Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Profiting from the Revolution in 2013

This post contains spoilers for The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate. Of the three, only one is actually worth the time, so if you have any intention of watching The East then read at your own risk!

When Occupy Wall Street burst into life on September 17th, 2011, there was a collective hesitation amongst mainstream media outlets to substantially cover the movement. Plenty of coverage on the lack of coverage, sure, but nothing that demanded any investigative clout. Nate Silver estimates that, between approximately four thousand American news outlets, an average of sixteen stories per day were produced about the movement. It wasn't until a certain act of police brutality that major television and print news networks were spurred into action, at least temporarily - viewers may not always show up for stories of protest, but they sure love their institutional violence. Comparatively, social media mentions of Occupy Wall Street totaled at around fifty thousand as quickly as the first day of the movement, a figure that multiplied five-fold after the pepper spray incident and only increased in the following days.

These figures have been echoed by a persistent sentiment in the political discourse of the last two years: there can be no dependence on the systems of old to enact social change, whether those of the government or the media, and the burden of revolution must fall on the common man. The film industry, finger ever on the pulse of popular opinion, has hardly ignored this. Asking audiences to willingly involve themselves in a movie that demands serious systemic introspection, however, is growing increasingly more difficult. Consider the glut of War on Terror films that came out in the mid- to late-2000s, every one of them not named The Hurt Locker failing to make its budget back in America. Domestic film production companies have since been reticent to finance movies about hot issues, perhaps for good reason: The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate were all box-office disasters in this vein, "thrillers" cleaving to contemporary questions that simply didn't sell tickets. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012 spouting almost the exact opposite message, that an impoverished and angry proletariat should wait around for the billionaire heroes of old to bail them out of trouble, and it made 450 million dollars on our shores. Are these the failings of a populace increasingly tethered to escapist entertainment? Can you sneak pro-corporate imperialism into a movie as long as you put a mask or cape on it?

These questions must extend to the quality of the films at hand, of course. The Dark Knight Rises probably didn't succeed because of its politics, but because it's the third installment of Christopher Nolan's handsomely morbid powerhouse franchise. Likewise, yesteryear's aforementioned films are all bowdlerized to different degrees by financial compromise, their bets hedged through a variety of techniques and ideologies in an attempt to remain as palatable as possible. Compromise is part and parcel with the act of producing a film, especially when profits for any non-Marvel product are not guaranteed and, as demonstrated through 2013's offerings, convincing audiences that WikiLeaks or corporate corruption can be cinematically exciting is damn near impossible these days. It's hard to spite a director for trying to give his missive a pair of long, sexy, commercial legs, but in seeking both a mass audience and social upheaval, capitulating to the very forces that he decries not only weakens his work but strengthens those forces.

In that regard, the greatest disappointment among these three films is Zal Batmanglij's The East, because its zealous commitment to exposing capitalist wrongdoing is defanged by its unsatisfying ending and questionable aesthetic. The East stars co-writer Brit Marling as Sarah, an ex-FBI operative freelancing for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates the titular ecoterrorist sect. She's a successful woman, driven and talented, one with a job to do; initially she carries it out with little thought toward The East's motives, playing into their demands of fealty while maintaining a safe personal distance. Eventually, however, she questions her value system while developing feelings for the group's de facto leader (meh), opting to betray her allegiance to corporate power and steal a roster of operatives from the organization that hired her. The East are hardly a group of Good Samaritans themselves, self-righteous trust fund babies with a penchant for reckless violence, so disenchanted Sarah ultimately keeps the roster for herself and embarks on an anonymous crusade for social justice, as revealed by a patchwork of inter-credit photographs. Through a minute's worth of still images, we are asked to believe that the power of conversations and handshakes persuade her fellow agents of their wrongdoing, inciting far more positive change than the concerted efforts of The East. She's able to beat the system, if you buy into it, but only with money, FBI training, access to secret information, and prior involvement with a dangerous anarchist collective for which she somehow eluded punishment. Not encouraging, not relatable, not particularly believable.

