So the big push for World War Z is clearly afoot. The second trailer for the film was released a week ago:
So this trailer isn't all that different from the first trailer, which means my qualms about the film version of Max Brooks' masterpiece remain. Still, that airplane sequence at the end was well executed, and offers some promise.
But then we get to the Entertainment Weekly cover story -- out today -- about the long, laborious process of getting World War Z from page to screen. It's a good article that details the myriad screenwriters involved, the location difficulties, and the reshoots. One definitely gets the sense of how Brad Pitt warmed to the subject matter over time. Hell, in the EW article he referenced All The President's Men as his template for the story -- which, if you've read World War Z, you know isn't the craziest comparison.
Which is great, until we get to this long quote from Pitt at the end of the story explaining how the final version of the movie has changed from his original conception:
At the time, I was really interested in a more political film, using the zombie trope as a kind of Trojan horse for asking, 'What would happen to sociopolitical lines if there was a pandemic like this? Who would be on top? Who would be the powerful countries and who would be the most vulnerable?
We wanted to really explore that, but it was just too much. We got bogged down in it; it was too much to explain. It gutted the fun of what these films are meant to be.
Excuse me, I need to go do this for a while:
Here's the thing -- the very reason that World War Z the book is better than every other zombie novel ever written is the global scope and the reasonably realistic take on the politics of a zombie apocalypse. There is action galore in the book, but there's something more as well. The politics that "bogged down" the movie? That is the fun!
Will I go see World War Z? Probably out of sheer professional obligation. But let's be clear -- based on the evidence to date, the odds seem very likely that the movie version of World War Z will be a garden-variety big-budget disaster flick. It's not gonna be great.
While Pitt plans a trilogy of films, methinks this World War Z would have worked even better as a miniseries for HBO or FX. Too bad. Should some shameless huckster desire to procure the film version of Theories of International Politics and Zombies -- which is all about the politics -- then they should contact Princeton University Press.
Am I missing anything?
We might live in an era of globalization, but its is nevertheless true that travel abroad leads to some odd news gaps when one returns. Last year I took a transatlantic flight and while I was incommunicado, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as the President of Egypt. During yesterday's trip, David Petraeus resigned after... after.... well, insert your own pun involving Petraeus and Paula Broadwell here, but only if you think you can top the New York Post.
Still, I think the biggest shock I encountered upon my return was the new trailer for World War Z, starring Brad Pitt and based on the best zombie novel ever written (by Max Brooks).
I once asked Max -- yeah, I know him, I get to call him Max, just f***ing deal with it -- how he was handling the movie version of his book, and he told me that his strategy was to simply sign over the rights and then not pay an iota of attention to what happened. Once it became clear that the producers weren't interested in his input, he figured that it was the only way to stay sane.
After watching the trailer, I think his strategy is sound, because it looks like what they're doing to World War Z is a travesty:
Now, let me preface my reaction to this trailer with the following caveats:
1) All movies that are inspired by books will deviate from their source material. That doesn't make the films bad (see my review of Argo, for example).
2) This is a trailer, and very often trailers are designed to misdirect your perceptions of how the film will play out. So maybe the movie will play out differently.
3) Even this trailer has hints of the book I love -- there are suggestions of the sweeping global canvas that made the book so great.
All that said, this looks pretty bad.
First off, there's the fast CGI zombies. One of the great pleasures of World War Z the novel was the way in which the degree of threat slowly creeped up, just like the walkers that Brooks used for his zombies. Switching to the 28 Days Later style of ghouls changes the nature of the threat in ways that undercut one of the central pleasures of Brooks' novel. The trailer looks like a globalized version of 28 Days Later. Which would be OK if the zombies in the movie version of World War Z were as scary as that movie's Infected. Which they ain't. You know a movie's Big Bad is in trouble when the Dark Seekers from I Am Legend look positively life-like.
Second, the trailer and the casting make it seem pretty clear that the movie is about how former government badass Brad Pitt reluctantly decides to leave his family for a spell to save the world. Which is pretty much the total friggin' opposite of what happens in the book.
Again, one of the pleasures of World War Z was the almost-pointillist way that Brooks told dozens of small stories about what happened across the world -- and how the sum of myriad small actions paved the way to victory. Indeed, the closest thing to a strategic savior in the book is a despised Afrikaaner who modified a decades-old plan to preserve the apartheid government into a ruthless strategy to retrench and then defeat the undead hordes. Brad Pitt ain't that guy. So instead this looks like your standard reluctant-hero-saves-the-day narrative.
Finally, over 90% of the trailer looks at the U.S. Again, the best thing about the book was how it started with a global perspective and how it managed to keep a global perspective (as opposed to, say, Contagion).
In the course of writing Theories of International Politics and Zombies, my admiration for what Brooks pulled off in his book only grew with time. I hope I'm wrong about how the movie version of World War Z turns out. At this point, however, I have more optimism about Star Wars Episode VII than this bastardization of Max Brooks' magnum opus.
Am I missing anything?
Last night your humble blogger went to see Argo, which Ben Affleck directs and stars in. Here's a trailer:
Now, those readers who care about things like "cinematography" or "editing" will love this film, but let's face it, if you're reading this blog, it means you're really interested in foreign policy and international relations. And let's face it again -- with a few noteworthy exceptions, the film industry has not done world politics proud. So, from that perspective, how does Argo hold up?
With some mild spoilers below, I'm happy to report that the film is pleasantly savvy in the ways of the wonk, and even the ways in which it's not savvy can be productive.
First, the film nails both the stakes and the awful policy choices faced by Americans during the hostage crisis. The prologue -- a clever and brief history of U.S. involvement in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution -- concisely explains exactly why that country might have been juuuuuust a wee bit angry at the U.S. government in 1979. The film starts on Nov. 4, the day the embassy was seized. The entire opening sequence is well done, but the thing it captures perfectly is the stone-cold realization by the embassy staff that once the compound is breached, there's no escape and no cavalry riding to the rescue. At one point, the head of the security staff explains patiently that their job is simply to buy time for the rest of the embassy personnel to burn/shred all the classified documents. The character also states -- correctly -- that if anyone kills any Iranian, there will be a bloodbath.
Once the hostages are seized -- and six manage to surreptitiously flee to the Canadian ambassador's compound -- Argo is straightforward on both the bureaucratic politics of trying to spirit them out and the bad odds that any exfiltration plan will have in getting them out of Tehran. At one point CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (played by Afflek) and his superior pitch their plan to the Secretary of State. In that scene, they state the obvious, which is rarely stated in films of this kind: there are no good options, and their plan of having the six be part of a film crew scouting a sci-fi movie location in Tehran is simply the "best bad idea" that they have. Welcome to foreign policymaking -- trying to figure out the best bad idea around. Argo doubles down on this sentiment in a quiet but effective scene at Dulles airport, when Mendez and his superior discuss who in his family should be notified if things go south.
Now, as it turns out, in real life, Mendez was driven to Dulles by his wife. This is just one of many Hollywoodizations that occur, particularly in the second half of the film. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio take some liberties with what went down in Tehran and Washington as Mendez tries to spirit out the six Americans.
