Tag Archives: CIA

Film Review: X-Men: First Class


Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.

The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.

The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.

We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.

Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.

What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.

Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons.  The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.

Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.

One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.

X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.

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An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 2 – Dick and the Illusory War: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


The final part of my Cold War/sci-fi/American history essay. I was especially pleased with some of the analysis of Dick’s characterisation in The Man in the High Castle but disappointed that I had to rush Do Androids Dream Electric sheep due to word limit constraints:

 

DICK AND THE ILLUSORY WAR

 

In his 1955 talk Pessimism in Science Fiction Dick argued that the collapse of belief in progress had led to an unavoidable preoccupation with doom. Hence the science fiction writer was “absoluted, obliged” to “act out the Cassandra role” of giving early warnings of the grim times to come[i].”

Huxley was not alone in believing that science fiction could act as cautionary prophecy. He was also not the only one to recognise the stagnation of genuine progress during the Cold War period. Here we see that in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, Phillip K. Dick also asserted that ordinary people’s cosy everyday realities were menaced by “grim times to come”. He felt “obliged” as a writer to highlight what he saw as the main threats.

            For Dick the most important threat seemed to be the manipulation of reality. The “doom” that fascinated him was not simply nuclear destruction but the exposure of reality as a fabrication. Again and again his enormous body of work deals with the idea of life not being what it seems and conspiracies maintaining the status quo. Often his protagonists uncover seemingly pointless and elaborate fabrications that lead them to question their own sanity. “The paranoid theme manifests itself in Dick’s novels through the discovery of institutional conspiracies to promote versions of reality for often ultimate purposes often left unspecified[ii].”In The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dick raises the idea of a ruling elite maintaining the illusion of a long since ended war, in order to maintain their positions of power. The unsuspecting public is imprisoned underground, believing a nuclear war to be raging on the surface. They are kept busy producing lead robots to fight the fake war. The illusion is maintained through state controlled media and the speeches of the “Protector”, a President-like figure “who legitimates the regime by casting the administration as selfless guardians willing to brave the dangers of radioactivity for the public good[iii].”Clearly Dick is drawing a parallel with the ideological conflict sold to the American people at this time. It’s no wonder writers like Dick questioned the Cold War, as by its nature the conflict rarely went “hot” and provided concrete evidence of fighting and if skirmishes did occur they were in far away lands. Dick would also explore the theme of illusion extensively in other novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and in so doing comment on the political fabrications of the period.

 

There were countless events that may have triggered Dick’s suspicions during the Cold War period. I have chosen two examples of illusion that seem particularly relevant to his work. The first example of Resource War as a stimulus for illusion is linked to ideas raised by Dick’s characters in The Man in the High Castle. In this novel Dick has created his own Cold War betweenGermany andJapan and superficially the reasons for their rivalry are mainly ideological, just like the real conflict. However through his characters musings on the Nazi Party’s grand schemes it emerges thatGermany’s aims are primarily the extension of its own wealth. The most imaginative scheme described is the conversion of theMediterranean into arable farm land. This project clearly has the intention of expanding the resources of the German people and improving their living standards. Ideologically driven projects of genocide are also mentioned but the emphasis is on the lifestyle available inGermany as a result of their material conquests. Dick is clearly commenting on the political conflicts of the time and questioning whether it is in fact greed rather than idealism motivating confrontations with Communism.

            The second example I give as a likely influence on Dick’s work is the myth of the Missile Gap. Dick seems to deal with the idea of producing unnecessary weapons directly in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel an illusion of war is maintained in order to control the awareness of the population and maintain a power structure. In real lifeAmerica produced nuclear weapons, rather than the robots of the novel, to deal with an invented technology gap with the Soviets. This myth was sustained by the media and Dick reflects this in the novel too.