There's still a lot to admire in The East. Right from its opening collage of despoiled lakes and oil-drenched animals intercut with footage of an oil magnate's home being flooded with the nefarious black stuff, the film is a bracingly plotted and convincingly written (a bit overwritten, perhaps) examination of human selfishness, on both sides of the anarchy-order spectrum. As a call to action or a societal polemic, however, it never truly lands. Batmanglij is a talented filmmaker, but what he has assembled here bears the tone and appearance of a conventional Hollywood thriller, often playing to predictable executive decisions that have proven successful in movies past. The East is prone to prosaic excess, be it in an embarrassingly rehearsed demonstration of group solidarity at mealtime, a softly lit lakeside "cleansing," or a game of Consensual Spin the Bottle set to Arvo Pärt's now overused Spiegel im Spiegel. Its efforts to increase dramatic stakes are similarly heightened, peppered with loaded symbolism and including an attempted rape + stabbing that has no impact on the film as a whole.

Political art does not have to spurn entertainment value; the two are not mutually exclusive. The transformative nature of art nonetheless runs the risk of dilution by way of concessions made to support the entertainment-industrial complex, concessions typically made for an audience's aesthetic and structural expectations. If you're making a thriller, then thrilling things need to happen! Again, these strides toward immersion would not necessarily compromise The East's message but for the magnanimity of distributor Fox Searchlight and product placements from McDonalds, Dunkin' Donuts, BlackBerry, and Facebook; here we have a movie that, as written, required $6.5 million to create, a movie released by Fox in 200 theaters after a high-octane marketing push, a subversive artifact railing against the inescapable grip of commerce that is itself bent to commerce's will. You could be charitable and call the use of these brands ironic, given the subject matter at hand, but most publicity is good publicity for a brand these days; look at Subway's ludicrous self-parody in Community, for instance. The paradox of this film's existence did not escape Batmanglij, who claimed that "if you want to make an anarchist film, make it with a corporation...[if] you want to experience collectivism – go into the corporate system." In a sense, he's right, because to get six million dollars from Fox and associates to make a movie about tearing down corporations carries a fundamental satisfaction. This long-view idealism loses its luster when confronted with the realities of film business, as a profitable film would only have filled Fox et al.'s coffers and a non-profitable film, especially one with lukewarm reviews, could very well sink into obscurity. The East, incidentally, lost four million dollars, which is probably its greatest anarchic accomplishment.

Closed Circuit, which takes place in England despite being partially funded by American distributor Focus Features, suffers from similar miscarriages in execution. The movie is a romp through the British legal system, grim and wordy and fast-paced to a fault, not quite as sentimental as The East but lacking its character. Lawyers Martin (Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) are assigned to defend Farroukh Erdogan, a man suspected of masterminding a terrorist bombing on a crowded market. Because of England's covert anti-terrorism operations, the trial will first be subject to a closed hearing, a private court session in which Claudia argues against British jurisprudence for the inclusion of sensitive evidence; afterwards Martin, who is not allowed to communicate with Claudia at any time during the trial, will defend their client in open court with any cleared evidence. Complications arise as the two learn that Farroukh was a double agent for MI5 and, in attempting to determine whether he was framed or turned, realize that they are being watched - suspicious taxis, imperceptibly disturbed homes, and the like. The duo come close to proving Farroukh's association with MI5 to the court, but during the trial another agent kills him in his cell and makes it look like a suicide, thereby closing the case. The heroes fail, the government wins, Farroukh's motives remain a mystery, and Martin quits his job having accomplished nothing.

