the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Patriot Games (1992)

The Hunt For A Good Tom Clancy Movie

  Tom Clancy is the undisputed king of the popular spy novel. He has single-handedly invented the techno-thriller. Graham Greene and John Le Carre spend pages plumbing the  souls of the cold warriors. Mr. Clancy is more at home with the inner workings of their props and routines. The old school focused on the man. Mr. Clancy zeroes in on his schedule and toys. This in a sense is the same evolution James Bond experienced (or suffered). In "Dr.No" we were interested in Bond himself by "Goldfinger" his car seemed more appealing. Clancy, however, gives the gadget gimmick a new life. Bond is in every sense a superhuman, a comic book spy: entertaining - yes, real - no. The unworldly cars, planes, guns… buttress his superhuman qualities and firmly place Mr. Bond in the world of fantasy. Mr. Clancy takes the opposite approach and uses the knowledge of "unworldly" props (Trident subs, missiles, training procedures…) to place the reader in the heart of the "real-life" clandestine world of espionage.  Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" rarely touched on the individual character's themselves but rather Clancy's knack for minutia. "How did he know all that?", "This book should be classified!" were typical reactions. This is not to say people did not enjoy the book. Mr. Clancy created a passionate following. I remember being cornered after confessing to not reading spy-novels: "No Bram this is different this isn't just a spy novel; its how things really work, it's reality." I was not totally convinced but I did look forward to the film. Of course I knew there would be a film - the success of the book combined with the subject matter. I heard, I waited, I went; I was disappointed.

 "Patriot Games" is the newest of no doubt a number of Clancy books which will be turned into films. Once again I was disappointed. I began to wonder why these two popular blockbuster thriller suspense novels made for such lackluster ponderous movies. Was the problem in the direction or in the material in its original form? It would seem that even in the hands of the most untalented craftsman the substance of the Clancy works would carry themselves through with the minimum of downtime. "Patriot Games", for example, centers around the IRA assassinating a member of the royal family. An ex-CIA man, Harrison Ford, becomes embroiled in a messy shoot-out in London and incurs the wrath of a psychopath murderer bent on revenge against not only Ford but his pregnant wife and young daughter. The film goes from car chases in Maryland to terrorist training camps in Libya. On the surface, such a film might be badly made, but how in the world could it be boring? The answer lies in the material itself not in the direction.

    Strange as it may seem, Clancy's works should be reserved for filmmakers at the peek of their abilities.  Clancy's strongest suit, his emphasis on techno-jargon and "authenticity", are not inherently filmic. A writer will be able to impress his audience with attention to detail and a turn of phrase but how does that material translate on the screen? In Clancy's case the director's have focused on the plot line and turned everything else over to the art department. This is a critical mistake. The "plot" is not what makes a Clancy novel; it's the "attention to detail". This focus on minutia makes the reader feels he is an insider; a fly on the wall at CIA headquarters. The movies are simply melodrama.  A Tom Clancy movie is in effect the opposite of a Tom Clancy novel. The "reality", "insiders view" is transformed into a James Bond comic book fantasy. Unfortunately, since Clancy abandons character development in favor of techno-tid bits, the films lack the 007 himself: Does anyone remember the name of the central figure in the Hunt for Red October? Does anyone really care about Harrison Ford's (the name of the character escapes me) relationship with the CIA or his surgeon wife? The audience is left with tiresome stock characters falling into obvious plot lines which are dictated by a cursory view of international affairs. 

