Monday, January 7, 2013

Love the sinner, hate the sin: Films I like or love despite finding them morally or ideologically objectionable.

Let's pretend for a moment that Zero Dark Thirty does in fact do all of the things that its critics, many of whom have not even seen the film, are claiming.  Let's pretend that it endorses torture on a practical and/or moral level.  Let's pretend that it implies/states that information gleaned from torture was essential in catching Osama Bin Laden and would not have been discovered any other way.  Does that (incorrect, I'd argue) interpretation automatically negate its worth as quality film making?  There has been much discussion of the alleged morality of Bigelow and Boal's superb procedural, much of it penned by those who believe that either it is 'pro-torture' or at least will be interpreted as much by general moviegoers (a classic case of 'I'm smart enough to understand but they aren't').  The question for those critics becomes whether its alleged sins negates its worth and/or can be separated from its qualities as a film.  But quite frankly, it's more than possible to enjoy a film while disagreeing with its opinions or moral worldview.  In fact, this whole thing started with David Edelstein picking the film as his favorite of 2012 while also calling it morally reprehensible.With that in mind, without endorsing any of the somewhat simplistic ( in my opinion wrongheaded) views of Zero Dark Thirty, I thought this would be a good time to discuss a few films that I happen to like and/or love despite being vehemently opposed to their respective ideologies. Spoilers ahoy!

The Devil's Advocate (1997):
Yes, the core arc is that of Keanu Reeves as a hotshot litigator coming undone due to his deadly sin of pride.  But from start to finish, the film has a rather disturbing view of the criminal justice system, one that basically states that certain kind of people who are accused of certain kind of crimes don't deserve a robust defense.  We are supposed to be disturbed when Kevin viciously tears into the complaining witness in a child molestation case (Heather Matarazzo), without noticing that the only reason she falls apart on the stand is because she lies to pretty much every question he asks her.  We are supposed to be bemused when Kevin defends the rights of an animal sacrifice-er (Delroy Lindo) on First Amendment grounds without noticing that, yeah, that's kind of how 'freedom of religion' sometimes works.  And we are supposed to be saddened when Kevin makes the choice to put an alibi witness on the stand who is *probably* lying without noticing that A) he doesn't know for sure and B) any decent prosecutor would have asked the same question that caused him to doubt her in the first place. Yet despite its anti-due process message, the Taylor Hackford film is absolutely terrific fun, with terrific performances by Al Pacino (low-key as the Devil until the very end) and Keanu Reeves (in a rare overacting turn), plus a star-making supporting turn by Charlize Theron.  It's a rare example of big-budget supernatural horror for adults with all the fixings that go with that.   It's morally indefensible ("some people don't deserve a robust criminal defense") but it's also one of the most enjoyable big-scale supernatural thrillers of the late 1990s.

The 6th Day (2000):
This Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning adventure is actually pretty good save for Arnold's terrible performance  Something we have learned is that Arnie can only act with uber-strong direction, be it from Ivan Reitman, James Cameron, or one-offs like Paul Verhoeven and Andrew Davis.  But the film is a relatively satisfying, mostly low-key (for once, taking an R-rated film into PG-13 territory almost makes sense) action thriller.  Like most films about cloning, the film comes out pretty harshly against it.  I can't say I'm a big fan of human cloning either, but the film equates cloning with the very worst kind of science and corruption.  Again, no great shakes there, but it also somewhat champions those who would murder those responsible for human cloning.  The film kicks off with a massacre aboard a helicopter, committed by a ragtag group of would-be freedom fighters who are rebelling against the cloning industries.  Those would-be terrorists eventually murder a clone of Arnold's best friend before themselves being slaughtered by the evil Tony Goldwyn's henchmen in a scene meant to inspire token sympathy for the newly dead.  It's not a tough leap to say that Roger Spottiswade's sci-fi parable basically condones the murder of those who would do science that certain groups (be they religiously-motivated or otherwise) don't approve of.  The 6th Day manages to be an entertaining and mostly intelligent sci-fi cautionary tale even with a subtext that's arguably pro-abortion doctor homicide.           

