Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Shield and a Battlestar: Two shows that shine a light on Bush's America

The Bush Era is now (gratefully) ending, and along with it the vibrant art that commented on its intellectual and cultural underpinnings and implications. Unfortunately, due to a media structure that is still incredibly hierarchical (though it seems to be decentralizing fairly rapidly these days), much of the most significant aesthetic accomplishments of the past decade or so have been unjustly kept secret. Such is life.

One of these accomplishments--perhaps the most popular--was the television show The Shield. As a television show it was exceptional: fast-paced, darkly humorous, packed with compelling and diverse characters, and consistently outstanding during its entire run. One could watch the whole thing just for the stories and not have to think about the moral and political implications of the show.

Those layers, however, are at the very heart of the show. The Shield centers on Vic Mackey, a bald-headed imposing cop played indelibly by Michael Chiklis. Mackey heads up the Strike Team, a semi-autonomous elite anti-gang task force charged with taking on gang violence in Los Angeles. At the heart of the show is an acknowledged moral paradox: Vic's team is effective at locking up the bad guys, no doubt about it. Even Vic's detractors on the show cannot help but admit it. There's just a little wrinkle, though: Mackey is totally, completely, epically corrupt. During the course of the show he commits murders, shakes down drug dealers for money, steals drugs, robs from gangs and cheats on his wife, for starters. Such behavior is typical for members of the Strike Team. Why is this? From what flashbacks we've seen, Vic and his crew were decent guys and good cops before they joined the team. What gives?

The show's answer to this is simple: power corrupts. It's a simple message that a lot of people tend to forget, and that other shows like 24 tend to obfuscate. I'm not going to go on a rant about 24--it is not one of my favorites, and I am prepared to leave it alone for the time being. But in addition to being a tool to desensitize the country into giving up our liberties and values in exchange for "freedom" (sorry, I couldn't resist), 24's largest failing--and why it should never be taken seriously--is that it doesn't believe that power corrupts. Jack Bauer & Co. do what they have to do every week, day in, day out. The show's argument is that we should let intelligence professionals do what they need to do in order to protect America and not ask questions, to just trust their love for America as a guiding light instead of hindrances like the Bill of Rights. And that's certainly a viewpoint, and a debatable one. But the show never really considers that giving a guy like Jack that kind of power is a bad thing. Jack isn't corrupt. He's not haunted by what he's done. Killing and torturing don't bother him, and his brain's rationalization center seems to be quite well developed that he can explain it all away as being in defense of America. Actual intelligence officers who did what Bauer did were not so lucky: as the book The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas tells us, many of them went literally mad after realizing what they had done. And people who inflict violence upon others--especially in the form of torture--find that it takes a toll on their egos. Many of them commit suicide. To me, the idea of power and corruption go so neatly together that it almost makes sense to speak of them as two sides of the same coin. Just take a guy like Ted Stevens, the outgoing Alaska Senator who was convicted of taking bribes a few months back. These days Stevens is known as a particularly clumsy crook or, failing that, a notorious porkmeister, but Stevens actually made his career as a tough prosecutor of political corruption. Or take the Bush Administration. Give someone vast quantities of power, and even upstanding people will turn into crooks. 24's primary philosophical assertion is that you can have both justice and absolute power concentrated in a small group of people. This is a pretty foolish and, dare I say, not a particularly American worldview, at least according to what our Founding Fathers might have said.

Consider the counterexample posed by The Shield. Vic and his team pretty much do whatever they want for the first few seasons, and spend the rest of the series paying for their sins. Their corruption is evident from the very first episode, in which they kill a Strike Team member who is snitching to the feds. What's more, the corruption feeds forward, requiring ever increasing acts of immorality--notably the murder of one team member by another--in order to survive. Importantly, though, the show posits that all that extra garbage really isn't necessary to doing the job: we see throughout the show that the Strike Team's more straight-laced counterparts are able to do their jobs perfectly well within the bounds of the law, and get criminals off the street just as effectively. All the moral compromises and corruption that are inevitable in the acquisition of power turn out not to be necessary to do the job, and they wind up to be disastrous to those who practice them. Vic's ultimate fate is actually rather poetic: he is consigned to live out his days in a bureaucratic McJob in order to remain out of jail, effectively shut out of power and consigned to work at a place where everyone knows he's a cop killer and then to be out of a job and unemployable in three years. My guess is that Vic eats his gun at some point shortly after the end of the show rather than go through life without having the sort of power he once wielded. It's fitting, though: Vic allowed himself to get turned into a monster, everything and everyone that mattered to him, and it all turned out to be for nought. One could not have asked for a better ending to the saga.

The other major political show of the Bush years, Battlestar Galactica, was acclaimed by both the left and right because of its material. On the surface, there is certainly enough there to allow differing ideological readings of the show, but it is pretty unambiguously a critique of the Bushian worldview. The central question of the Bush years has actually been pretty simple: what can a civilized people reasonably do to survive when surrounded by vicious and uncivilized killers? In other words, should we do anything in order to survive? The film answers the question in words that any viewer ought to remember: "It is not enough to survive," Commander Adama [Edward James Olmos] says, "one must be worthy of survival." The show has sought to portray the challenges of being civilized in an uncivilized world, of preserving liberal democracy in a universe that has suddenly become less hospitable to those ideals. And, despite some hiccups here and there, the humans in Battlestar generally stayed true to their ideals. It's an inspiration to us all.