Oddly enough, this is unintentionally constructive for anyone interested in becoming a true foreign policy wonk. Here's a fun test:
1) Go see Argo;
2) Try to figure out which parts of the narrative's second half are fiction and which are fact;
3) Go read the Wired story by Joshuah Bearman that partially inspired the movie and the Slate explainer by David Haglund. If you didn't detect at least one of the Really Big Whoppers in the second half of the film, well, then you should probably find a career other than becoming a foreign policy wonk. Because there is some serious fictionalizing going on. If you're buying it as fact, then you either lack the instincts or the strategic chops necessary to operate in the world of statecraft.
Your humble blogger will be winging his way back to the East Coast after a few days at Comic-Con. Now, one of the purposes of this blog is to act as a networked node between the worlds of popular culture and international relations. So while I could prattle on about what's hip (Wonder Woman) and what's not (surprisingly little Battlestar Galactica cosplay) or all of the ways that Joss Whedon is God -- well, a god -- that would be wrong and uninteresting to readers.
Instead, here's another angle. We know that:
B) America remains the world's cultural hegemon; so...
C) What we learn about Comic-Con attendees will tell us much about the future of global culture.
So, what did I learn:
1) America was better in the past. Comic-Con has grown by leaps and bounds in term of attendees in the past few years, and the old-timers are a bit cranky about this fact. And by "old-timers," I mean people who were here five years ago. Still, I was told that the lines used to be shorter, the exhibition hall used to have more open space, and "it used to be about the comics, man." Or, as one person put it, "all these people used to tease me in high school for liking this s**t." Nostalgia for yhe past, it would seem, is hardly limited to political elites.
2) The cultural elite is a hell of a lot more diverse than other elites. A common lament is the maleness and whiteness of the top one percent of anything. Well, rest assured this is not the case at Comic-Con. Based on my own observation, I'd say that while men outnumbered women, it's getting awfully close to gender balance. Similarly, minority representation was quite robust as well. Indeed, one group in particular with a powerful presence at Comic-Con is the disabled. If you ammassed the number of people in wheelchairs at this convention, you'd have a formidable mobile infantry.
3) Americans are cool with bureaucracy and surveillance -- so long as it's about something they want more than something they need. The lines for some of the sessions were staggering. Seriously, Disneyworld employees would have looked at these lines and said, "dude, this is out of control." I don't want to say that people were thrilled about the lines -- but compared to the DMV or even boarding an airplane, there was a minimum of fussing and feuding. Why were people cool with having 10,000 individuals in front of them to see a Walking Dead panel but ten people in front of them at the Starbucks caused complaint? I think it's about want vs. need, but I'll take alternative explanations in the coments.
As for surveillance, it was impossible to walk five feet without passing an interview or a photograph. A third of the attendees at any large panel were recording everything on their cameras.
4) There are tiny pockets of innovation everywhere. The Blog Son and I went to the panel for a forthcoming video game, The Last of Us (here's a trailer). I'm not a gamer, but I get the sense the game is easerly anticipated. What impressed about the panel was the care and craft that the creators had invested into the scenario, the acting, the gameplay, and so forth. Politicians might pooh-pooh the intended effect of all of this energy, but the innovative talent on display was impressive.
Now, this was a big panel, but all around the exhibition hall there were pockets of just brilliant stuff littered around the place. True, there was also a lot of schlock, but even a lot of the schlock was demented and brilliant.
5) Zombies still rule. I mean, c'mon -- they were everywhere at Comic-Con. Everywhere.
Posting will be intermittent for the next few days, as your humble blogger is headed to... Comic-Con 2012 in San Diego. I will be going in two capacities:
1) An expert for the Zombie Research Society panel at 7:00 PM on Thursday;
2) The World's Most Awesome Dad for taking the official Twelve-Year Old Blog Son to Comic-Con.
Beyond that, Comic-Con mostly holds a sociological curiousity for me. As a detached social scientist, I will be closely observing whether attendees have different kind of foreign policy worldviews that ordinary folk, and OMG, THERE'S A FIREFLY REUNION PANEL??!! JOSS WHEDON WILL BE THERE?! AHH!!!!!! OMG!! ZOMG!!
So, anything IR-related that happens in San Diego, I'll be FP's reporter on the scene for the next few days. Otherwise, I'll just be crossing off "Presenting at Comic-Con" off my bucket list.
As a first-time attendee, tips from any veteran Comic-Con-goers will be greatly appreciated in the comments.
Your humble blogger has occasionally demonstrated an interest in the Star Wars saga, and, alas, I see over the weekend that a lot of nonsense and some occasional brilliance has been written about this topic. Let's dive in!
While Star Wars devotees are a cantankerous, obsessive, socially maladjusted and generally the-worst-parts-of-Kevin-Smith lot, but there is general agreement on two statements:
1) The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the movies;
2) None of films in the "prequel" trilogy are better than any of the films in the older trilogy.
Both of these statements might seem so obvious that they can usually be asserted as axioms without justification. These canonical statements have been challenged this week, however. Kevin Drum bravely and gamely tries to argue that Return of the Jedi is the best film in the series. I won't quote him here but urge you to read the whole post. It's not a bad argument per se, if it wasn't so horribly, horribly wrong.
Basically, Drum argues that the film's strengths (the opening, the cinematography, the story arcs, the finale) outweigh the weaknesses (the Ewoks). OK, but Drum elides Jedi's other major weaknesses, which include:
A) Leia's transformation from powerful princess to earth mother of Endor (seriously, her hair alone during the scenes in the Endor village knocks Jedi down a peg);
B) Luke and Leia having The Conversation, which even by Lucas' standards is badly-written and contains a statement by Leia that gets totally contradicted later in Revenge of The Sith; and
C) The Ewok attack on the shield generator. As a kid, I always wondered why the Storm Troopers would wear what looked like bulky and awkward plastic armor that didn't seem to stop blaster fire. I figured, "well, it's gotta be effective against more primitive weapons." Nope, it turns out Ewok arrows can penetrate the stuff too! WTF? Did the Emperor get a special deal on the stuff from some Kamino contractors or what? Even if the $852 quadrillion Death Star itself might have been cost-effective, Storm Trooper uniforms are a classic example of bloated Imperial procurement patterns.
D) Lucas f***ing up this movie even more with the special editions. Oh, yay, now Vader says something in the climactic final sequence with the Emperor! Thank the heavens, we now see Hayden Christensen's pouty face at the very end of Jedi, which, by the way, makes no f***ing sense whatsoever!!
Now, all of this said, I think Drum provides a vigorous defense of Jedi's worth -- I think better of it now than before. It's just that in comparison to Empire, it still falls short. Why? First, in contrast to Jedi, there really aren't any Ewoks to apologize for -- Episode V has none of those howlers. The only weakness I can really think of in Empire is the slightly dodgy Imperial strategy involved in conquering the rebel base at Hoth.
As for the strengths, there are many. Beyond the surprising plot twists and climactic duel at Cloud City, Empire has three sequences that are worth watching:
1) The pursit of the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. Just a top notch action sequence. What the Falcon finds in the asteroid field -- and how they escape the Imperial fleet -- are also pleasant and jolting surprises.