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Surrogates (2009):
Both films are basically science-fiction fables centered around the classic "What if everything was as it was in our world except for one key difference?".  In the case of Surrogates, it's the scientific ability to basically have robotic versions of yourselves live your life for you (you can sit at home and control your surrogate while they live your life for you).  With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's the idea of being able to erase bad memories as a way to discard unpleasant moments in your life.  And both films basically come to the oddly authoritarian notion that we, as consenting and informed adults, should not have the right to said technologies.  In Surrogates, Bruce Willis makes a climactic decision to shut down the entire grid that powers the machines, thus forcing humanity to live its own existence again.  In Eternal Sunshine, an employee of the memory-wiping service lashes out at her boss (who had an affair with her but then erased her memory) by mailing the forgotten memories (recorded on tapes, natch) to every single person who has chosen to use the service.  At the very least, one can at least admit the horrifying psychological damage brought about by such an action (consider the countless paying customers who chose to have truly horrific memories expunged), what right does she have to negate the choice of those who made the fully-informed choice to have their memories altered?  One can argue about whether humanity would benefit from such technologies, but both films (and many others like them) end by arguing that adults, rational adults, shouldn't be allowed to have certain *things* even if they are fully aware of the consequences and aware of the issues being raised.  

The Island (2005):
 This was Michael Bay's second attempt at being taken seriously, after the overblown and undercooked Pearl Harbor.  Despite a second action-packed half that isn't as compelling as the character/plot-driven first half, it remains a smart piece of big-scale sci-fi.  But the film also is, like most Michael Bay films, rather conservative in its politics. Bad Boys 2 is a giant ode to American exceptionalism (Americans are using drugs, so it's okay to wreck Cuba) and the post-9/11 stomping on civil liberties, while the whole Transformers trilogy is a pro-incursion parable for American's invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Seriously, Revenge of the Fallen is "Here's why we can't leave the Middle East" while Dark of the Moon is "Hey, we left and look what happened!".  But The Island is the most explicit in its morality, with a final act which makes a bald-faced comparison between abortion (or, perhaps more  and the Holocaust.  In its final scenes, we see clones, people born purely to be spare parts for other rich people, being herded up into what are basically gas chambers to be exterminated.  The film of course also plays on the idea of the more generalized persecuted 'other' (witness lead henchman Djimon Hounsou switching sides after relaying a story of being persecuted in childhood), but the lasting imagery is one of 'aborted people' being sent to their deaths under the idea that they aren't 'real people'.  Obviously, as someone who is pro-choice, I'd have to take issue with the film's politics.  But that doesn't mean I don't think it's a pretty solid thriller.

The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012):
No, I don't think the film is some kind of post-9/11 "war on terror' apologeta.  I debunked said theory in quite a bit of detail HERE.  And no, I don't think The Dark Knight Rises is a fascist epic about how the 99%ers are secretly a bunch of insane terrorists who want to conduct a 'reign of terror' while secretly plotting doomsday (nor do I actually enjoy the movie all that much, but I digress).  I discussed that a little bit HERE.  But I have always taken issue with the very last scene of The Dark Knight.  While it works thematically and is arguably set up in prior scenes, the concept that a comforting lie is necessary to 'save Gotham' is frankly abhorrent.  In short, the idea that the populace needs comforting falsehoods is the kind of thing that got us into Iraq in the first place ("Why sure, the evil Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and we're gonna get him!").  This is to say nothing about the hero myths built around Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman  and how they helped foster the public's acceptance of an immoral military adventure (ironically, the brutal and discomforting final act of Zero Dark Thirty does much to demystify the execution of Osama Bin Laden).

At the end of The Dark Knight, we are apparently told that the only way to defeat The Joker is to hold up Harvey Dent as a hero while letting Batman brand himself as a villain.  Had the franchise ended there, we would have at least been in a position to debate the morality of Batman's climactic choice, since Nolan's film doesn't actually offer an opinion on it.  But wait, you say?  The Dark Knight Rises deals with the aftershocks of the film's finale, right? Not quite.  While Chris Nolan stated that The Dark Knight Rises would deal with the side effects of telling a big lie (and presumably getting caught), that in itself was a falsehood. The fact that eight years of peace and relative prosperity was built on a myth is ultimately irrelevant to overreaching plot.  The idea that the 'Dent Act' was built on a lie is immaterial since the Dent Act (those convicted of organized crimes would serve out their entire sentences) isn't exactly a breach of civil liberties in the first place.  The idea that Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent's murders partially to scare criminals again is negated by the fact that he retired after that fateful night.