    How can Clancy's knack for description and technical detail be successfully translated to the screen? The key lies in giving the machines and technology a human face. The most successful moments in "The Hunt for Red October" dealt with the sonar expert who initially discovers the Russian submarine. In these, all too brief, scenes there is a successful merger of techno-jargon and plot line via a "colorful" character. (Pardon the pun - the audio expert happens to be a person of color but he is not vulgar racist characterture). The audience is presented with an audio virtuoso, who plays his highly sophisticated unworldly equipment like a concert pianist. More importantly he translates his obvious expertise into easy to understand language which fits beautifully with the drama. The sub has disappeared and they must be using a new type of engine because… The drama of the film comes to life. The audience is being technically "wowed" by a genuine figure who "knows his stuff". If only the Sean Connery character and the forgettable American were as "real" and interesting. (As for the American - saccharine touches e.g. bringing his daughter the Teddy Bear are the opposite of endearing)
    Speaking of the opposite of endearing let us examine Harrison Ford and his family in "Patriot Games". From the get go there was trouble: that cutesy opening sequence of them all playing monopoly. I was waiting for the young daughter to turn to her parents and start professing the desire to turn the world into a better place by working for "Dow Chemical". Harrison Ford and the wife could have started singing "Dow makes you do great things." I'm not sure the opposite approach, i.e. a dysfunctional family with a drug or incest problem, would have made any difference. This family, no matter how you slice it, was simply a group of set pieces which clumsily move the plot along. They were the first of an entire cast of bowling pins. (Actually bowling pins are more interesting because you never know which way they will fall.)  The only moment in this film which caught the spirit of the techo-thriller was when the CIA assassinates the terrorists in Libya. This scene, although saddled with self-conscious editing, was the diamond in the rough. Harrison Ford unexpectedly walks into a room filled with screens and satellite tracking devises. Quietly strange images appear. They are explained, in brilliantly casual understatement, as army troops attacking the terrorists. Silhouettes of soldiers and helicopters surround barely discernible human figures asleep in tents. The blobs in the tents move and tumble as flashes of light engulf them. One blob in particular is singled out as an officer in the room breaks the casual techno-chatter with a cat call and a clenched fist, "Hooray!". The horror on Harrison Ford's face truly reflects the horror of modern warfare.  It is the scene which gives anyone who witnessed the Gulf War on CNN a moment of pause.  This is the heart of the techno-thriller. Not the technology but the humanness. The technology only aids a modern audience in identifying with the action thereby making things "real".

    Can the intensity and inherent drama of this particular scene be sustained throughout a film? The answer is: Fail Safe. Sidney Lumet's "Fail Safe" is the father of all cinematic techo-thrillers. Here is a feature which successfully transforms the sange foid of modern high-tech drama into true human drama. "Fail Safe" brilliantly interweaves complicated modern war systems and the men behind them. A balance is struck. There are all the gadgets: nuclear bombers, warning systems… all the procedures: explanations of first strike attacks, fail safe points… and most importantly all the dedicated technicians running the equipment. An interesting case in point is "Fail Safe's" nuclear bomber pilot.  The heartfelt emotion in Lumet's film is gripping: the pilot chooses duty, turns off his radio, which is blaring the voice of his desperate pleading wife; and continues on a suicidal mission. Nowhere can anything that comes close to this level of feeling be found in either of the Clancy films. It is particularly interesting to note that the central themes of "Patriot Games" revolve around family and duty. Lumet manages to capture what the Clancy film so desperately tried to show (i.e. the eternal bond between husband and wife) without even showing the pilot and his wife together. (So much for cutesy monopoly scenes.) As for realism: I doubt anyone watching "Fail Safe", even thirty years after its debut, does not engage in some sort of serious discussion about nuclear war. Its realism will haunt audiences thirty years from now even when the weapons and strategies are unrecognizable.

    "The Hunt for Red October"'s legacy will be less enthralling. It will be akin to a contemporary audience's viewing re-runs of "Secret Agent Man". There is a campy sense of gratification which can attributed to nostalgia. The discussion might turn on how young a particular actor appears or the awkward style of dress or the primitivness of the production…  So much for Clancy's realism. At the heart of vacuousness of this film is the lack of effectively integrating the technology with the characters. Take, for example, two scenes in which sounds are used to highlight important breaking moments in international intrigue. In "Hunt" we have the central turning point in the film:  the American sub and the Russian sub meeting for the first time.  One "ping" is answered by another. This is mildly more exciting than my description. Compare that with the American President talking on the phone to someone in Moscow during the nuclear attack in "Fail Safe". The President is told that when the bomb strikes the phone in Russia will melt creating a high pitched whine. I will never forget that sound. It is the audio equivalent to Edvard Monk's "the scream".