 

We have already seen through Huxley’s criticisms that economic factors were crucial to the rivalry betweenAmericaandRussia. The notion that the Cold War was a purely ideological struggle between democracy and Communism is nonsense.Americawas concerned by the expansion of Communism because it was a system of governance that would ultimately be controlled and exploited by the Russians. The primary motivation for the Cold War was not a moral disapproval of Communism and its failings, but to sustain an economic system and therefore a way of life. The Second World War merely removed all the other competitors for the resources of the world, weakening them to such an extent that to acquire anything they must sit at the table of one of the superpowers. A century before the Second World War, it had already been observed thatAmericaandRussiawould one day be direct and supreme competitors by Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la Democratie en Amerique:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.[iv]

The Cold War fulfilled this prediction of Americaand Russiadetermining the fate of at least half the world, as there are few regions the division did not in some way consume. One of the areas particularly embroiled in competition was the Middle East. This was because oil was now the resource everyone craved, just as gold, sugar or coal had been for the competing empires of the past. As Americamade the transition from the world’s largest oil producer to its biggest importer, it scaled up its military presence in the oil rich region. In 1940 Middle Eastern oil only accounted for 5 % of world production, but by the 1950s Americahad moved to secure its potential[v]. It took advantage of British weakness following the Second World War to replace them as the dominant power in theMiddle East. TheSuez crisis of 1956 forcedAmerica to choose between her Allies taking on a dictator who was flirting with the Communists and the oil of the Arab world; it chose the oil. It also repeatedly stopped short of fully supportingIsrael, despite the power of Zionists in American politics, in order to maintain relations with oil abundant Arab states. OperationAjax, a CIA led overthrow ofIran, was carried out in response to the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were worries about Soviet plans forIran but these were concerns about the flow of oil, not the method of government or the welfare of Iranians. The Americans knew full well that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be influenced or replaced by American firms like ARAMCO or Standard Oil. The Russians, once in place, would be less accommodating.  

The Cold War was a resource war on a global scale and the resources involved were not simply fuels like oil.Americagained immensely from friendly, prosperous governments. Therefore wars like the Korean War, whilst not fought to secure control of a particular treasure, were carried out with the aim of acquiring an asset. They were also preventative, in that they halted the Russians from advancing any further and seizing land that may yield future benefits. Importantly they were clearly not ideological, as the Korean War was fought in support of a cruel dictator as tyrannous as the northern alternative, with the exception that he would do business with suited money men.

 

A recent article in The Times analyses the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The article is prompted by Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club and is headlined “Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas[vi]”. The main message of the article is “the world already has enough nuclear weapons to destroy every single nation on the planet.” Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for daring to suggest a world without nuclear weapons as President of theUnited States. However the world seems locked into a situation that makes it impossible to get rid of the destructive devices, despite a commitment by the Cold War powers to reduce their own stockpiles. This is because the hysteria of the Cold War arms race was not controlled and now the technology is far too freely available. The origins of this ludicrous ability to destroy humanity several times over lie in the pressure cooker of American politics at the beginning of the 1960s.

            The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik is partly responsible for the sheer number of nuclear armaments produced. It was not just the initial launch in 1957 but a whole series of satellites that shocked and amazed the world. The Americans had dismissed the Russian plans as propaganda but Sputnik’s radio bleeps provided the world with solid proof; Russiawas winning the technological race. The scientist Edward Teller said on television that Americahad lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbour[vii].”American pride took a severe beating and its military were also given a nasty shock at the realisation that Soviet missiles could soon be reaching US cities. The result of immense public pressure was a flurry of reactionary schemes to close the missile gap, the “technology gap, and behind that an education gap. A lasting legacy of the panic generated by Sputnik was the passing of the National Defence Education Act of 1958, in which at last the case for federal involvement in education was accepted by Congress[viii].”However not all of the schemes enacted in the hysteria were so harmlessly beneficial in the long run. As well as thousands of new university places the panic spawned thousands of new nuclear weapons. In 1959 the defence budget was increased by President Eisenhower to more than $40 billion, over half the entire federal budget. The press saw this as a long overdue response to the Sputnik crisis but a reluctant President Eisenhower had been more realistic. He knew from intelligence reports comprised of detailed photographs by U-2 spy planes, that the missile gap with the Soviets was a myth. However the top secret nature of this information meant he could not use it to ease political pressure on himself and as a result he was forced to increase the production of nuclear weapons anyway. His silence on why he felt reluctant to increase spending had already damaged his administration beyond repair. The American people turned to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960 instead of Eisenhower’s deputy Richard Nixon. Kennedy placed great emphasis on restoring America’s lead in the technological race, only to find on taking office that America was in reality already far ahead of the Soviets.

