Friday, August 10, 2012

Who cares and why bother? How national apathy and the 'death of outrage' killed the modern political thriller.

Besides being a terrific thriller, Enemy of the State serves as a touchtone of sorts. No, it wasn't the last adult-skewing, star-driven R-rated thriller released by a major studio, although it seemed that way up until a few years ago. No, the whip-smart Will Smith/Gene Hackman high-tech chase picture was the last time that the classic 'man on the run' template made sense. It was a classic conspiracy thriller, based in the idea that forces in the American government were up to no good, and people who had stumbled upon this information had to be silenced. It was also rooted in the idea that the halls of Congress and the American people would be horrified by the idea that covert forces were up to devious doings, which in turn necessitated murderous cover-ups. I would argue that this now innocently naive idea is yet another victim of a post-9/11 mindset. So as Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) raced around the world with darker factions of the US government on his tail during The Bourne Legacy (review), I couldn't help but wonder "Why bother?". What exactly would be the consequences if America found out that the government had been playing around with science in order to make super-awesome covert killing machines for black-ops missions? Recent evidence suggests that few would do more than feign outrage, share the story on Facebook, and click on the next article.

Just think of all the horrible things we've 'learned' over the last ten years or so. We learned that President George W. Bush authorized the CIA and the NSA to basically spy on the phone calls and/or email of every single American citizen. We learned that US soldiers abused prisoners of war at Abu Gharaib and tortured "enemy combatents" at Guantanamo Bay, some of them to death.  We learned, over and over again, that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lied us into the Iraq war selling phantom 'weapons of mass destruction' and a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 that they denied in public but hyped under the table.  We learned about the Bush administration's stunning governmental incomptence in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, behavior that may-well have been intentional in the pursuit of embarrassing Louisiana's Democratic governor, yet the biggest aftermath was the media stardom of CNN's Anderson Cooper (essay).  Torture, rendition, foreign policy blunders, and finally the economic meltdown of 2008, arguably the result of ten years of financial deregulation and a willful lack of oversight.  And let's not forget the 'hope and change' of President Barack Obama, which now includes targeted killings and the legal power to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge on the president's say-so.  We progressives were *outraged* when George W. Bush rendered and tortured suspected terrorists but don't seem to care that President Obama finds it so politically challenging to operate by the rule of law that he just off-and-kills them on Executive Order (essay).  And aside from folks like Glenn Greenwald, nobody blinks an eye.  To use a phrase that became popular during the now-embarassing Lewinksy 'scandal', "Where's the outrage?"  And without the idea that bad revelations will actually cause outrage and hard consequences, there is little incentive for 'the bad guys' to chase the good guys around to prevent unpleasant revelations.

So, for example, we as watch Jason Bourne outmanuver his assailants while devious governmental bureaucrats hem and haw about how Jason Bourne could expose everything (!), one can't help sighing and/or smirking.  As we now watch Aaron Cross undergo a similar adventure, with Edward Norton absolutely sure that the discovery of 'Outcome' would be a devestating blow to the US Government, we almost chuckle.  If we did learn that US governmental agencies were using science and sorcery to make super-soldiers for wet-work, would any of us really be surprised?  Does anyone think that something along the lines of Treadstone or Blackbriar *doesn't* currently go on in the darker bowels of the National Security offices?  And if such a program were revealed in the pages of The New York Times, would it make an impact other than leading the news shows for a few days before giving way to the next political gaffe or alleged scandal?  The idea that Edward Norton has to order what amounts to mass murder and treason in order to keep a lid on such a program is sadly and/or laughably naive.  In today's 24-hour news cycle, genuine scandal only shocks us until the next real or imagined scandal pops up, with few if any actual consequences. The classic political conspiracy thriller no longer works in these dark times.  We already know just how low our government can stoop.  We just choose not to care.

Scott Mendelson


Ziserwahn said...

good point

Albert Pickles said...

I see your point, but I don't necessarily agree with it in terms of its relation to fictional cinematic entertainment. These films obviously aren't documentaries or exposes; they're action thrillers. If the characters in these films are legitimately worried about their secrets leaking and that is why they chase after a given person, that is the motivation as an audience we must accept within the confines of the reality a given film creates. Even ties or mentions to real world things in a political conspiracy thriller are just that. Every film creates its own reality, particularly when it is not trying to present a fictional take on a true story. It's a means for entertainment. This is where the suspension of disbelief and the cinematic reality must set in. Maybe not everyone sees it this way, but I do. I don't think people's apathy towards real news issues like this extend to their approach to watching a political thriller.


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