Tag Archives: history

One of the pleasures of the Godzilla franchise is its depiction of an intergovernmental organization known as G-FORCE. Its purpose, servile to the United Nations, is to develop combat procedures and weaponry in the event of another giant monster attack – probably an alluring notion to Japanese directors in a time of voluntary de-militarization. It allows for love triangles, time travel and psychic rapprochement with Godzilla himself, but it also paints a candy-corn daguerrotype of military power as we have come to consider it onscreen since 1945. It bears lingering traces of the cockpit-cams in Star Wars films, but also flirts with James Bond storylines, 007 himself being a consolation prize for the decline of the British Empire.

The most prismatic is M.O.G.E.R.A. (Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Robot Aero-Type), a bird-beaked steel colossus that can break itself into different types of tactical vehicles: a boat, a drill, a spaceship. Piloted by a colorful crew of matinee 20somethings, it’s as vast and potentially destructive as the evil it was designed to deter – an unintentionally hilarious stand-in for war itself in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (For the curious: it was built by G-Force following the failure in 1992 of their weaponized Mechagodzilla.)

The new also-silly action film Act of Valor, which I reviewed for The L Magazine a few weeks ago, is about the opposite: proof that war can be cheap, lightweight and deadly effective. Part of the deal for ticket-buyers is that the movie’s heroes are the real deal; the plot concerns a tight-knit team of Navy SEALs, portrayed by real Navy SEALs. They appear without their names in the credits, which is another way of saying there’s no particular evidence that they are really on active duty, but implicating any skepticism on the viewer’s part in a bigger challenge to said viewer’s loyalty or patriotism. I had a few ideas I wanted to embellish upon in light of the recent spotlight thrown upon on Special Forces operations, especially after the raid in January that freed two nonprofit workers – one Danish, one American – held hostage by Somali pirates.

Act of Valor is a type of propaganda that plays on both personal and national aspirations, drawing a line of reverence between an average-joe viewer and the finely honed killing machines beefcaking it up on the screen. The aim of war movies since the dawn of cinema has been to bring soldiers and joes closer together as types, simultaneously reaffirming the state’s right to demand blood from its citizens and the citizens’ rights to have their sacrifices recognized. This idea was especially prevalent during World War II, when America’s economic recovery went hand in hand with its suppositions of moral superiority for taking a stance against the German, Italian and Japanese armies. But for reasons probably related to blossoming social mores and the end of the draft, the idea of the everyman recruit stuck around until the Reagan Administration.

Since then, imaging has begun to play on more personalized notions of what constitutes a soldier’s personality – indeed, military culture at large. When it comes to the armed forces, Indiewood and Hollywood features alike are imbued with a breathless respect for form, thoroughness, precision – in a word, organization. Delivered in sweeping helicopter shots and procedural monologues, our new moral equivalence comes from a worship of authority, whether it’s a missile tracking system, or a brotherly code of conduct. War becomes less a force of national influence, and more a backdrop for ritualistic subcultures and fantasy tales of derring-do, spun around members of a shit-talking, guild-like work community. The films of Michael Bay – particularly The Rock and the Transformers films – constitute a steady thread of big-box outsider admiration for the zealotry and hardheadedness of fantasy-world military personnel, stirred in with delirious fantasies of widespread death, mayhem and conspiracy.

Today, Tom Hanks is making a movie about Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali pirates in April 2009 and saved in a Naval Special Operations raid. He broke contract with Kathryn Bigelow as they were prepping a South American action thriller; now she and journalist / Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal have elected instead to dramatize the Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. Rather than hair-raising numbers of troops, there is instead a fecund, popular image ripped from the worst 80s actioners but somehow made real: a nimble unit of elites who can strike anywhere, at any time. It is the best-possible salvo on a wounded military conscience, the perfect wedding of human and technological merit.

For the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, a policy-decisive SEAL strike was among more fanciful notions (i.e. a full-scale war with Iraq), theoretically feasible but by no means a sure bet. Clinton’s miniaturized struggles in Haiti and Somalia, coming off of larger Bush victories in Panama and Kuwait, rescaled the value of American life in the eyes of voters; the White House abandoned its Somalia adventure immediately after photos broke of the naked corpse of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. (Clinton preferred cruise missiles anyway, building off of the massive CENTCOM established by the Reagan Administration, burnished by bases in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – prizes from the first Gulf War.)