    It would be interesting to know whether "Fail Safe" was a novel before becoming a film and if so whether the balance between man and machine was weighted differently than in the movie. Regardless, Walter Bernstien's screenplay strikes the perfect chord. Lumet was given superb material. I doubt a director tackling the newest Clancy work will have as tightly crafted a screenplay. The two previous director's emphasis on Clancy's less than memorable cast of character's and his ponderous plot lines have been, cinematically speaking, failures. A more interesting approach would be to place the hollow characters in the background and give the gadgets central billing. This seems to fly in the face of the notion of emphasizing the human side of technology but in fact the characters would come to life.

  The paradigm of this approach would be Kubrick's "2001". The central character on his own terms is really not much to digest: a successful scientist with an simple family. Kubrick's juxtaposition of this "ordinary" man with his extraordinary surroundings gives the film its deep resonance. Take, for example, Kubrick's having the man place a call to his home on earth. A young girl answers the phone and talks in a non-plused, childlike way about her birthday and the fact that her mother is out. What belies this seemingly meaningless interaction is how much it comments on man and his relationship to the literally "unworldly" surroundings. This scene is a powerful statement on the immutability of the family unit and man's overall relationship to technology. The film continues this trend on a grand scale: the future of mankind is explored via an ordinary man battling a machine.  Half the film centers around a single astronaut talking to a computer. On paper this would appear tiresome; which is probably why the original short story is only ten pages long. On screen, however, Kubrick creates an tale with epic proportions. This grand scale fits well with the overall grandness of the production. As with "Fail Safe", audience no matter what the state of technology, will be deeply moved by man vs."HAL".

   It would be foolish to expect Clancy's works to have the same impact as an undisputed cinematic masterpiece. However the principles which Kubrick applied should be utilized to give these films life beyond the maddening summer hype runs.  "The Hunt" is a case in point. The story is the epic struggle between to advanced technological societies with the submarines being the metaphors for each. Make all the characters secondary to the surroundings. In a sense, as with "2001", the machines are the primary characters. There should be groups of colorful experts, akin to the sonar officer, but none should stand out; not even the captains.  In demoting the stagy Sean Connery and his forgettable American nemesis turned-ally, the focus of the drama would return to the epic struggle between the US and the USSR. The driving force of the novels, the genuineness and realism, would also reappear. This approach would also ride the film of the tiresome plot-oriented approach and the annoying daytime television charactertures.

   The same methods apply to "Patriot Games". This is a drama which pits "spy" culture against "terrorist" culture. "Good" families vs. "Bad". The emphasis should focus on the routines and rituals of both worlds. Once again, large over-blown characertures, i.e. Harrison Ford and the Irish terrorist…, would not necessarily be replaced but redrawn to establish a broad spectrum of believable people going about their lives. Technology and gadgets would, once again, play centerstage. Both cultures live and die by the sword and that sword can be extremely cinematic: e.g. the previously mentioned night battled viewed on infrared screens.

 In short Clancy's work present an interesting challenge. A filmmaker must re-evaluate what makes Clancy's work live on the screen. It is the realism not the melodrama. One should be thinking more in terms of Fred Wiseman's "Missile" rather than a "Dallas" episode that touches on international intrigue. If anyone thinks my T.V. analogy is harsh let me paraphrase a poignant moment from "Patriot Games":

                      Harrison Ford
        (having second thoughts about attacking terrorist)
I can't be sure it's them. Maybe we shouldn't attack?

We're going forward. What can you be sure of in life?

                 Harrison Ford
My daughter's love.

I'll leave on that note. This film speaks for itself and "The Hunt for Red October".

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