from the use of such technologies.