2) Luke confronting the Dark Side in the Dagobah swamps. This also contains one of the lovelier pieces of dialogue in the films (LUKE: What's in there? YODA: Only what you take with you.) It also deftly captures the dangers Luke faces as he learned the ways of the Force.
3) Han and Leia deepening their relationship. Contrast their interactions in Empire with, say, Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Wait, no, that's too low a bar. Here's another way of thinking of it: with the exception of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, one would be hard-pressed to find a burgeoning romance handled so deftly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Now some of these strengths are more, shall we say, grown-up strengths. As a kid, I recall being frustrated by Empire because of how it left everything at loose ends. Still, I would argue that the payoffs that come from Return of the Jedi are only as sweet because of The Empire Strikes Back.
Still, bravo to Kevin for defending Jedi, because apparently there are some who would dare to argue that Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi. Which would be easy to ignore, if it wasn't a friggin' political scientist making this claim:
I would submit that "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a better film that "Return of the Jedi." I recognize that this view, while probably not as controversial as Drum's, is still not the mainstream one. But the "Sith"story is much more coherent, staying fully focused on Anakin's fall. And the fall is masterfully executed and so complete in its outcome....
And Anakin's final fall is so complete, leaving him a smoldering, limbless pile of hate, screaming impotently at the best friend he'd been manipulating into despising, while the woman he was trying to save lays dying. And Obi Wan's final words to Anakin involve (finally!) something like acting. Ewan MacGregor somehow achieves the impossible, delivering an impassioned performance in a George Lucas film, venting both his disgust in Anakin and his own remorse for having trained him
Mercifully, "Sith" doesn't try to distract us with humorous or furry creatures. Jar Jar is silent. The droids do their jobs. The film is dark and bleak and allowed to remain that way. The few final scenes not focused directly on Anakin -- finding homes for the twins, the remaining Jedi going into hiding, the Death Star under construction -- serve only to set up Episode IV.
If I squint very hard, I can see Masket's arguments. Several things hold me back from agreeing in any way with his conclusions, however. First, the script in Revenge of the Sith is just so much worse than Return of the Jedi that I don't know where to begin. In the last 40 minutes of Sith that almost doesn't matter, because the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Emperor/Yoda clash are pretty good. The problem is that, again, except for the bit that Masket references, practically every line of dialogue uttered in this film is either hackneyed or just God-awful. It's not like Return of the Jedi, when you'd cringe at the occasional leaden sentence. In Sith, it's Every. Friggin'. Sentence.
Second, the character development in the prequel trilogy is so bad that it's tough to even care about Anakin's turn to the dark side. I'd wager the only reason Masket cares is because he saw Episodes IV-VI first. Only if you see them first would there be any reason to give a whit about what happens -- which, by the way, is an excellent reason to read this brilliant exposition of how a newcomer should watch the entire series.
The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor's wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin's lust for power, and Darth Sidious' grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.
To a political scientist, that's good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it's tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.
So, no, I must take the Very Brave and Contrarian position of defending the conventional wisdom. The best movie is still The Empire Strikes Back, and while Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequel trilogy, it doesn't hold a candle to Return of the Jedi.
Oh, and this time... I don't care what you think.... because you do agree with me. Move along, now.
Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons. First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He's not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I've got some skin in that game. Second, the FP editors have asked me to review other disaster scenarios, so I figured I'd just pre-empt their request and join the legions of moviegoers who
get their ya-yas seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die on film be entertained.
So, let me provide the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT klaxon here and get to the assessment. How well did Steven Soderbergh and company portray what would happen if a lethal pandemic were to break out?
OK, good news first: in terms of both accuracy and suspense, Contagion is a far, far better film than, say, either Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain. The first reason is that Soderbergh does not bother with the anti-government paranoia that those earlier films possessed in their DNA. Instead, the treatment of the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and World Health Organization officials is fair. They are depicted as flawed but well-meaning bureaucrats, getting some decisions right and some wrong. They also speak in jargon, a surprising amount of which makes its way into the film. I fully expect to see the term "R-0" bandied about by news anchors the next time a flu bug breaks out. A CDC official utters the two most chilling words in the entire movie -- "social distancing" -- to describe the necessary freak-out by citizens to avoid human contact with other humans as a way of slowing the spread of the virus. That's the perfect dash of bureaucratese.
The second reason is that Soderbergh almost perfectly nails the first stage of the pandemic. Unlike, say, most zombie or other apocalyptic films, Soderbergh doesn't get to the breakdown of social order in the first reel. He takes his time, which helps to amp up the pressure and make it seem all the scarier when things do seem to break down (Matt Damon's character is the perfect vessel here; Damon's best work is in his reaction shots to other people behaving badly). He also deftly demonstrates in the first ten minutes how globalization would abet the spread of any kind of superbug.
Despite this slow ratcheting up, I haven't seen a director kill off so many Hollywood starlets since Joss Whedon.
The third reason is that the movie, intriguingly enough, does not end in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Consistent with the arguments I made in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, humans prove to be just as adaptable as the biological threats to humans.
That said, here are my beefs:
1) Really, the blogger is the Big Bad in the movie? Really? The villian of the piece is Jude Law's crudely-named Alan Krumwiede, who detects the spread of the virus early but hawks a homeopathic remedy to enrich himself. Exactly how he gets rich doing this is not entirely clear -- he has some shady meetings with a hedge fund manager, but it's not entirely clear why, after gaining fame and fortune, he doesn't start acting differently as more attention gets paid to him. It's also presumed that Krumwiede has the monopoly of blogging on the issue -- I'm pretty sure that as he gained popularity, a few other health bloggers would try to cut him down to size.
Neither Soderbergh nor his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns like bloggers, like, at all. At one point the virologist played by Elliott Gould tells Krumwiede, "Blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." Hah! That shows what Soderbregh knows -- us bloggers are lucky if we remember to use commas, much less semicolons.
Look, as a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Policy Bloggers, I can't claim that actors like Krumwiede don't exist. My skepticism is over whether they'd really wreak as much havoc as Soderbergh thinks. Myths and rumors can spread on the Internet, but so can the corrections of those myths. In the end, someone like Krumwiede would affect a very narrow, already paranoid subculture -- the larger effect would be minimal.
Even if Krumwiede is an absurd villain, I also didn't buy it when the DHS official let him go free once he made bail. At a minimum, they'd hold this guy for 48 hours without charging. I'd also wager that they'd try to deport him too.
One final note: I'd love to see Lee Siegel hire Sodebergh to direct and Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about the Internet, just to see the final dystopic product.
2) Where the hell is the Chinese central government? The most absurd subplot is when a WHO official gets abducted by her translator as collateral to protect his infected village. She's held hostage for at least six months -- during which time she goes native -- until the WHO barters some (fake) vaccine for her life.
Apparently during this entire time, the Chinese central government does not bother to intervene to try to rescue her. This seems juuuuuuust a bit implausible. It also leads to the next problem....
3) Where the hell is the rest of the WHO? Beyond Marion Cotillard's character, the WHO does not really appear in the film. It's the CDC's show, and only their show . They act in Contagion pretty much how they promised they would act if the zombies arrive. Maybe that's how things would play out, but I suspect other governments and IGOs would still matter more than this film suggests. Given that the movie virus started in China, and that the head of the WHO is also from China, they might be useful in this kind of situation.