The idea that Gotham would come undone once the truth came out is frankly nonexistent as the only scene dealing with this is a single heated conversation between Jim Gordon and John Blake, which is in turn irrelevant to the overall story (and why is he so angry with Gordon when he knows for the entire film that Bruce Wayne told the same lie?).  Taken as a whole, the only thing that came from Batman and Jim Gordon telling a big lie is eight years of relative safety and peace for the beleaguered Gotham City.  Said peace is not halted because of 'the big lie', but merely due to the outside machinations of an obsessive terrorist (Bane) doing the bidding of Talia Al Ghul in an eight-year long revenge scheme for the death of her father.  Thus, minus any other context or negative consequences, one must presume that Batman did the right thing in taking the fall for Harvey Dent.  Thus the films, if only by accident brought on by sloppy writing in the third film, end up basically endorsing the idea that it's okay for authority figures to lie to the populace in order to make them feel better and/or cover up uncomfortable truths.

I guess I could include the Twilight Saga, except I'm not entirely sure how much the films actually endorse Bella Swan's worldview. Anyway, that's a wrap for this particular pontification.  Your turn, folks.  What films do you enjoy even while disagreeing with them on a moral or ideological level?  To my conservative readers, what bits of liberal propoganda still work for your as motion pictures?  To my liberal readers, what conservative-leaning films (like, um, Ghostbusters) still work for you?  Sound off below.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...

Nice article. And while I hear you about the lie at the end of Knight now having any bearing on the overall plot of Rises, it does have bearing on both the arcs of Wayne and Gordon in the first half of Rises.

And I don't think the film endorses that lying from authority figures is good for the populace only because Alfred pretty much takes Bruce to task for it within the first half of Rises. Again, doesn't having any bearing the plot, but it does so from a character perspective.

Completely agree with you, though, about Bay's Transformers Trilogy and what he's really saying (even though I completely and utterly despise Dark of the Moon on so many fucking levels, it hurts).

Thomas Amundsen said...

Regarding your review of Zero Dark 30, which I thought was very good, if you had chosen to focus on the morality of torture and judge it on that premise, your review would have been much less relevant to a person that wants a movie review.

That said, I find the torture discussion interesting. I think it's established that torture was (and is?) used by the the American military in the quest for intelligence. I also think that it's likely that some useful information was obtained as the result of this. That's not to say that the net effect is positive or that I condone it.

The question I ponder is "if not torture, then what?"

In my view there are three options,

- torture is allowed. It is left to the interrogator to find the method best suited to get information

- torture is not allowed but the prisoner may experience forms of duress. A list of interrogation methods judged not to be torture may be employed.

- the prisoner shall not experience any duress during interrogation. Nothing but words and detention can be employed to get information from the prisoner

In my view, what we saw in Zero dark 30 was an example of option #2. There is surely a list of methods that is approved and that included waterboarding, uncomfortable positions, degrading etc. One could argue that the list of approved methods is too harsh and the methods should be changed to less punishing methods. (only liquid food, annoying music, etc). There will be grey zones and there will be different opinions as to what constitutes torture. From a human rights perspective, it's difficult to argue that this should be ok. It is difficult to say that it's ok that a human is being put through other punishment than detention against his will. It's morally difficult to employ people to exact these punishments. It's morally difficult to delineate what constitutes torture.

On the other hand, if the prisoner knows that he will suffer no duress other than detention, I would assume that it less information will be forthcoming. If the interrogator is only able to appeal to the good conscience of the prisoner, I suspect that the prisoner will be much less inclined to divulge. On the other hand, the people will have a clean conscience and the country may be better perceived abroad.

I think there are three options that are well defined and that there are no other options. All of them have drawbacks. I also think that honesty in the option one chooses is important. Secrecy breeds contempt. An open discussion is needed.

Have you seen unthinkable?

Sorry for rambling here. Just wanted to write my thoughts on this.

Jed Pressgrove said...

This is a pretty interesting list.

However, I found your comments about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a little extreme. As a sci-fi film, I don't think it's saying that adults shouldn't or won't use such technology in the future; I think it's warning what might happen if such technology is used. It raises serious, necessary questions about how memory is connected to humanity. In fact, I would argue that it would be immoral of the film NOT to ask these questions for our quick-fix, knee-jerk society.


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