Dick chose to reflect the illusory aspects of the Cold War period in his writing. He did this in a number of ways and in many of his works, but I am choosing to focus on two of his best known novels, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the most obvious illusory element is the fake animal industry. Status within society is determined by whether or not you own an animal. This had led to a supply of fake electric animals in order to satisfy the demand. Dick may have taken inspiration for this fake industry from government reports during the Cold War that recommended the construction of futile nuclear shelters and sanctioned the sale of “private family fallout shelters” by companies at a cost of “$2,395-installation extra[ix]. Here we have a clear example of government orchestrating an illusion in order to gain profit and control. Official reports calling for nuclear shelters served the dual manipulative purpose of keeping the public in fear of attack but also making them feel that they were empowered to do something about it, thus avoiding hysteria. Allowing companies to sell private shelters to families would also have wrongly made people feel that they were taking positive action to protect their loved ones. It also allowed nuclear protection to commercialise and create an entirely new industry based on a fiction. The government directly instigated an illusion for profit.

 

The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative ending to the Second World War, in which the Axis powers triumphed. Whilst this would be a drastically different reality in many ways Dick makes a comparison with his own world by setting up Japan and Germany in a similar superpower standoff to that between the USA and USSR. He comments on the Cold War by creating an alternative one of his own, with arguably more extreme opponents. He reveals shocking snippets of information regarding world affairs in his alternate world, only through the individual musings of his characters. Indeed I think the believable characterisation in The Man in the High Castle is an important part of Dick’s representation of the theme of illusion.

The first character we meet in the story is Mr R. Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. It is interesting to analyse the way Dick introduces us to Childan, as the novel goes on to introduce us, in my view successfully, to a number of different characters. All of these characters allow us to view Dick’s alternate world from a different angle, but they are all ordinary, accessible people with narrow viewpoints. The result is a tremendously varied novel, with intertwined narrative strands converging upon one ultimate revelation.

            Dick does an excellent job of establishing Childan as a character very quickly. We soon realise that Childan is a proud business minded man firstly because he is thinking about the upcoming business of the day and then from his actions in tidying up the shop. He takes “a cup of instant tea”, which suggests he is unwilling to stop, he likes to be busy. There is also an attention to detail in his preparations that serves the dual purpose of establishing the setting of the shop in our minds and features of his character like pride and tidiness. There is some further background detail about businessmen hurrying to work, purely for purposes of realism, before a more telling detail about Childan’s character.

Women in their long colourful silk dresses…he watched them, too.[x]

Dick does several things to show us that this detail is telling. Firstly the three adjectives, “long colourful silk”, without commas, give the sentence an elongated, seductive sound. They highlight in what way Childan is looking at the women by drawing attention to their “dresses”. Dick also adds in a suggestive pause as Childan’s thoughts wander. Finally there is the “too” tagged on to the end of the sentence, which further sets it apart from other background details. Later in the novel, with Childan’s character more firmly established, Dick hints again at his vulnerability.

I always give satisfaction, Childan thought. To my customers.[xi]

Here it is the “To my customers” that Dick highlights as a telling detail. Just three words tell us an awful lot about Childan’s character and how he has allowed his professional and public appearance to dominate his life. There is a strong indication that something is missing, or of a sense of inadequacy when it comes to real relationships with people. Dick continues to drop hints relating to this theme throughout the novel, particularly when Childan has conflicting feelings about his attraction to the Japanese wife.

            Dick explores the theme of illusion through Childan in several ways. One of these I have touched on in that Childan has an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness compared to an outward professionalism. Another is the way in which Childan can recognise and dismiss one aspect of society as fabrication but not others.