So for George W. Bush’s policy planners, the political will for small strikes was simply not there. But following 9/11, funding expanded into subsidiary DEA, FBI and CIA projects under different designations and monikers, a broader surge in funding for extra-territorial activity supervised by any official organs of U.S. Law. Connectivity exploded among the agencies, alongside a much more-balleyhooed beefing-up of the Department of Defense, which politics-wise has only become disputable within Congress in the last two or three years. Obama’s foreign policy bona fides benefit from his ability to position the Navy as the zenith of our military power, whereas Bush would have been viewed as picking favorites had he shifted praise so specifically from grunt recruits to specialized units.

The summer after the Bin Laden raid, a Team Six helicopter containing 38 people – 25 of whom were with Special Operations – was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, the worst loss of life sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since combat began in 2001. Semi-uncomfortably, the helicopter itself was mourned like a war hero, on account of the Special Forces’ rigidly enforced anonymity. Less than a year later, Admiral McRaven is arguing, maybe accurately, that operations like Team Six offer a better bang-for-your-buck than the U.S. would deserve right now, were it not for their clear-eyed planning and execution. The idea is that symmetrical combat will never begin, thanks to policy tweaks executed one raid at a time.

The legal proceedings that could hamper such an action don’t, because raids like those in Somalia or Pakistan are over before they’ve been noticed by our would-be host governments. And yes: the possibility of a Navy SEAL attack on Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony was bundled with this week’s sensationally ignorant advocacy campaign launched by Invisible Children. The idea that elites from private American companies can build grassroots support to somehow, with the blessed restorative balm of social media, “petition” the Executive Branch to plop U.S. armed forces down on sovereign territory and blow somebody’s brains out without anything approximating due process points to something worse than a mass embrace of the anti-internationalism that liberals disdained coming from the Bush Administration. Albeit doomed, it nonetheless suggests a compulsive binary voting attitude, an American Idol-ization of our worst foreign policy temptations and secrets.

In Act of Valor, circumstances are never ethically questionable, but outcomes are riskier – a realist worldview that perfectly matches Obama’s. Filmmakers Scott Waugh & Mike McCoy make no equivocations about the military’s connectivity to the world, mapping out plot destinations on a beeping “radio” or “scanner” themed grid of pixels, like a Sunday night Fox bumper; as commander in chief, Obama uses the same chessboard, made in the Cold War but expansion-packed over twenty years into the Middle East. The implication is that the lethality of U.S. policy is “canned” somehow, bullets tasting the same on any continent. It is simultaneously more daring and less brave; a Team Six deployment is cheap in relative terms to a conventional attack no matter where you play it. They are globally public demonstrations of superiority, literalizing much of the shadow world alluded to but never specifically ID’d by hegemonists, conspiracy theorists and neoconservatives alike.

Dollars to donuts, I’m pretty sure popular support for conventional combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, or pretty much anywhere else is as low as it’s ever been – a disinterest which may eventually create a nasty political rupture between richer and poorer gradients of both parties. This is in no way to suggest that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Powell were taking troop casualties or deaths more seriously in their own planning; the current president’s maneuvers are just the wiser political choice, on account of their leanness and publicity value. If Obama were blowing out birthday candles, he couldn’t wish for a better villain to obliterate than the ruthless, desperate, apolitical small-timers off the coast of Somalia.

Call it “flash & awe”. The government today promises skeptical Americans an alt-military, full of unknowable heroes and streamlined beyond culture’s reach; the virtual avatar of a physically Napoleonic strategy. There is an entire world of troop drawdown speculation in which the president has engaged much more cavalierly in Afghanistan, but those decisions are as low-profile as they’ve ever been. Thanks to Bush’s ever-widening net of military bases, black sites and installations, Obama has managed to score his greatest foreign policy victories yet.


“My only fault is, I don’t realize how great I really am!”

My preferred way of understanding Muhammad Ali is that he made his career one great big game of chicken. For a while, he was derided by sportswriters as a flamboyant nobody with no sense of shame; dutifully bound to follow his shenanigans, they were stung by him time and again, like a repeated lame joke. Then, at 22, he became the youngest boxer to win the Heavyweight Championship, taking it from the much-older Sonny Liston in Miami in less than seven rounds.

Even when he was Cassius Clay, his unflinching refusal to debase himself, to back down, to drop the act – and there were several – predated the current generation’s gawky obsession with fashioning and highlighting a unique “brand” or “identity” without selling yourself short, or your soul. There would be plenty of tie-ins, but ultimately he managed to avoid both; instead, he sold himself to Americans as personally friendly and broadly furious, about moral failures ranging from deep (racism) to petty (underestimating him.)