The show has also shown us the alternative to staying true to liberal democratic values. This was done during the show's second season in a several-episode arc that centered around Admiral Cain, played with scary self-assurance by Michelle Forbes. Cain cuts a very Bushian figure in the show: she is definitely "the decider" and if you disagree with her, you are not likely to like the consequences. Cain's reaction to the Cylon war, as it turns out, was eerily similar to George W. Bush's response to 9/11: rather than thinking of the future like Adama, Cain responds with visceral anger. She promises payback for what the Cylons did, her own personal War On Cylons every bit as ill-conceived, dangerous, endless and ultimately nihilistic as the War On Terror has become. She doesn't plan for the future because she doesn't see one--her limitations as a leader prevent her from seeing the forest, and instead of having experience and wisdom like Adama, Cain has only ambition and self-assuredness to fall back upon. These qualities served her well in advancing up the ranks and getting her flag at such a young age, but they prove positively toxic in the post-human genocide world. Cain's payback mission, naturally enough, comes to include torture of a Cylon prisoner, which has the entirely predictable effect of turning the surviving Pegasus crew into a deeply nasty group. One can only debase other peoples' humanity for so long without realizing that you've lost your own. It doesn't seem to bother Cain too much that her crew seems to consist entirely of rotten apples and decent people who have been so thoroughly cowed to stand up to her (like her XO). Like Bush, Cain polarizes her people. And like Bush, rather than seeming tough, Cain comes off as a rather weak leader who can only act tough despite not having a clue about what the situation is and what to do next. The analogy isn't perfect, as BSG is wont to do: Cain is actually a technically proficient commander who knows her stuff and isn't a total incompetent like Bush. Still, watching the BSG episodes with Cain is a lot like watching the past eight years all over again: you can't help but ask yourself what was she thinking? before it becomes clear that she never thought about anything, aside from the mission at hand. It represents the frustrations of the Bush era in a particularly vivid format. One wishes that the show had kept up this level of political relevance in its past two seasons.

Between these two shows, a viewer decades from now ought to be able to piece together what was going on with the Bush Administration: it was an administration that opportunistically used circumstances to enhance its own power, and when it came time to flex that power, it has done so in ways that betray a lack of vision, a disconnect from civilized Western values and an inability to lead. To know the Bush Era is to know the most base of humanity: brutality disguised as concern, contempt for civilization disguised as caution, mere words disguised as a strategy. Never in my lifetime has the exit of a group of people from power been so eagerly awaited, and they will not be missed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bond and Star Trek

I enjoyed the most recent Bond film. Quantum of Solace was a thoroughly solid action flick, which is generally a genre I tend not to like because it comes second only to the romantic comedy in terms of its obsequiousness to the old formula. Still, QoS continued in the tradition of its immediate predecessor: it has retained its darker and grittier vision of James Bond, to its great credit, and it has constructed a second villain who is less a crazy strongman or world domineer, but rather a pathetically effete European jetsetter. During the Pierce Brosnan years, that description would have sufficed to describe Bond himself. How the times have turned...

I was a great admirer of Casino Royale, and I'll admit that that film was better than Solace in several ways. Royale was, in my humble opinion, pretty much damn near a perfect film. Solace is more flawed, but not as flawed as one would imagine from reading the reviews. I think that much of the vituperation from reviewers is more of a reaction to the realization that the old Bond is dead for good, and that the Bond people are going with the "newer" Daniel Craig model of James Bond. I put newer in quotes because it's actually the older version of James Bond from Ian Fleming's books, though with more of a leftward twist, of which I definitely approve. Brosnan as Bond was an upper-class, uber-suave spy who seemed to generally enjoy life and had no palpable toughness. Daniel Craig is the complete opposite: he looks good in a tux but there wasn't the practiced poise, no whiff of eveningwear and elegant soirees. Craig's Bond is working class, all the way, and as a man he's damaged goods--lethal, dangerous, dark, able to seduce women easily, but at heart he's a disappointed romantic who shrugs off all the emotional entanglements. Sean Connery is, of course, the gold standard for movie portrayals of James Bond, but Craig is the only other actor--with the possible exception of Timothy Dalton--who makes any effort to portray Bond as an actual dude instead of an icon (or a caricature). People who were fond of the Brosnan Bond and the intermittently fun escapism of his time on the clock who liked the old formula--and who probably figured that Casino Royale would lead to a revival of the old Bond, with a return of John Cleese and all the gadgets--are realizing that that is not going to happen, and they're upset. On its merits, though, Quantum of Solace announces, for all those who chose not to see, a new era of Bond. And I'm pretty enthusiastic about it.

I'm rather less enthusiastic about the upcoming Star Trek movie, partly for the reason Peter Suderman identifies here--that J. J. Abrams tends to concoct shallow melodramas that go through the motions aptly enough but are pretty soulless (like, say, Mission: Impossible III). I don't expect action movies to be especially soulful--soft bigotry of low expectations and all that--but I would like Trek movies to tell a Trek story every once in a while. The last one that tried was Star Trek: Insurrection, which was middling but not bad, although the ideas were hoary. I expect Star Trek to be a big slab of red-blooded action-adventure that doesn't really bother to try to communicate optimism for the future or any vision of society, and certainly not any sort of political message. (BTW, it really dismays me to see Spock engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the trailer--has he ever thrown a punch? What about the Vulcan nerve pinch?). We wouldn't want to get Trek in the middle of a red-vs.-blue conundrum, despite the fact that it was sort of an arch-left show back in the 60s.

Trek became irrelevant as a result of many factors. Surely, the subpar storytelling that plagued later seasons of Voyager and the two most recent movies is important to this discussion. The sheer amount of product that those folks put out might have led to some fatigue, and the now plentiful sci-fi offerings on TV and elsewhere have made Trek a victim of its own success. Then again, the fact that the Star Trek curators decided to turn Voyager's worn-out ass into the flagship Trek while ignoring the superior Deep Space Nine gives you some hint as to why the franchise has gotten so dire.