The radio of the pedecab blared out popular tunes, competing with the radios of other cabs, cars and buses. Childan did not hear it; he was used to it. Nor did he take notice of the enormous neon signs with their permanent ads obliterating the front of virtually every large building.[xii]

Here Childan seems to dismiss the culture of advertisement as artificial and false. He lets it wash over him, an unavoidable aspect of his routine but not an influence upon him. He also doesn’t hear the “popular tunes”. The implication of that phrase is that the music is mass produced, lifeless rubbish, worthy merely of the background. However whilst Childan refuses to buy in to the illusion of advertisement, he readily embraces the struggle to climb the ladder of social status. At various points in the novel Childan recognises the fixed nature of the social system, determined almost entirely by race. He appears to acknowledge that his race means he will never advance beyond a certain position. And yet all of his actions in the novel are geared towards how he can advance himself and “have, even for a moment, higher place”.

            Dick also uses Childan to show how illusion can be imposed from above. He has Childan blame the Germans for the racial social structure which is constraining him and then praises them for their vision. Childan describes Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing as works of progress. He even defends what the Nazis have “achieved” in arguments with others. He reflects the theme of Resource War through Childan by having him describe ideological motivations in a way that shows they are actually material. He convinces himself Aryans are better because “Those fellows certainly looked happy. And their farms and cottages were clean[xiii].” Dick suggests that it is the strain of being occupied and ruled by the Japanese that has led Childan to hold such contradictory views at the same time. Dick’s way of showing the enormous influence the occupation has had on Childan is to have his internal monologue mimic the speech patterns of the Japanese he both hates and admires.

Has he stumbled onto correct notion, Childan wondered, that certain of the historic objects in stores such as mine…are imitations?[xiv]

 Here Dick is commenting on the long term effects of American occupation on the minds of people. Dick’s awareness of Japanese culture would have made him mindful of the effects of American occupation on the country and others likeGermany. In particular Dick must have worried about the legacy of resentment that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. He was also fully aware of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the First World War that only lead to greater slaughter. By changing Childan’s speech patterns Dick is suggesting how people can be psychologically altered under occupation in ways they don’t even realise. In a more recent examination of the issue, David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Ghostwritten has a Japanese character who has become a terrorist partly as a result of the American legacy. Today the resentment felt by many in the Muslim world towardsAmericamay have been caused by a similar process of American superiority.

Despite the various narrative strands at work in The Man in the High Castle, such as Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to launch a nuclear strike against Japan and Julia Frink’s relationship with a volatile Italian; it is ultimately The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, which gives the story its illusory message. Of course there are other elements of the narrative that are linked to the theme of illusion, such as the fake jewellery and antiques business and the uncertainty regarding the identity of agent Baynes, but it is the hope of an alternate future that provides the novel’s key illusion. The revelation at the end of the book is that the truth behind an illusion may be extremely disappointing, perhaps so much so that we might wish to return to the illusion. Here we can draw parallels with Huxley, in how the Savage fails to appreciate the Brave New World. As part of that theme of disappointment Dick deliberately leaves the fates of characters we have come to care for hanging in the balance.  This though is part of the message of The Man in the High Castle. We cannot be sure of anything.


[i] Seed, D. American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Edinburgh University Press 1999, page 135

[ii] ibid, page 136

[iii] ibid, page 137

[iv] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009

[v] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 109

[vi] Binyon, M. 2009 Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas. The Times 6 October page 28

[vii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 173

[viii] ibid, page 175

[ix] ibid, page 178

[x] Dick, P. The Man in the High Castle. Penguin Classics 2001, page 9

[xi] ibid, page 27

[xii] ibid, page 27

[xiii] ibid, page 29

[xiv] ibid, page 175

Bin Laden may be gone but extremism remains a threat to the Arab Spring’s happy ending


Not a dusty cave but a million dollar mansion. The intelligence has been meticulously gathered, the courier watched, followed and watched again. A highly trained team of professionals swoop in by helicopter and penetrate the hideout, at long last. Shots are fired and echo in the night; of course there is resistance. He won’t come quietly and perhaps they don’t want him to. After an intense fire fight, only deep silence reigns. The bullet battered body is bittersweet treasure. The hunt is over and the operation a success. No American casualties.