4) Few second-order effects. The virus leads to looting, crime, and other social ills, but I wish they had said something about the total economic devastation that would have occurred. At one point after a vaccine has been developed, Matt Damon's character walks through a mall to buy his daughter a prom dress -- and 80% of the mall looks to be closed. Soderbergh suggests a bunch of unions going on strike because they don't want to ge sick. I'm curious what happens once they find themselves unemployed as well.
Forget the domestic discord however, there's also...
5) No international conflict whatsoever. After the first 15 minutes, almost all of the action takes place in the USA. Once a vaccine is discovered, there is no discussion of the international wrangling that would take place over scarce supplies. No diversionary wars happen. And so forth. Soderbergh doesn't really address possible problems in world politics. Because of this, the film implicitly assumes a liberal institutionalis kind of a world. I hope he's right, but I'm not so sure myself.
To be fair to Soderbergh and his collaborators, I'm not sure it's possible to get everything right in such a film. Unless it's a television series I'm not sure it's possible to get all the nuances and complexities right. Given these limitations, Contagion is a movie worth seeing. Just bring your own Purell.
Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott blogs about the explosion of forthcoming superhero movies, why they will suck, and what this means for American exceptionalism.
Actually, let me put that a little differently: James Wolcott has used prose more bloated than X-Men 3 to attempt a half-assed connection between summer popcorn flicks and America's place in the world.
First, there's his general critique of today's superhero film:
For old-school comic fans such as myself (who had a letter published in the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four in 1967—top that, Jonathan Franzen), these cinematic blowup editions are lacking on the fun side. The more ambitious ones aren’t meant to be much fun, apart from a finely crafted quip surgically inserted here and there to defuse the tension of everybody standing around butt-clenched and battle-ready, waiting for some laureled thespian (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor) to elocute and class up this clambake. Even the films that play it loosey-goosier, such as the facetious Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage as a skull-blazing vigilante who chills by listening to the Carpenters), end up laying it on too heavy, faking orgasm like a porn star trying to keep Charlie Sheen’s attention. For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.
Three thoughts. First, this critique ain't exactly new. Second, the reason this critique isn't new is that Wolcott ignores
Drezner's Sturgeon's Law of Crap. Take any artistic or literary category, and 90% of the contributions to said genre will be total crap [Does that apply to your blog posts as well?--ed. More like 95% in my case.] Therefore, the easiest thing in the world to blog about is how 90% of any kind of genre stinks. Third, Wolcott clearly slept through hasn't seen the superhero films that rise above the 90% and possess a fair degree of whimsy, like, say, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles, or Iron Man.
As for the symbolic implications for American power, er, well, here's his key paragraph:
Why so much overcompensation? The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. But in the new millennium no amount of nationally puffing ourselves up can disguise the entropy and molt. Despite the resolute jaw of Mitt Romney and John Bolton’s mustache, American exceptionalism no longer commands the eagle wingspan to engirdle the world and keep raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since Vietnam, whatever the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform, America’s superpower might hasn’t been up to much worthy of chest-swelling, chain-snapping pride (invading a third-rate military matchstick house such as Iraq is hardly the stuff of Homeric legend), and our national sense of inviolability took a sucker punch on September 11, 2001, that dislocated our inner gyroscope. Sinister arch-villains make for high-stakes showdowns, but asymmetrical conflict has no need for them, and for all we know the cavern voice of Osama bin Laden could be a Mission: Impossible tape, poofing into smoke at the first shaft of sunlight. The subsequent War on Terror is one waged within a shadow maze of misdirection and paranoia where the enemy might be no more than a phantom army of apprehensions, viral bugs invading the neural network.
Let me be blunt -- I'm not entirely sure if Wolcott wrote this paragraph or outsourced it to a computer program that strongs together random clauses about American foreign policy. Suffice it to say that the better superhero flicks -- both Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns come to mind -- contain some interesting commentary on American foreign policy. Indeed, a few years ago Jesse Walker at Reason argued, with some justification, that "Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving."
I share Wolcott's distaste for hackneyed comic book films, but sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie. Anyone trying to use
any film released in January The Green Hornet as a metaphor for what ails American foreign policy really needs to remember that, most of the time, a bad superhero movie is just a bad superhero movie.
Compared to the exciting developments in the Middle East, the 2011 Oscars telecast had all the excitement of watching wallpaper paste harden. To be fair, however, even judged in a vacuum, these Oscars were galactically boring -- which is saying something given Melissa Leo's tres bleu acceptance speech. The patter was boring, the gowns were boring, and Celine Dion's
braying singing ruined the memorial montage. I got so bored during the actual telecast that I had to make up a scenario whereby former Oscar hosts started massive protests against the current Oscar regime to maintain any interest in the proceedings.
[So, why are you blogging about it?--ed.] To demonstrate my ability to wring world politics insights from even the most mundane of sources, of course!! And they are:
1) Last year I noted that films leaning towards security studies trounced the more global political economy-friendly films. Obviously, The King's Speech (which is about leadership and great power politics) beating out The Social Network (which is about intellectual property rights and network externalities) for Best Picture is a continuation of that theme. Still, the overall results were more mixed. The Social Network did pick up a few Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay, and in the Best Documentary category, Inside Job upset Restrepo -- which meant a real-live-honest-to-goodness political scientist now owns an Academy Award. NOTE: This doesn't mean all political scientists are happy about this.
2) I've been a longtime supporter of drug legalization as a way to eliminate multiple foreign policy headaches -- but based on the behavior of many Oscar presenters and winners, I'm now wondering if there should be drug testing before the Academy Awards.
3) Here's a thought -- if the Brits keep giving the best acceptance speeches, then maybe the Academy should just outsource the awards hosting duties to them as well? I mean, after that show, suddenly all the carping about Ricky Gervais seems churlish. I could see Russell Brand and Helen Mirren doing at least a passable job at it.
4) As for the Best Picture Winner, I myself would have preferred The Social Network -- but I enjoyed The King's Speech decently enough despite the massive historical revisionism in the film. It's not like The Social Network was a straight re-creation of history either. If the controversy about historical accuracy prompts a deeper discussion about the period under question, so be it. And let me stress that this position has nothing to do with the fact that the Official Blog Wife feels about Colin Firth the same way I do about Salma Hayek.
Did I miss anything?
Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution.
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I've expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can't say I'm all that convinced by their theses.
Let's start with Gladwell, because it's the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:
This sounds good, except this doesn't describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties -- they're simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.
It's not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:
Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.
I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.
The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what's been fictionalized, what's been mysoginized, and what's been left out of the film, and I'm sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook's rise, but I have to think that the site's initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked.
The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin's interviews about the film, however, suggests that there's an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships.
I don't buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I've found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook.
More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:
1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket.
2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result.
3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn't new by the time they come to use it. They're savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal.
Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they're not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Half-reformed after prison, Gekko is more anti-hero than villain this time. He is still dazzled by lucre, but also determined to give warning of the dangers of excessive leverage. The real baddies are Bretton James and the securities firm he runs, Churchill Schwartz—perhaps the least disguised fictional name ever. Executives at Goldman Sachs are said to be unamused....
As the financial crisis unfolded, the story was reworked to cast Goldman in a more nefarious light. In the original version, the villain was a hedge-fund manager. But script advisers from the financial world persuaded Mr Stone that an investment banker would be more realistic, since it was banks and securities firms, not “alternative” money managers, that had blown up the system.
Among his counsellors were James Chanos, a well-known short-seller, Anthony Scaramucci, another hedge-fund man, and Nouriel Roubini, an economist who predicted the crisis. Each was rewarded for his efforts with a cameo. Dr Roubini appears as the suitably gloomy Dr Hashimi.
Now I respect Roubini a lot, and in this case he was correct to redirect Stone's ire away from hedge funds and towards the investment banks.
Still, this information makes me juuuuust a bit wary of the film. The history of political economy advisors for film and fiction is pretty short and undistinguished. The only other instance I can think of in which this occurred was Daniel Okimoto's cameo in Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. That novel -- the first of Crichton's to feature a bibliography, if memory serves -- was written at the peak of hysteria about Japan, Inc. Okimoto's contributions were spot-on, but the book itself was absurdly over the top in terms of Japanese nefariousness (intriguingly, Philip Kaufman's screen adaptation of Rising Sun holds up better than the novel because it tamped down the Japan-bashing in favor of adding some film noir moodiness).
I don't like generalizing from one case, but I do wonder whether political economy advisors are used to give film/fiction the patina of intellectual respectibility, thereby allowing the writer/director to go over the top. [What about documentaries? -- ed. I'll outsource that to Will Winecoff.]
Your humble blogger will not be blogging with great frequency over the next few days, as he'll be
drinking power-schmoozing diligently going to panels attending the American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings in Washington. I have to present at a few panels this year, so blogging will be on the lighter side (though if I have time, I want to revisit this question about millennials and foreign policy attitudes).
Here's a topic for discussion. Yesterday I had a disturbing dream involving some hybrid of a normal APSA meeting and The Highlander. Today I finally went to see The Expendables with an IR colleague, which led us into a deep discussion of
how much of a bad-ass Dolph Lundgren is how most movies that have any IR component are essentially idealist in their orientation. This led my companion to ask me an interesting question: "Has there ever been a film with an explicitly realist take on world politics?"
I went back and consulted my list of top IR films and came up empty. I then consulted Steve Walt's list and came up empty again. In theory Independence Day has some very crude balancing behavior, but let's face it, that's pretty weak beer. Both The Americanization of Emily (on my list) and Wag the Dog (on Steve's list) are very cynical movies, but I don't think the logic of realpolitik plays that big a role in either film. The best example that comes to mind is an old Star Trek episode -- A Private Little War -- but that's not a movie.
In the end, I can offer two proper film suggestions. The lesser film would be No Way Out (1987), but I can't explain why this is a realist movie without spoiling the ending.
The better example -- or, at a minimum, the better film -- would be The Godfather (1972), which is not exactly about international relations, but is about negotiating an anarchic environment. For more on this selection, see John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell's The Godfather Doctrine, which started as an article in The National Interest. As they argue:
Unlike Tom [Hagen], whose labors as family lawyer have produced an exaggerated devotion to negotiation, and Sonny [Corleone], whose position as untested heir apparent has produced a zeal for utilizing the family arsenal, Michael has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument. Instead, his overriding goal is to protect the family's interests and save it from impending ruin by any and all means necessary. In today's foreign-policy terminology, Michael is a realist.
Still, this is a thin list. Additional suggestions are welcomed in the comments.
Longtime readers might recall this August post about how international relations theory would cope with a zombie attack, which in turn prompted further blog inquiries from other disciplines.
The trigger for that post was a mathematical simulation by Carelton University researchers that came to a bummer of a conclusion:
An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead.... A zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly.
Well, hold everything! Richard Nielson at the Social Science Statistics Blog alerts us to new research on the matter from Blake Messer:
The latter problem may be less intuitive so I'll explain my reasoning: Humans who survive the initial outbreak survive for a reason. Disproportionately, they were faster, smarter, and stronger to begin with than their fallen peers. Even if they weren't, they were luckier and have probably been able to, at least, find a more defensible location than where they started at round zero of the outbreak, increasing their chances of survival simply by virtue of having survived the early rounds of the outbreak.
So, I constructed a computational agent-based zombie outbreak model to test how my assumptions might alter the solution.
His result seems pretty encouraging:
[T]he [Carelton University] team's model leaves something more profound out the equation: human capacity for ex-post organization and response. When accounting for these things, I can find scenarios of large initial zombie outbreaks that, when followed by quick adoption of strong anti-zombie defense policies may help pockets, or even large fractions of civilization to ward off the impending doom of mass zombie infection! How exciting!
Phew!! Sounds like an uprising of the undead won't be as calamitous as we originally thought.
Except that then we get to Gabriel Rossman's sociological take:
[If] the Romero movies have taught us anything, it’s that the defensive resources are only effective if they aren’t sabotaged by the internal squabbles of humans. (If you’re not familiar with Romero’s movies, think of what Newman from Seinfeld did in “Jurassic Park”). Thus you’d have to add another parameter, which is the probability in any given period that some jackass sabotages the defensive perimeter, steals the battle bus, etc. If such sabotage eliminates or even appreciably reduces the “safe area” efficacy then human survival in the “safe areas” is contingent on the act of sabotage not occurring....
So a more elaborated model would not only have to add in parameters for spatial heterogeneity, but also human sabotage.
The man has a point. Indeed, other zombie enthusiasts have made related points:
[T]he prospect of a zombie apocalypse actually represents a chance to throw off the constrictive fetters of society, shoot your neighbours in the face, steal some guns and a car, and drive off into the sunrise, taking along only those friends and family you trust and care about the most. As such, it represents a simplifying of life.
However, part of what needs to be figured out is whether there is any organizational cohesion in the wake of a zombie attack. As the Carnegie school of political organizations would suggest, organizations exist in part to compensate for the
stupidity bounded rationality of individuals. Perhaps hierarchy and standard operating procedures in the wake of zombie attacks would help prevent the kind of sabotage discussed by Rossman.
And yet. If bureaucratic conflicts and organizational pathologies hamper effective counter-terrorism policies, imagine the effect they would have on anti-zombie policies. The bureaucratic turf wars would be significant. Quelling the rise of the undead would require significant interagency coordination. In the United States, one could easily envisage major roles for the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Health and Human Services. This does not include autonomous or semi-autonomous agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control, and the myriad intelligence agencies.
So the ability of organizations to adapt to an army of the undead is an open question. Clearly, further research in this area is desperately needed.
I can't believe I watched the whole thing -- the 2010 Academy Awards show made Avatar seem tightly paced. Seriously, the show went downhill the moment Neil Patrick Harris left the stage. To be fair, there were no real surprises among the actual winners, draining any suspense from the proceedings.