That is, until the ending. Footage of the protagonists walking romantically down a pier is overlaid with audio of Attorney General Jim Broadbent (chewing scenery in a ridiculously over-the-top role) being confronted by "rumors" that his office covered up Farroukh's trial, which he indignantly denies on the basis of the court system's integrity. Cue the yelling of the enraged populace and roll credits. Where did these rumors come from? A whistleblower involved in the case? Farroukh's hacker son (sigh) leaking information on the Internet? We are never told, much like how we are never told Farroukh's role in the bombing, but are instead expected to accept this as a resolution for the questions the film presents. A quandary of upholding legal ethics under the oppression of an opaque surveillance state, the film holds universal relevance as a political indictment so long as you change the agency from "MI5" and get Eric Bana out of that adorable barrister's wig. But it doesn't say anything particularly insightful - how could it, when there's so many assassination attempts and bold escapes to attend to in the span of only 90 minutes? The film's resounding message, crowned by a third-act monologue about uncontrollable power by Broadbent, is that the government is bad and we can't really do anything about it. Much like Sarah in The East, Martin and Claudia are stand-ins for the "everyman" embroiled in these systems, only that they already hold jobs that situate them close to the action as necessitated by the film's plot. These people, already more privileged than most audience members, are given the charge of fighting against whatever corrupt agency, and half the time they do not even succeed. And much like in The East, the ending of Closed Circuit is uneasy equivocation, sleight of hand meant to reinforce an audience's expectation of change while not actually substantiating it through the events of the film itself. The messages being sent here are incompatible, offering escapist idealism ("change is possible") while suppressing the moviegoer's own ideas of revolution ("we can't actually convince or show you that it is possible"). How do you parse these conflicting sentiments into a greater understanding of your role in this upside-down world? Fox Searchlight and Focus Features will gladly contemplate with you for the price of a ticket or a DVD.

DreamWorks, though, DreamWorks would just as quickly grab the cash out of your hand and whisper lies in your ear. Such is their treatment of revolutionary politics in notorious financial failure The Fifth Estate, directed with a lot of money and little vision by Oscar-winner-turned-schlock-purveyor Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2). Glossy to the point of numbness, headed by international hot-ticket actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl, and centered around Julian Assange's 2006 founding of WikiLeaks, the film strives for The Social Network's burning technological immediacy, likely in an attempt to replicate its impressive box office. The one commonality these films share is their willingness to round the contours of each subject to more closely depict a narrative truth, which is either dishonest storytelling or the prerogative of the Hollywood biopic depending on who you ask. But The Fifth Estate is not even half as good, which eradicates this question entirely since the movie cannot be interpreted as anything but a clumsy personal attack. Assange is an easy target, for one, as the litany of his trespasses is exhaustive: anti-Semitism, sexual assault, sociopathy, narcissism, and being mean to cats, to name a few. The veracity of most of these claims will likely remain unclear to us laymen for a very long time, but rather than approach them with a critical spirit, Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer (who produced the similarly politically dubious Fringe) assassinate Assange and the very idea of WikiLeaks on the basis of his personality alone. Condon attempts at first to maintain the illusion of bipartisanship, but the end of the film makes its position more than clear.

Our protagonist here is not Assange, but Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl), a journalist who also wrote the book this film was adapted from. Initially both Berg and the film gush over Assange and his dreams, dreams of a transparent government free of abuse, but before long Berg begins to chafe at his antisocial behaviors. Assange takes undue credit for WikiLeaks, storms out of family dinners without explanation, and treats cohort Berg as if he's just a hired underling. Their mounting disagreements reach critical mass with WikiLeaks' release of Collateral Murder, the highly publicized footage of a US Apache helicopter gunning down civilians in Baghdad. Instead of opening a dialogue about the ramifications of this leak, an even-handed examination of its positives versus negatives, Condon immediately cuts to imaginary politicians Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) maneuvering through this freshly opened political crisis. This is the point where The Fifth Estate stops concerning itself with its revolutionary lip service, instead using these mouthpieces to offer a government-sanctioned view of Berg and Assange as "computer geeks looking at the war through a pinhole," men whose actions have done nothing but put Real Peoples' lives at stake. Indeed, within half an hour this event has driven the narrative to its climactic set piece, a panicked government extracting a compromised ambassador/Unimpeachable Family Man who nearly dies as a result of Assange's recklessness.