President Obama’s dramatic, triumphant but restrained announcement was long overdue. His predecessor had launched a largely misguided military mission across the world, with the objective to wage “war on terror”. Since the daring and devastating attacks of September 2001 though, the primary target has always been the apparent mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. There can be no doubt that his eventual death, and the American managed manner of it, will have widespread political ramifications. The significance of these, particularly in relation to the future threat of Al-Qaida, remain up for debate.

The first consequence commentators are quick to highlight is the boost to Obama’s presidency. Many are already saying that the deliverance of justice and his apparent personal involvement will prove the vital factor in tipping the balance of next year’s presidential election his way. Obama will already be the favourite and confident of securing a second term, mainly because of the meagre Republican candidates standing in his way. Sarah Palin’s ridiculous volatility makes her unelectable, whilst Donald Trump just seems ridiculous. The election will probably boil down to economic performance, as they always tend to do. But for independent voters and the more patriotically minded American, retribution for 9/11 could prove the difference between a Democrat and Republican vote. After all Bush failed to get real results and what would the new candidates offer, besides perhaps more foolhardy wars putting Americans in harm’s way?

The more globally contentious result of Bin Laden’s assassination, for that is what this was no matter how jubilant some people are, is what the future of Al-Qaida as an organisation will now be. Prime Ministers and heads of state are quick to urge “vigilance” and that the battle with extremism is not over. In a statement Tony Blair made this his key message in reaction to the news. Indeed security chiefs have even warned that the world should be on high alert and ready for a backlash; Al-Qaida will be invigorated to act soon through furious grief. But other experts are saying that apart from an initial anger driven response, we no longer have as much to fear from Al-Qaida. They are already a fading force and Bin Laden’s death is the final symbolic nail in their coffin.

Some articles are pointing to the peaceful dawn of the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, supposed Al-Qaida heartlands, revolutions are in full swing that are driven by peaceful protestors calling for democracy. Al-Qaida and indeed other extreme Islamists have failed to hijack the will of the masses in these revolts. If they cannot grasp the initiative and seize control in such turbulent times, what sort of a threat do they now pose? The evidence suggests their strength is severely diminished. Times are changing and this is a new decade of the 21st century.

I am no expert on Al-Qaida and it might be true that the evidence seems to suggest the organisation itself is growing weaker, despite Bin Laden’s encouragement of autonomous cells in numerous cities. I also listen to leaders using the word “vigilance” and can only think how hollow it sounds, how meaningless to the life of the ordinary citizen. I am inspired and awestruck by the historic peaceful stands in support of freedom being made in a growing number of Arab countries. But anyone can see that these peaceful protests are not the end of the story and they certainly don’t herald the end of extremism.

Extremism, by its nature, is pursued by ideologically brainwashed or ignorant individuals in the minority. This has always been a fact, always be known to the reasonable man, but occasionally obscured by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric and foolhardy foreign policy. The Arab Spring is driven by democracy because the majority of Arabs and Muslim share our desires, dreams and aspirations for rights. It’s not a new phenomenon, even if their sudden decision to act has created a shocking domino effect. The uprisings are a cause for immense hope and a huge step forward but they do not signal the end of extremism in these countries. And just because extremists are yet to influence the process, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

The ethical dilemmas of these conflicts and potential civil wars are already plain, illustrated best in Libya where we may or may not provide the rebels with weapons. History shows us what happened in Afghanistan where the people were armed against the Russians only to morph into the Taliban. It is difficult to know where and when the West should get involved for the best outcome. Why not Syria, right on the borders of Israel, when we’ve given support to those championing democracy in Libya?

For me the most worrying thing about the Arab Spring is what happens next, after the apparent victory and the departure of the news crews. If Gaddafi falls, hooray for Libya, but what takes his place? As rebellions ignite and swell everywhere, the outcome of the Egyptian rebellion, one of the most vital and influential countries to be gripped by trouble, is consigned to the past. Why are we not tracking the progress of democratic reform there, ensuring that something worse than a dictator cannot step into the vacuum? Why are we not helping the Egyptians achieve the democracy they covet and fought for?

