Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Vantage Point

Warning: contains spoilers for the movie ‘Vantage Point’

A couple of days ago I went to the debut of ‘Vantage Point’. Admittedly, I went on account of an interesting promo and the expected presence of Ayelt Zurer (this is the weird way her name is spelled in the credits). I came out after a great thriller, superbly edited and directed, excellently acted (yeah, Ayelt did as well as the rest of the cast) and serving a tight plot. Having the Oscars in mind, I definitely thought of this movie as an Oscar nominee, if not for ‘Best Picture’ then for directing, editing or acting.

Imagine my surprise reading a mediocre (at best) review which complained the movie was “right-winger’s wet dream”. The critic complains the terrorists are presented in a shallow fashion, not having even the “shadiest of motives”. Muslim terrorists are “all dark haired, dark-skinned, and dark-eyed, of course”. He feels its ludicrous that the movie seems to show “a Spanish government apparently incapable of providing even a modicum of security to an intergovernmental summit that, we’re told, is one of the most important of its kind”.

Suspension of disbelief
The movie has its unrealistic plot devices, of course. This is why we need the concept of ‘suspension of disbelief’ when going to the pictures. A summit press conference in what is probably a security staff’s worst nightmare location (the middle of an urban open space), a middle-aged overweight American tourist successfully pursuing trained security guys and a young Spaniard cop (AND speaking Spanish), endless car crashes (just the good guy, bad guys seem to be immune to crashes even while talking on the phone and shooting with both ends while driving) and possibly the biggest unrealistic plot device – a small terrorist group which manage to infiltrate the Spanish police, CNN (labeled ‘GNN’ in the movie) and the President’s security team at the same time.

But this stuff just happens in the movies. You have to accept it in order to enjoy all action movies, and most others – even so-called ‘true stories’ (usually reduced and edited to fit a budget and a movie-length time).

So what about the specific criticism the review draws? Some of it I can credit to the feeling I get that the critic just didn’t understand the movie’s aim – it didn’t span a narrative of years, it just focused on about 30 minutes in ‘realtime’. You don’t get a look into the terrorists’ motives (aside of the mentioned neo-con which sheds a light on the neo-con more than on the terrorists) in the same way you don’t get an overview of the President’s motives. The film maker avoided addressing these, allowing the viewer to interpret the plot using his own knowledge of the world. Similarly we don’t get the full story of the relationships of the terrorists’ one with the other, although there are obvious fractures and tensions in the group – we can only figure some of it by dialogs and events happening during the movie.

The problem with Righteous Liberals
But I think the problem runs deeper. Since I arrived here to California, I heard (mainly on public radio) a lot of opinions which seek to do the same as the reviewer – mock the ‘black and white’ view of the war on terrorism. The ‘shades of grey’ argument is dominant in a lot of discussions. But in the guise of this argument, some truths may be missed.

Ever been to Spain? Morocco? Middle East? How many of the natives are blue-eyed? Blondes? Freckle skinned? So why wouldn’t a terrorist group be consisted of just ‘dark eyed, dark skinned and dark haired’ people (which by the way, are not that look-alike in the movie)? Should terrorist groups practice a ‘diversity in employment’ policy as fashionable in California?
And is the Spanish government so efficient in diverting Islamic terrorist? The horrible Madrid train bombings in 2004 happened well after 9/11, Bali bombings and Istanbul bombings, to name just a few of the major Islamic terrorist attacks of the time. Yet the Spanish government not only failed to prevent the Madrid attacks, it also failed to recognize the attackers until much later (the ruling party at the time blamed the ETA).

Yet the criticism the reviewer makes which seems to me the most problematic is the one about motives.

I am poor\oppressed\religious, so I’m bombing innocent people
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that a terrorist doesn’t come out of the blue. I’m all in favor of dealing with the root causes that lead people to be part of a terror act, be it world conflicts, poverty, extremist religion or education. But insisting that the motives of the terrorists are important to understand the possible horrific results of a terrorist act (well portrayed by the movie, I think), or the subtle mechanisms used by terrorists to coerce, deceive and encourage people to be terrorist, that insistence is questionable. It hides the notion of emphasizing with these terrorists – after all, they had motives to do what they did, so I condemned it but I can understand them.

[Side note: I’m not getting into the discussion of what constitutes a terror act and what doesn’t. I’m sure each of us can think of enough examples of non-controversial terror attacks such as the examples I gave before.]

The liberal person who first seeks to understand the motivation (and only then inspect the act), is not only committing moral discrimination (putting the justification of the killers above the innocence of their victims) but is also facing a factual impossibility – almost any group of 10 people in the ‘terrorist community’ has a different motive or agenda. Some are more ‘justifiable’ (‘my whole family was murdered by American missile in Iraq’) and some are less so (‘I hate the symbols of the decadent west, away with McDonald’). Investigating into the motives of each group, discerning them into categories and going about resolving them on the basis of merit, that is ludicrous, as the reviewer puts it.

And Wrong, as Buffy would have said – sometimes you just have to kill the monsters.