Despite its repetitive mantras about the transformative power of revolution, this film never actually depicts positive change as a result of revolutionary action. An earlier scene in the film would appear to celebrate WikiLeaks' uncovering of Kenyan extrajudicial "death squads", but bathes it in blood soon after when Kenyan human rights workers are gunned down in the street for investigating these abuses. The subplot dead-ends right at the cheap thrill of these unexpected gunshots. It is biased right down to its frequent talking head interviews: narration from Newt Gingrich and company alleging the damages of WikiLeaks are laid over silent shots of a brooding Berg, while the one journalist Condon includes to speak on the site's behalf is talked over almost entirely. By the end of the film, no one is willing to defend Assange's motives but Assange himself, who Condon takes great pains to depict as a vain, untrustworthy self-styled martyr. The rape allegation is not even addressed in the main body of the film - like the critical reveals in The East and Closed Circuit, it is saved for the epilogue as a stinger, a final nail drummed into the coffin of a man who has already been demonized for the preceding two hours. It is of no concern to The Fifth Estate because, as revolting as the possibility is, Assange has already been assigned a thematic arc. He is presented here as a lone visionary too scarred by his solitary childhood to relate to anyone, a quality that damns him and, by association, the film suggests, automatically disqualifies any ideas he may have about ironing out the abuses propagated by other damaged humans. Sending audiences out with the friendly reminder that he might also be a rapist is simply the cherry on top.

The Fifth Estate is at least different from The East and Closed Circuit because it takes a traceable, if not partially implicit, ideological stance. That goodwill doesn't extend too far, though, when the stance is deliberately biased and supported by a terrible movie. Condon, like many filmmakers before him, encounters difficulty bringing cinematic thrill to a story where computers are responsible for nearly all of the inciting incidents. Mostly he says what he needs to with bad visual metaphors, shots of glistening black-green computer interfaces straight out of Hackers, and long-winded expository monologues. An awful film with a heavy political subject that received poor marketing and was publicly blasted by its subject? (This letter plays into the notion of Assange's monstrous arrogance, sure, but he is not wrong about the film's motives.) The disastrous box office hardly seems surprising at all. DreamWorks, trying to have their cake and smear it too, got exactly what they deserved.

Although filmmakers have no obligation to produce "unbiased" political art - in fact, many of the genre's finest examples are unmistakably partisan - cases like The Fifth Estate are indicative of a greater issue of film production in the studio system: ironing out real-world complexities in favor of trite entertainment technique so as to make a quick buck. For anyone familiar with the aims of any given blockbuster, this is no new tale to tell. As previously established, though, there is a significant difference in the motives of a flavor-of-the-week superhero movie and a movie billed on the existence of its real-world political referents. No one went to The Fifth Estate under the illusion that it was about anything other than WikiLeaks. Consider this quote about Closed Circuit made by Rebecca Hall:
"I don’t think a film or any piece of art work is any good if it answers all the questions, because then it’s just propaganda...[it’s] didactic. Any relevant piece of art raises more questions and that’s what I think we’re doing with this film. I don’t think you come out of it with a message, per se, about 'This is what should or shouldn’t be happening.' It’s just raising the various issues."
As a statement intended to promote her film, this is pretty rich, because Closed Circuit answers no questions whatsoever. In a time where we are beset with doubts about an increasingly uncertain future, what's wrong with expecting some answers? People patronize films under the impression that they have some substance to offer for the price of the ticket. To simply "raise the issues" in service of plotting your thriller, especially when those issues are so pressing and concern so many of us, constitutes irresponsible commercialism. Taking our money, presenting us with heavy political quandaries in order to catalyze suspenseful escapism, and finally suggesting that there are no answers to them does nothing to change how we look at the world. It is a maddening paradox that mainstream film, which holds such influence over the zeitgeist (or at least it did), is too bound up in its own dizzying financial obligations to consistently offer insight on our world's precipitous political climate. Nonetheless, the imperfections of these films do not necessarily mean they are unable to stimulate ideas or action. The East, for its flaws, at least has one salient thing to say: abandon your selfishness and take action. Closed Circuit remains mum, aware but detached. The Fifth Estate is exactly the product of a system that movements like Occupy Wall Street sought to illuminate: a work of duplicitous opportunism designed by high-leveled financiers to pay lipservice to contemporary issues while explicitly preserving the status quo.

No comments:

Post a Comment