Hope and Obama

Before I start writing this post, a brief disclaimer; I am not American, do not live there and do not have extensive first-hand experience of the political situation over there. This post is inspired entirely from stuff I’ve seen other people talk about online and a few bits of joining the dots from me, but if anyone feels I’ve gone wildly off-target please drop me a line in the comments. OK? Good, let’s get started.

The ascendency of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the USA in 2009 was among the most significant events in recent history. Not only did he become the first black person to sit in the Oval office, he put the Democrats back in power (representing a fairly major shift in direction for the country after eight years under George Bush Jnr.) and manage to put his party in control of Congress too, the first time any Democrat leader had been in that position for quite some time. With bold claims regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had been… talking points  during Bush’s time in charge, and big plans regarding the US healthcare system, this had all the hallmarks of a presidency dedicated to making change happen. Indeed, change was the key buzzword during Obama’s campaign; change for the punishing effects of US society on its young and poor, change for the recession-hit economy, and even change for the type of person in the White House (Bush had frequently been portrayed, rather unjustly for a man of notoriously quick wit, as stupid and socially incapable by satirists and left-leaning commentators, whilst even the right would find it hard to deny Obama’s natural charisma and intelligent, upright bearing) were all promised to voters, and it was a dream many took with them to the polling stations.

One of the key demographics the Democrats targeted and benefited from with this ‘pro-change’ style campaign was the youth vote; early twenty-somethings or even late teens, many of whom were voting in their first elections, who had grown up both physically and politically during the Bush administration and railed against his management of everything from the economy to the welfare system with all the ardour and uncluttered train of thought of young people everywhere. I should know: living through the period as a young person in a left-leaning family getting my news via the liberally-inclined BBC (and watching too much satirical comedy), one could hardly escape the idea that Bush was an absolute moron who know nothing about running his country. And this was whilst getting daily first-hand experience of what a left-wing government was like in Britain- I can imagine that to a young American with a similar outlook and position at the time, surrounded by right-leaning sentiment on all sides, the prospect of a Democratic president dedicated to change would have seemed like a shining beacon of hope for a brighter future. Indeed, the apparent importance of the youth vote to Obama’s success was illustrated during his 2012 re-election: when the news broke that Microsoft were planning on releasing a new Halo videogame on election day, conspiracy theorists had a wonderful time suggesting that Microsoft were embroiled in a great Republican plot to distract the youth vote by having them play Halo all day instead, thus meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat*.

Now, let us fast forward to the 2012 election. Obama won, but narrowly- and given he was up against a candidate whose comments that he ‘didn’t care about the very poor’ and thought that the windows in passenger aircraft should be able to be opened were very widely circulated and mocked, the result was far too close for comfort (even if, despite what some pundits and conservative commentators would have had you believe, all the pre-election statistics indicated a fairly safe Democrat victory). Whilst the airwaves weren’t exactly awash with anti-Obama messages, it wasn’t hard to find disillusionment and cynicism regarding his first term in office. For me, the whole thing was summed up by the attitudes of Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind the webcomic ‘Questionable Content’; reading through his back catalogue, he frequently had to restrain himself from verbalising his Obama-fandom in the comments below his comics during the 2008 election, but come election season in 2012 he chose to publish this. That comic pretty much sums it up: a whole generation had been promised change, and change had refused to come on a sufficiently large scale. The youthful optimism of his rise to power was replaced by something more akin to the weariness Obama himself displayed during the first live TV debate, and whilst I’m sure many of these somewhat disillusioned voters still voted Democrat (I mean, he still won, and preliminary statistics suggest voter turnout actually rose in 2012 compared to 2008), the prevailing mood seemed to be one less of optimism than of ‘better him than Romney’.

Exactly what was to blame for the lack of the promised change is a matter of debate; apologists may point to the difficulties had getting such radical (by American standards) health reforms and similar through a decidedly moderate congress, followed by the difficulties had trying to get anything through when congress became Republican-controlled, whilst the more cynical or pro-Republican would probably make some statement referring to the corporate-sponsored nature of the Democratic party/American political system or suggest that President Obama simply isn’t quite as good a politician/person (depending on the extent of your cynicism) as he came across as in 2008. Whatever the answer, the practical upshot has been quite interesting, as it has allowed one to watch as an entire generation discovered cynicism for the first time. All these hopes and dreams of some brave new vision for America went steaming face first into the bitter reality of the world and of politics, and the dream slowly fell apart. I am not old enough to definitively say that this is a pattern that has repeated itself down the ages, but nonetheless I found the whole escapade fascinating in a semi-morbid way, and I will be intrigued to see if/when it happens again.

Damn, I’m really going for conclusion-less posts at the moment…

*Interestingly, this kind of tactic has, so the story goes, been deliberately used in the past to achieve precisely the opposite effect. When Boris Yeltsin attempted to get re-elected as Russian president in 1996, voting day was designated a public holiday. Unfortunately, it was soon realised that many urban Russians, Yeltsin’s main voter base, were going to take this as a cue for a long weekend in the country (presumably hunting bears or whatever else Russians do in their second home in Siberia) rather than to go and vote, so Yeltsin went to the makers of telenovela (a kind of South American soap opera) called Tropikanka that was massively popular in the country and got them to make three brand-new episodes to be aired on election day. This kept the city dwellers at home, since many country spots didn’t have TV access, and meant they were around to go and vote. Yeltsin duly won, with 54.4% of the vote.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.