Ok of course someone, somewhere is doing this job. People at the UN, in our own foreign office, are probably involved in the process. But the story of what happened next to Egypt and any other nation successful in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator is not being told in the news. And it should be. If leaders are serious about vigilance then that must be a part of it, keeping the spotlight on reform and not letting dangerous reactionaries creep in from the shadows. The public and the media should be aware of what’s going on and care beyond the drama and the headlines. I’m not saying Al-Qaida will revive in the thawing of the Arab Spring, but if we stop paying attention we can hardly complain when we find something or someone we don’t like with the reins to power and oil.

Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, perhaps as important as the Twin Towers bleeding smoke, and as Hilary Clinton said today, a time for renewed optimism and hope. It is not a time for barbaric and inflammatory jubilation, but for justice, relief and remembrance. And of course we must keep up that so called “vigilance”. Ordinary folk like us can do something more than being unnaturally wary in public places by keeping up the pressure on our media to show us the ongoing ends to their stories, not just the thrilling battlegrounds and premature triumphs.

Source Code


Source Code is being compared to almost every film under the sun. It’s Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Final Destination meets Moon meets something totally awesome by Hitchcock. If you have a goldfish memory then you might appreciate being told that it’s a bit like this year’s The Adjustment Bureau, but better. It’s an unconventional and emotional sci-fi.

Duncan Jones, apparently the offspring of David Bowie no less (I actually do some minor research for my reviews!), has followed up his 2009 critically acclaimed debut Moon with another “certified fresh” hit. His direction in Source Code is assured and you wouldn’t guess this was Jones’ first big budget feature; there’s nothing tentative about his approach. The camerawork and characterisation for a film that constantly relives the same eight minutes needs to be intricate and skilled; it remains exemplary throughout, making Source Code an irresistibly stylish and satisfying watch.

For me though it’s Ben Ripley’s taught, clever and zippy script that’s the real masterpiece. It tantalisingly drip feeds the audience information on the central premise of the Source Code; technology that allows the military to send someone into the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens must find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train before he strikes again, from inside the body of a teacher he’s never met, as he simultaneously tries to figure out what happened to him after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.  

The genius of the script is that it brilliantly builds tension and fully formed characters on top of an ethically fascinating central idea, despite being predictable on a few occasions. I guessed fairly early on, for example, who the bomber was. I could pretty much work out where things were heading for Gyllenhaal’s character. But I was still hooked and I was still knocked sideways by the surprising emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.

For some the film’s life affirming and rather cliché ending might be a turn off given the originality and sharp execution of what went before. Perhaps it’s just that my emotions are in tatters and unusually receptive to sentimentality. But for me everything that made up the thrilling ride that was the first part of Source Code, added to the emotional effect of its climax. It didn’t feel fake and soppy, but raw and real.

Gyllenhaal convinces completely as confused everyman, then as determined hero and finally as grief stricken and resigned to his fate. The film would have fallen apart had his performance not matched the material and direction. Michelle Monaghan plays fellow passenger Christina as the sort of woman you could fall for in eight minutes. The chemistry between the leads is as convincing and addictively sexy as that between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but the writing and the story as a whole here is far superior, much more intense, despite similar themes of fate and free will.

If I could explode two myths about Source Code it would be these; that it’s the best action film of the year and that Jeffrey Wright gives an awful performance. Firstly Wright simply looks poor in comparison to the other actors, Vera Farmigan, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, because he’s given the worst of the script’s dialogue; technical babble to explain the Source Code. He’s also the only two dimensional character in the whole thing, but with the exception of one particularly expositional passage his performance never spoiled things.

To its title as “action film of 2011” then. I would not describe Source Code as an action film. It is thrilling yes, it’s full of gripping drama yes, but these elements come from characters and the pacing of the plot. Fight scenes, gun fights and chases are minimal and restrained. This is not a film reliant on explosions (despite one devastating and recurring blast). If it’s stunts you’re after there will be better ones in cinemas this year. It enthrals without the set pieces.

 But if sleek, modern and thought provoking storytelling is your thing then see Source Code. It will be the best sci-fi film of 2011. It might make you cry and in the warm afterglow of this film in the spring sunshine you’ll look at everything in your life more closely. It’s unlikely Source Code will change your life but for as long as it lingers fresh in the front of your mind, you’ll appreciate it more.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.