Of course, this is a Foreign Policy blog -- so are there any lessons that can be drawn about world politics from such a pop culture phenomenon? Actually, yes:
1) Clearly, security studies trumps international political economy when it comes to the Academy Awards. I noted yesterday that Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds were all about war and resistance. Those films received ten academy awards. The only nominated film that addressed IPE was Up in The Air, and it got shut out.
2) That said, the awards also suggest that in Hollywood, Thucydides' dictum that "the strong do what they can, the weak do what they must" does not entirely hold. Despite being the highest grossing picture in history, Avatar got clobbered by The Hurt Locker. So much for financial power translating into prestige. That said, I'm pretty sure Kathryn Bigelow could take James Cameron in a fight, so maybe there was a different kind of power at work here.
3) Hey, that was some hard-core bargaining going on between Disney and Cablevision as the awards show was beginning.
4) The person with the greatest amount of "soft power" in Hollywood? Tina Fey. The woman could be paired with an eggplant and she'd get the eggplant some laughs.
5) Clearly, the Academy Awards has problems dealing with asymmetric threats. How else do you explain a three-minute homage to horror films in which the entire zombie genre gets less than a second of screen time??!!! Hello?! Chucky from Child's Play got a longer shot, for crying out loud!
One final thought: if there was any justice in the world, the Best Visual Effects Oscar would have been a tie between Demi Moore and Michelle Pfeiffer. In general, I found a rough but direct correlation between age and fashion sense. The older the actress, the more chic they looked.
Post your own thoughts in the comments.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
That said, this evening's festivities are a bit odd, in that there are so many mortal locks in the major categories. Christoph Waltz is gonna win for Best Supporting Actor, Mo'Nique is gonna win for Best Supporting Actor, Jeff Bridges is gonna win for Best Actor, and so forth.
For reasons that passeth all understanding, Salma Hayek did not appear in a Major Prestige Picture. This leaves the Best Actress category is a bit more muddled. Unfortunately, I fear that Sandra Bullock will win in a year when Gabourey Sidibe, Carey Mulligan and especially Meryl Streep gave better performances.
It's interesting that these are the three films being talked about, since they're all war pictures, even though they're operating in very different keys. Long-time readers know how I feel about Avatar, so I won't regurgitate it here. I finally saw The Hurt Locker last night. It's much better than Avatar -- there are nuances to the characters and everything -- its massive adrenaline rush began to wear off about two-thirds of the way into the picture (though the final 10 minutes are better than entire hours of Avatar). And as that rush worse off, so did the willing suspension of disbelief.
Then there's Charli Carpenter, who's rooting for the Basterds:
Tarantino has done what he always does best, though not always in the same way - something unexpected that makes us uncomfortable. Partly because so many of the uncomfortable conversations the film would have sparked are about one of the most important moral issues of our day: the limits of just war theory. And partly because Basterds does something most films don't do: make us think about film itself as it ties into power politics.
In what is likely a sign of advanced aging, the film I'll be pulling for is Up -- because the directors of this movie had the audacity and skill to put this effortlessly heartbreaking sequence into a children's movie. Oh, and because of Dug.
I'll live-tweet the show itself, with a wrap-up post sometime in the morrow.
This glut of cruddy romantic movies has prompted Jessica Grose to ask a puzzler over at Slate: what is the worst date movie of all time? Her vote is for the Julia Roberts/Clive Owen/Natalie Portman/Jude Law film Closer.
Back in the early days of courting the Official Blog Wife, we were spending a lovely, romantic vacation weekend together. This was the kind of trip when I was able to forget about the rest of the world and focus on the inherent awesomeess of my bride-to-be. Everything about those three days was perfect -- until the very end of the third day. We were walking along a boardwalk and came upon a movie theater, which was playing a matinee of a film that I had really been wanting to see in the theater.
"Let's go see it!" I said. My future wife, still in the throes of vacation bliss, agreed.
The movie was.... Crimson Tide:
I know, I know. Unless you're into sub movies like Run Silent, Run Deep, Das Boot, or The Hunt For Red October -- and, as an IR film geek, I am so into these movies -- this genre is likely the absolute worst date movie you can take a date. A lesson I learned the hard way fifteen years ago. To this day, when I see Crimson Tide on cable, I feel a little shiver run down my spine. I'll still watch it, of course -- but shivering. When the wife and I are flipping channels and we see it on cable together, she emits a noise that no English word can precisely capture. I'm sure there's a long German word that fits the bill -- something that combines derision and dread, but still leavened with a bit of tenderness.
My dear readers, if you are so lucky as to find a soulmate that shares an enthusiasm for a particular movie genre -- zombies, for example -- then enjoy that shared interest to the hilt on a date movie. Otherwise, do the right thing and go rent The Philadelphia Story.
Having now seen Avatar, I'm not surprised that the political reviews of the film either go in the direction of Adam Cohen's paean to its cultural sensitivity in the New York Times ("The plot is firmly in the anti-imperialist canon, a 22nd-century version of the American colonists vs. the British, India vs. the Raj, or Latin America vs. United Fruit") or Analee Newitz's takedown of Avatar as the uber-example of White Man's Guilt at IO9 ("Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades").
It's because, for all the 3D wonder that is evident on screen, this is a movie with two-dimensional characters and two-dimensional storytelling -- and you will either embrace those dimensions or not. What you can't do is escape them when watching the film. Any time your brain tries to inject possible subtleties into the story, director James Cameron is lurking around the corner to whack you over the head with some 3D crowbar to make it absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong. This is screenwriting that makes George Lucas' second Star Wars trilogy look multi-layered by comparison.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]. To demonstrate the absurdities that Cameron is willing to go, here are two plot points that make absolutely no sense whatsoever:
1) The Omaticaya clan of the Na'Vi is forced to flee because the humans have destroyed their Hometree. The movie takes great pains to show how the humans wreaked unbelievable amounts of carnage in the process. So, what's the very first thing the Omaticaya do after becoming refugees? Bury their dead? Care for their sick? Nope. Why, they drop everything to attempt to save the life of the human scientist played by Sigourney Weaver! Never mind that, based on the movie, Weaver's character has contributed exactly nothing to saving the Omaticaya. This is exactly what a people stripped of their homeland would attempt to do!!
2) The movie makes it very clear that the only reason humans are on Pandora is to acquire the "unobtanium" on the planet -- the richest source of which happens to be under the Hometree. So, after the destruction of Hometree, do the evil rapacious humans proceed to stripmine the ground to get at the mineral? No, that would be too logical -- they decide they must wipe out the rest of the Na'Vi in a "pre-emptive" strike. Because suddenly it's much more important to exterminate out the indigenous population than to extract the resources!
Charli Carpenter, who liked the movie more than I did, correctly concludes, "the brilliance of this film is not that it makes you think - it doesn't. You will enjoy it more if you don't try. However, it does makes you feel." Unless you try to think about it -- then you're in trouble.
I'm probably too much of a technological Whig to care for narratives like this one, but just once, I'd like to see a film that embraces the complexities of how indigenous cultures incorporate new ideas and new technologies into their societies. In other words, some movie producer really needs to hire Tyler Cowen as a technical consultant.