The defiance was often for its own sake. He could be viciously cruel to his opponents, always claiming it was mere preparation for a  fight…. and for a while, he took orders (and some of his most beloved quotes) straight from the Nation of Islam. He was a chronic womanizer; one member of his entourage called him a “pelvic missionary”. But although the sum total of his resistance doesn’t amount to a single linear political philosophy, you can’t say he was cowardly – or ineffectual. His candor and innovation in the sphere of public speaking (as theatre, really) dovetailed perfectly with his stubborn refusal to call it quits as a boxer – which, in the ultimate Pyhrric victory, is why he can barely talk anymore.

Was he a hero? I can’t say – but concurrent with his dexterity in the ring, which will hopefully be getting plenty of attention this week, he was made for cinema. If Ali were a mere private citizen, any number of shortcomings would hurt his image. But that image is so tremendous, so crisp, so well refracted, that the fact that he turns 70 today only reinforces the sacrifice of his performance – which is to say, his life. When it comes to videos on YouTube, these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but since I’m not a sportswriter, I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite performances / renditions:

I showed this clip from William Klein’s classic doc Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (also known as Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee) to friends and the reaction was unanimous disgust – one volunteered that the champ sounded like he’d been brainwashed. That’s not too far from the truth; Klein’s documentary concerns itself specifically with his transition from Cassius Clay, a “franchise” owned by a group of Kentucky businessmen, to Muhammad Ali – the world’s most famous Muslim, the Heavyweight Champion of the World at 22. Here you can see him mid-stream.

This type of scat-talk, political or not, was his other specialty, drawing on stream-of-consciousness memory retrieval techniques he picked up from preachers and musicians growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. Klein correctly isolates Ali’s monologue as an act of spontaneity that goes just as naturally as it comes – enough said.

There’s an indefatigable likeness between the pep talks of Buford (Wayne Mahan) in John Huston’s Fat City – something of a comeback in and of itself – and those of Ali. It’s unclear whether the scene is a kind of patriarchal tut-tutting on the part of Huston and writer Leonard Gardner, or a testament to Ali’s influence on young black men of the era. Since Huston was a boxing aficionado, and since Buford gets his ass handed to him, my money is on the latter. The film was shot in 1971, when it was accepted wisdom that Ali would never regain the Heavyweight title.

Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic is less an act of fealty than moviegoers seem to have presumed: as this dizzying intro demonstrates, Mann and producer Will Smith wanted to wrap an authentic portrait of the 1960s zeitgeist – you could call it “An African-American Experience” – around Ali, situating him moreso as a product of his cultural environment than as an idiosyncratic lightning rod. Put plainly, that’s the wrong argument, well made – and same goes for Smith’s performance, which never deviates too far from the solemn moon-face you can see above. The filmmakers are awful, actually, with the big emotional turning points, mandated by a studio prestige picture – so why do I find myself reexamining it at least once a year?

The look and feel of Ali’s experiences is more vivid and, well, boring – that is to say, “uncinematic”, which is to say, realistic – than biopics nearly ever allow. Sonny Liston actually looks and moves like Sonny Liston. There are intuitive, savorous performances from a giant cast (Jon Voight, Giancarlo Esposito, Nona Gaye, Bruce McGill, Mario Van Peebles), and tactile, razor-sharp details that simultaneously deserve better than, and work against, the screenplay’s flavorless rise-fall-rise structure. One wonders if Mann, standing as usual at the intersection of verité and impressionism, wouldn’t have done better to make a miniseries, or an eight-hour-long video art installation. (It’s a heck of a lot better than The Greatest, in which the mostly-retired Ali awkwardly plays his much younger self in a number of flimsy, frequently hilarious dramatic reenactments.)

One way of measuring Mann and Smith’s artistic self-confidence is checking how closely they decided to hew to the public record in their recreation of events. The thinnest portion of their story (which spans basically 10 years) is the gap between Ali’s 1967 censure from boxing and his triumphant return in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle”, promoted by Don King. The emotional crux of the film, wherein Ali (apparently) recognizes his intrinsic iconic value, comes in preparation for that fight, which he won in yet another significant upset. Leaving aside the Power of One moment, this stuff is covered well in Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, some scenes from which Mann and his team copied nearly beat for beat.

But boy, do I wish someone would distribute the entire Waldorf-Astoria press conference announcing the match, from which the above clip is taken. (Some of it also turns up in Soul Power, the corollary live concert doc to the Zaire fight.) King seems like he wants to break a piece of Ali’s rhetorical style off for himself (see fist pump, repetitions), but his face also betrays a certain tiredness –  maybe discomfort at the unpredictability of his latest prize pony. Ali is clearly having a great time taunting his opponent, the journalists, the betting pool, and King himself, vacillating between inane self-glorification and a sweet astonishment at the fact that he’s getting away with it. (The only person who escaped his ire was James Brown.)

