I watched the retribution movie, Man of Fire on a plane arriving in the United States. A while earlier I watched Denzel Washington (the film’s lead character) give a rambling, unfocused acceptance speech for his Golden Globe lifetime achievement award – introduced by Tom Hanks as the actor who “defines a generation”. He certainly did not define a generation of after-dinner speakers! I lost count of the obscure people Washington listed relentlessly and thanked, just as I lost count of the faceless, mostly hapless individuals his character, Creasey, killed in cold blood and without hesitation or remorse in the movie.
Now, Man of Fire is, for me, the iconic retribution movie. Each of Creasey’s proliferating casual slayings is accompanied by echoing devotional music – you feel you are part of a eucharistic congregation. Christopher Walken, his friend and sponsor in the film, preludes the grim bloodletting, crooning, “Creasey’s art is death – he’s about to paint his masterpiece”. Earlier, to the tune of wildly sacramental music, he had failed to blow out his own brains, most likely to be found by the young, doting girl (Dakota Fanning) whom he is hired to protect. We later learn that the girl’s own father was complicit in her kidnap – as an act of love! Meanwhile, the uber-blonde mother of (Dakota) is constantly drawn to the morally and physically robust black bodyguard who contrasts with the slight, morally febrile Latin American husband. The film ends, inevitably, with Denzel giving himself up to death in a Christ-like sacrifice to rescue the girl from the kidnappers. By the movie’s end, all bit players in the kidnap have been slaughtered. The kingpin, ‘Mr. Big’, escapes, giving up $10m in exchange for his brother. “Family is everything,” he slithers down the phone to Creasey.
So far, so Hollywood. This moral and emotional mayhem is assuringly resolved for us at every step by making it clear how we distinguish the good people (white, North American, forever cool) from the bad people (almost exclusively Latin American and mostly sweating). We navigate the ethical insanity of the movie by investing into the characters our irrational fears, prejudices and weaknesses – it is a kind of glittering rubbish-bin for values we would like to chuck away….if only.
So what is Denzel doing there? Yes, he is acting – in the way an emotionally undeveloped thirteen year-old hides in a den and pretends to shoot insurgents – as I did in my own extended immaturity. But also in the classical, theatrical trope that the more vacuous the individual the more space to fill with a character. (I don’t know if Denzel is vacuous – his acceptance speech was a vacuity). But acting in the sense of giving expression to the possibilities of a character? acting in the sense of taking some threads and weaving a romantic image? acting in the sense of playing a single character as a vehicle for a historic story? To accomplish these the actor takes on a role and explores its promises and pitfalls; shapes, struggles with and dominates the role. Denzel has a role but is not required to reprise a role. He is a cipher.
This raises questions – one of the less relevant, but more fascinating is that of the size of Denzel’s moral vacuum. There he is on the stage [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZGA5wtekUE] failing utterly to live up to the ‘defining a generation’ monicker blundered at him by Tom Hanks, surrounded by his family – a father a husband – a billionaire A-list actor stumbling and shambling through what should have been a walk-in-the-park for someone who regularly plays to audiences of millions – and why? Because, he says, he forgot to bring his script. Creasey, the Nietzcschean übermensch [https://philosophynow.org/issues/93/Nietzsches_Ubermensch_A_Hero_of_Our_Time], wearily dragging himself through the treacly sludge of humanity at the foot of the mountain he once gloriously conquered – that Creasey dissolves in front of his children into a kindly, gently incompetent dad.
But it does not. For so well does Denzel play his role in the shallow grave that is this movie that he only adds to the political and social momentum that ends up with a Donald Trump in the White House. The role Denzel plays is one that says Mexicans are culturally robbers and rapists; a woman’s beauty can only be truly perceived against the backdrop of ugliness and abuse; the only thing that stands between ‘America’ (North) and ‘America made great again’ is the resolve to launder society of its detritus; that good people only do good things, while bad things are only done by bad people; and that afro-caribbean blacks have graduated to social acceptance, leaving behind the ‘spic’ latino. What did Denzel think about this as he screened the movie for his family, which he no doubt did do? But, hey, he earned around $20m for doing that movie – and there’s another lesson for his kids.
Meanwhile, Harrison Ford plays an immigration officer in the movie, Crossing Over. Here is another iconic film, for me. Utterly unlike Hollywood, it is hard to imagine how it every got to be released – but thank heavens it did. At the heart of this complex (immediately a Hollywood non-starter) movie is the story of a young adolescent muslim girl (played by Summer Bishil) who starts with making a presentation to her high-school class urging an understanding of what gave rise to 9/11 – and ends up being deported. We sympathise with her – so does Harrison Ford’s character – “what are we doing to this country – MY country!?”. We burn with the injustice of her classmates attacking her for trying to empathise with the 9/11 bombers, and more when she is forced to steal brief moments to say farewell to her mother and father, ripped from her family and turfed out of the United States under counter-terrorism legislation.
If Harrison were not in this film you might be wishing that he watched it – to moderate the murderous patriotism he plays in others of his movies (Patriot Games, Air Force One, Clear and Present Danger, Star Wars [yes!]) But, oddly, he is in the film – but, yes, he does seem to be watching it. It almost seems as though he is watching the scenes unfold with his own bemusement. This is decidedly not Harrison Ford material. Okay, Harrison wears a uniform, runs and jumps energetically, defends his country, is prompted into action-man mode with humility and reluctance – all very Harrison Ford-ie. But what is it about sympathising, not just with this hijab with a girl inside it, but also with a hippie-ish traveller who enters into a sex-bargain, and a Mexican immigrant…a MEXICAN immigrant!
To be fair, Harison Ford has been critical of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and we might infer that his patriotism is of the liberal kind. Indeed, he said in interview that he appreciated the opportunity to play something “different” in this movie – it is probably close to his beliefs.
But here’s the thing. In this highly watchable movie we see art and life criss-crossing across the features of Harrison’s face, but also in the more immediate sense that just 7 or 8 years later we have Donald Trump, and Harrison’s “MY America” is at the centre of a severe ideological weather system. And there is Harrison, not endorsing Trump, but ridiculing him. Trump said he liked Harrison’s scene in the movie Air Force One in which he throws a man off the Boing 747 with the fateful words, “get off my plane!”. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdaeVone5qA] There’s that ‘MY’ again. Harrison stares into the camera like a stern father – “it’s a movie Donald! Not like real life. But how would you know?”. Not like real life. How would Harrison know?
Harrison Ford, like Denzel Washington, uses the license of ‘the suspension of disbelief’ – that this is ‘only a movie’ – as cover for making films that nurture Donald Trump-like tendencies: again, it’s a simple fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (no it isn’t); that publicly accountable, democratic institutions like the police and the FBI are too shackled by the law and we need extra-legal action (no we don’t); that patriotism supersedes ethics and morality (no it most certainly does not); and that it’s okay to engage in violence and extra-judicial killings if it’s in a true cause and you show due reluctance to do it (we topple dictators for thinking and acting like that). It may be ‘only a movie’ to these two honourable and dutiful fathers, but to the punter this reflects real life and urges real beliefs, and they leave the cinema directly into a world far more real than the ethereal life-styles of these self-styled ‘actors’. No – I don’t think Denzel or Harrison can hide behind the pretence that they are ‘acting’. Like it or not, they are political actvists.