[NOTE TO 2011 AND BEYOND READERS OF THIS POST: If you like what you read here, then trust me, you'll love the book that came from it: Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press, 2011). This post is where it all began!!]
Alex Massie alerts us to this BBC story about modeling who would win if the dead actually did rise from the grave:
If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively.
That is the conclusion of a mathematical exercise carried out by researchers in Canada.
They say only frequent counter-attacks with increasing force would eradicate the fictional creatures....
To give the living a fighting chance, the researchers chose "classic" slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films....
[T]heir analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.
In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often".
They added: "It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."
Now, one could argue that this finding represents a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. On the other hand, the report has clear freaked out Alex Massie:
[The researchers] are cheating. It's like something out of Dad's Army: You can't fight like that, it's not in the rules... Then again, if we can be destroyed by Zombie 1.0, just think how powerless we'd be when confronted by Next Generation Zombies...
To try to make Massie feel better let's have some fun with this and ask a different question -- what would different systemic international relations theories* predict regarding the effects of a zombie outbreak? Would the result be inconsequential -- or World War Z?
A structural realist would argue that, because of the uneven distribution of capabilities, some governments will be better placed to repulse the zombies than others. Furthermore, anyone who has seen Land of the Dead knows that zombies are not deterred by the stopping power of water. So that's the bad news.
The good news is that these same realists would argue that there is no inherent difference between human states and zombie states. Regardless of individual traits or domestic instiutions, human and zombie actors alike are subject to the same powerful constraint of anarchy. Therefore, the fundamental character of world politics would not be changed. Indeed, it might even be tactically wise to fashion temporary alliances with certain zonbie states as a way to balance against human states that try to exploit the situation with some kind of idealistic power grab made under the guise of "anti-zombieism." So, according to realism, the introduction of zombies would not fundamentally alter the character of world politics.
A liberal institutionalist would argue that zombies represent a classic externality problem of... dying and then existing in an undead state and trying to cause others to do the same. Clearly, the zombie issue would cross borders and affect all states -- so the benefits from policy coordination would be pretty massive.
This would give states a great opportunity to cooperate on the issue by quickly fashioning a World Zombie Organization (WZO) that would codify and promnulgate rules on how to deal with zombies. Alas, the effectiveness of the WZO would be uncertain. If the zombies had standing and appealed any WZO decision to wipe them out, we could be talking about an 18-month window when zombies could run amok without any effective regulation whatsoever.
Fortunately, the United States would likely respond by creating the North American F*** Zombies Agreement -- or NAFZA -- to handle the problem regionally. Similarly, one would expect the European Union to issue one mother of a EU Directive to cope with the issue, and handle questions of zombie comitology. Indeed, given that zombies would likely be covered under genetically modified organisms, the EU would trumpet the Catragena Protocol on Biosafety in an "I told you so" kind of way. Inevitably, Andrew Moravcsik would author an essay about the inherent superiority of the EU approach to zombie regulation, and why so many countries in Africa prefer the EU approach over the American approach of "die, motherf***ers, die!!" Oh, and British beef would once again be banned as a matter of principle.
Now, avid followers of social constructivism might think that Wendt and Duvall (2008) have developed a model that would be useful for this kind of event... but you would be wrong. Back when this paper was in draft stage, I specifically queried them about wther their argument about UFOs could be generalized to zombies, vampires, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Elvis, etc. Their answer was an emphatic "no": aliens would be possessors of superior technology, while our classic sci-fi canon tells us that the zombies, while resistant to dying, are not technologically superior to humans. So that's a dead end.
Instead, constructivists would posit that the zombie problem is what we make of it. That is to say, there are a number of possible emergent norms in response to zombies. Sure, there's the Hobbesian "kill or be killed" end game that does seem to be quite popular in the movies. But there could be a Kantian "pluralistic anti-Zombie" community that bands together and breaks down nationalist divides in an effort to establish a world state. Another way of thinking about this is that the introduction of zombies creates a stronger feeling of ontological security among remaining humans -- i.e., they are not flesh-eaters (alas, those bitten by zombies are now both physically and ontologically screwed).
Unfortunately, I fear that constructivists would predict a norm cascade from the rise of zombies. As more and more people embrace the zombie way of
undead life, as it were, the remaining humans would feel social pressure to conform and eventually internalize the norms and practices of zombies -- kind of like the early-to-middle section of Shaun of the Dead. In the end, even humans would adopt zombie-constructed perceptions of right and wrong, and when it's apprpriate to grunt in a menacing manner.
Now, some would dispute whether neoconservatism is a systemic argument, but let's posit that it's a coherent IR theory. To its credit, the neoconservatives would recognize the zombie threat as an existential threat to the human way of life. Humans are from Earth, whereas zombies are from Hades -- clearly, neoconservatives would argue, zombies hate us for our freedom not to eat other humans' brains.
While the threat might be existential, accomodation or recognition are not options. Instead, neocons would quickly gear up an aggressive response to ensure human hegemony. However, the response would likely be to invade and occupy the central state in the zombie-affected area. After creating a human outpost in that place, humans in neighboring zombie-affected countries would be inspired to rise up and overthrow their own zombie overlords. Alas, while this could happen, a more likely outcone would be that, after the initial "Mission Accomplished" banner had been raised, a fresh wave of zombies would rise up, enmeshing the initial landing force -- which went in too light and was drawn down too quickly -- in a protracted, bloody stalemate.
Readers are hereby encouraged in the comments to posit other IR theoretical prediction of the response to a zombie uprising. For example, would the zombie uprising confirm Marxist predictions about the revolt of the proletariat?
*Alas, your humble blogger does not have the time to puzzle out the zombie effect on two-level games.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Your humble blogger is fully aware that everyone and their mother has been blogging and writing about the big Obama speech from yesterday. Why, you might ask, have I been silent? [I might, I might indeed!--ed.]
It's a combination of four things:
To observe that they inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean. The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.
Clearly, Sam Mendes is not the film equivalent of de Tocqueville. This, of course, leads to a vital film question: who is the cinematic equivalent of Alexis de Tocqueville?
In FP's sister publication Slate, Fred Kaplan critiques Steve Walt's list of top ten international relations films, as well as my own ("neither of them gives our own film critic, Dana Stevens—or, for that matter, Gene Shalit—the slightest cause for worry.") In an act of sheer bravado, Kaplan then goes on to list 25 other films that he thinks are better than any of either Walt's film or mine.
To which I say -- oh, it is so on now, Kaplan!! You want to throw down on films? Let's throw down!!
[Wouldn't this have been a more succinct reply?--ed. Yeah, I was going for more Jack Nicholson-crazy voice, but that works, sure.]
First of all, what act of hubris could make Kaplan claim that any film on his top-25 list is better than Dr. Strangelove? It's like making a top ten best film list and consciously omitting Citizen Kane. There's no point to it except sheer bloody-mindedness. Dr. Strangelove captures all of the absurdities of the Cold War in one neat package ("Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"). I didn't elaborate on that point in my original post for the same reason the world doesn't need another essay extolling Orson Welles' masterpiece -- it's an exercise in redundance.