After beating Foreman, Ali squared off against Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila, a nasty, horrendous match which left both participants debilitated well beyond its fourteen rounds. Ali was at his most verbally abusive in the weeks before the fight, and personal tensions were even higher than in Zaire; by most accounts, neither boxer was ever the same again afterwards. John Dower’s 2008 documentary is a sad corrective to the  myth of Ali’s magnanimity, featuring extensive interviews with Frazier, who carried a certain bitterness towards Ali to the grave.

It’s an open question whether it’s more depressing for a boxer to die young – like Sonny Liston – or to age forever, as Ali appears to be doing; living the bulk of your life off of a fistful of choice accomplishments from your youth would be grating for anybody, let alone someone who needs help wiping their own mouth. If you’ve the inclination, it’s possible to track Ali’s Parkinson’s from its earliest signs, post-Manila, to the present via YouTube clips; in this one and countless others, you can see Ali’s determination to get on with it, and that has a kind of dignity of its own.

And finally, some actual boxing. There’s no better evidence of Ali’s jarringly new technique (disputed by some as illegitimate, given the prancing, parrying and multiple-punch accumulations) than the pivotal first match in Miami against Sonny Liston. You can see why commenters use terms like “monster puncher” to describe the then-champion’s old school style, but the fifth round of this fight is a  master class in what would become Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique: he had worn Liston down well before the sixth, final round.

It seems like Liston was genuinely uncertain in the interim between 6th and 7th whether he’d get up to fight again; the commentators figured it was a matter of rounds, not seconds. Speaking of, where does this toad-faced schmuck get off stepping on guest correspondent Joe Louis’ lines, dispatching him to interview Liston after the fight ends? Call it a morsel of insight into American race relations circa 1964, not to mention the general drudgery faced by retired boxers on the national level – which is still pretty much the norm.

The closest he gets to comeuppance is his pathetic attempt to engage a conversation the gloating, euphoric, hypnotizing post-victory-dance Ali, who proceeds to bark fire-and-brimstone pronouncements straight into the cameras without ever breaking gaze; he doesn’t care who’s listening. Within two weeks, he accepted the name given to him by Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam: “Muhammad Ali”. The name “Muhammad” means “worthy of all praises”; “Ali” means “most high.” Watching this, you gotta give the guy points for conviction.

A friend recently sent me an op-ed by historian Walter Russell Mead on the myriad failures of the baby boomer generation, roughly in terms of delivering on the moral promises of the 1960s – in Obama’s words, of making the world a better place for its kids. There is much to chew on, and some fine small points – Mead is killer when it comes to Boomers’ impotent, fantasy-world policies on climate change, for example. He claims that the damage is extensive and all but irreversible, pathetic when juxtaposed against the achievements of the prior Greatest Generation:

What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity.  Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment.  Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty.  That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.

Here he makes a classic historians’ error in looking at vast numbers of different people and assuming they all operated, at any time, on the basis of something resembling a simultaneous free will. His overall argument can’t escape its own aggro-conservatism, suggesting in so many words that another WW2-sized trauma is needed to create a “mature” generation of Americans. Does that sound like a fair deal to you? Whether or not life has been better without such an event is another debate entirely, but if you follow my line of thinking – and if you don’t, please comment below – this seems an almost terrifyingly patriarchal attitude.

Did I miss the script? Fact is, Mead is a boomer himself who fiercely advocated the Iraq War; his disappointment suggests a different, but nevertheless similarly busted-ass, pair of rose-colored glasses. His thesis implicates everyone, but I find it dubious that any generation wouldn’t “miss” Mead’s idyll of maturity, when offered a life of voluntary military service, suburbs, 9-5s, cable television, a reasonably forgiving higher education system, TV dinners, widespread recreational drugs and a cash-crazed juggernaut of an entertainment industry. A rough survey of government policy, 1945-present, actually leaves me with the conspiratorial suspicion that lawmakers actually wanted a less diligent society! Our presumed right to laxness is, in a funny way, what so many pissed-off college graduates worldwide are demanding from their governments as we speak.

This is not to say such a model is, by any means, economically sustainable – but society is prone to learning these things firsthand. At risk of being optimistic, I’ve always felt that the death of American hegemony, particularly in market terms, will create personal, vexing problems, which we will (however pigheadedly) rise to meet. Maybe we’re doing it already; I spend as much time as anybody rolling my eyes at post-68ers who bemoan the passage of their glory days, but the fact that Mead makes no mention of the Occupy movement suggests an allergy to linking the ideals of his generation and mine. I can only read this exclusion as an accidental concession that a potential American conscience runs deeper than Mead wants us to believe.