Political Film Society - Newsletter #31 - December 1, 1998

December 1, 1998


In The Siege, nominated for the best film of 1998 raising consciousness of the need to protect both DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS, Edward Zwick (director of Courage Under Fire and Glory) poses a hypothetical: What if terrorism graduated from retail bombings to wholesale slaughter in New York City? What would government authorities do? Would the conventional FBI and local police departments be shuffled into the background by a declaration of martial law? After all, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, martial law was imposed on the South after the Civil War, Japanese Americans were incarcerated arbitrarily during World War II, and the Territory of Hawai`i was under military rule after December 7, 1941. In this film, the military does indeed impose martial law in Brooklyn, rounds up Arab-looking Americans, and sees torture of prisoners as a necessary step to root out terrorists. However, the protagonist forces the military to back down when he points out that martial law so abandons democratic values as to raise the ante on terrorism. The film also makes the point that if terrorism gain a foothold in the United States, this could be because terrorists have been trained by the U.S. military for foreign low-intensity warfare and then provided sanctuary in the United States. Although many film critics found the political statement to be too didactic, the film clearly is intended to tell filmviewers to be watchful of their liberties, which can be jettisoned too easily by powerful forces, and to note that terrorism is one of Washington’s exports.

In contrast, Enemy of the State demonstrates in depth how terrorism and other high crimes can be fought, using the technology of electronic eavesdropping, communication satellites, and computer hacking, thus making privacy obsolete. Although most filmviewers will doubtless assume that the high-tech gadgetry is yet another Hollywood fantasy of director Tony Scott (of Crimson Tide and Top Gun fame), in fact Big Brother technology does exist, is used, and the potential to track the movements of ordinary citizens is in the hands of government as well as those in the private sector who have manufactured devices that can be used to invade our privacy.

Anyone, the film demonstrates, can be caught up in a surveillance nightmare, and those controlling the technology depicted in the film can also fabricate news stories to discredit us, freeze our bank accounts, and plant electronic bugs on our person and in our homes. Also nominated for the best film in the categories of DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS, Enemy of the State highlights a more insidious reality than the hypothetical premise of The Siege, yet both films serve as wake-up calls to remind us that assumptions about our civil liberties and democratic freedoms cannot be taken for granted.

In Predrag Antonijevic’s Savior, the protagonist (Dennis Quaid) spends most of the film as a terrorist. An American whose spouse and son are killed by a terrorist bomb in Paris, throws a bomb in a mosque, joins the Foreign Legion, and ends up fighting for the Bosnian Serbs as a terrorist, inflicting atrocities in acts of self-preservation while fighting along-side sadistic Serbian terrorists. In a change of heart reminiscent of Edward Norton’s turnaround in American History X, Dennis Quaid portrays a terrorist who at some point can no longer stomach brutal killing and prefers to save an innocent woman and her child. Nominated as a film that raises consciousness of the need for PEACE rather than violence in resolving conflicts, Savior is filmed in Bosnia, a beautiful land in which nature is at peace but humans are at war of the most brutal sort. Oliver Stone, among the film’s producers, doubtless found the quagmire of Vietnam relived in the obscenity of Bosnia while humming "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

DEMOCRACY: Enemy of the State, Four Days in September, Primary Colors, The Siege, The Truman Show, Wag the Dog
EXPOSÉ: Bulworth, Four Days in September, Regeneration
HUMAN RIGHTS: Enemy of the State, The Siege, Wilde
PEACE: American History X, The Boxer, Men with Guns, Regeneration, Saving Private Ryan, Savior