Second, Kaplan reacts to my fave flick, The Lion in Winter, as follows: "Um, OK: a strange choice, especially for the top of the list, but there's a daring quality about it." This leads me to wonder if Kaplan has actually seen the film (and, full disclosure, I haven't seen some of the films on Kaplan's list, such as The Lives of Others. From what I've heard, many of these films would likely have been on my list had I seen them. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, however, you make top ten lists with the films you've seen, not the films you wish you've seen). This is a movie about a powerful but aging leader desperate to ensure that the gains his country has achieved under his rule persist after he is gone. To do this, he has to outwit a foreign leader and plenty of domestic (in both senses of the word) adversaries. This movie is filled with strategizing, backroom dealing, bluffing, backstabbing, balacing, bandwagoning, and an waful lot of shouting. In other words, a typical day in world politics.
Third, and more interesting, is defining what makes a movie a movie about international relations. Kaplan nitpicks at Wag the Dog because "it's more about domestic politics than international affairs." He similarly picks on Seven Days in May because it "isn't really about international politics." Part of studying global affairs, however, is investigating the interplay between domestic politics and and international relations. Wag the Dog is about how domestic difficulties can translate into foreign policy escapades (or staged foreign policy escapades). Seven Days in May is clearly about civil-military relations, but on an abstract level it's about the difficulties of implementing international agreements over the resistance of powerful domestic interests.
Now, all this said, I can't deny the quality of some of Kaplan's selections. The moment I posted my list, I started kicking myself because I forgot about The Godfather. It really is the perfect metaphor about international relations -- alternating levels of tension and calm punctuated by occasional bouts of violence.
As for Kaplan's other films, Goodbye, Lenin! is also an inspired choice. Thirteen Days is less inspired -- I could never get past Kevin Costner's atrocious accent. On the other hand, I do have a soft spot for 1974's The Missiles of October.
Finally, a few other films that got omitted from all of our lists but merit further conversation:
1. A Fish Called Wanda (1988): One could argue that the Anglo-American alliance was the most significant relationship for much of the twentieth century. This film, on the cultural differences that exist within the special relationship, is worth multiple viewings. In a perfect world, watch this with a mix of Americans and Brits -- they laugh at different parts.
2. Traffic (2000): The debilitating effects of drugs -- and the drug war -- on both sides of the Rio Grande makes for interesting viewing. Plus, there's a terrific Salma Hayek cameo.
3. Henry V (1944) and Henry V (1989): Alex Massie makes a good point here: "the Olivier and Branagh versions remind one that an individual text may be subject to more than one interpretation. Plus, of course, there's an awful lot of Just War theorising to be done on the back of Henry V."
As a film buff, I was keen to see Steve Walt's top ten list of "movies that tells us something about international relations more broadly."
Someone once said that the only proper way to critique a film is by making another film. Following that logic, I think the only way to critique Steve's list is to make my own.
Using Steve's criteria, the overlap between our top ten list is pretty small: Dr. Strangelove and Casablanca. It's not that I hate the other films -- I just think there are better, more entertaining movies out there that highlight some interesting aspects of world politics. Here are eight other films I think are essential watching for international relations junkies:
8. Burnt By the Sun (1994)
The tension in Nikita Mikhailkov's film comes from the juxtaposition of the terror that comes from living in a totalitarian society and the beauty on screen that comes from a family vacation in the Russian countryside.
7. Seven Days in May (1964)
This Rod Serling-scripted, John Frankenheimer-directed movie is the film to watch when musing about civil-military relations, particularly in the United States.
6. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Buried within this romp about two Mexican teenagers going on a road trip with a very attractive woman is a lot of subtext about the ways in which globalization has affected Mexico. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but director Alfonso Cuarón is quite deft in making his points without banging you on the head repeatedly to do it.
5. Conspiracy (2001)
Hannah Arendt wrote about the "banality of evil." This movie -- a real-time recreation of the 1942 Wansee Conference -- is the best evocation of Arendt's theme. Plus, any movie where Colin Firth plays a Nazi is guaranteed to shock.
4. The Americanization of Emily (1964)
An absurdist tale about bureaucratic politics and public relations during wartime. James Garner was the perfect actor to play the protagonist. Possibly the only movie ever made to extol cowardice as a virtue.
3. The Day After (1983)
An ABC television movie that sparked a great deal of controversy when it aired during one of the peaks of Cold War tensions. It's far from a perfect film -- I mean, c'mon, Steve Guttenberg is in it -- but I actually prefer it to Dr. Strangelove on one important dimension. It does a much better job than Kubrick's film at evoking the latent dread that people felt during the Cold War about the possibility of global thermonuclear war. I'm glad this dread has largely disappeared from global consciousness, but there's a part of me that wants younger generations to see this movie periodically just to remember what it feels like.
2. Children of Men (2007)
No top ten list about IR films is complete without a good dystopia flick. The premise (global infertility) is a bit of a stretch, but if you accept that, the rest of the movie seems like an effortless, logical extension of how civilization would respond to such a pandemic. Also directed by Alfonso Cuarón, incidentally. The action sequences are jaw-dropping.
1. The Lion in Winter (1967)
How do you make a movie about the strengths and limits of rational choice in international politics? It helps if you have Peter O'Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton, and biting dialogue.
OK, readers, which flicks did I miss?
It's Oscar season, and the general consensus seems to the that the actual Oscar nominations mostly suck eggs.
So, playing off this Tyler Cowen post about economists in the movies, I began to wonder if the problem is that movies need to have more political scientists in them. After all, how many political scientists -- as opposed to politicians -- have been portrayed on film?
The answer appears to be "not many." Some of the people on Tyler's list -- Carl Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted, for example -- qualify for political science as well. Independent of Cowen's list, however, I could only think of three movie characters who were clearly identified as political scientists:
This is pretty thin gruel.
Of course, that could be because our jobs are boring, or it could be because political scientists are "incredibly uncool, socially inept, and about as socially connected to high society as Gomer Pyle on crystal meth."
Question to readers: I'm sure that there are poli sci characters in movies that I am missing. Who are they?
Slumdog Millionaire won the Golden Globe for Best Drama this past Sunday, presaging a strong run for the Best Picture Oscar -- provided it can deal with the inevitable blowback. And there will be blowback.
Without giving anything away, the movie is undeniably the feel-good flick of the year. The love story at its core, however, is tissue-thin. Dev Patel really does deserve an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, because he manages to give his character's motivations far more emotional longing than the story justifies.
What I'm very curious about, however, is how the film will play in India. The movie has yet to be released on the subcontinent. According to the Associated Press, the film will open there on January 23rd. The story also explains why it might not play too well in India:
[S]cenes of Mumbai's filthy vast slums have drawn criticism from some viewers. Indian poverty is a delicate issue here, particularly when it is raised by outsiders [Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire, is British-DD]. While India has gone through spectacular economic growth over the past decade, about 400 million people — more than the entire population of the United States — are believed to live on less than $1 a day.
This is serious -- if Indians pan the movie, its shot at an Oscar is... er... shot.
Still, I suspect that the Dickensian fable will play well in the country where it is set. One criticism of the movie is that it paints the slums of Mumbai as too colorful and sanitized.
Readers who have seen the movie: does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.