Two Serious Films with Misunderstood Messages (and a Nod to a Third)

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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These are three of the best films of recent years, discussed here not because of flaws in the films themselves but because of the spin that various reviewers put on the films. This page reviews the reviewers rather than the films.

The Constant Gardener

Mid-level British civil servant Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) falls in love with activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz), marries her, and they move to Kenya on assignment. I do have trouble believing that these two could marry at all, much less stay together for any length of time. I seriously doubt that a fervent activist, even one as upper-class as Tessa, could put up with a mate who is as stuffy and by-the-book as Justin. Dharma and Greg was a comedy and Dharma was a ditz, but Tessa is smart and dead serious.

On a trip into the hinterlands, Tessa is murdered and the initial evidence seems to point to her traveling companion as the culprit as well as her lover. But mousy Justin refuses to accept that verdict and starts digging. It turns out Tessa had been investigating drug trials on the locals by pharmaceutical companies. When Justin digs too furiously, he's recalled home and his passport confiscated. Undeterred, he contacts a seedy lawyer friend who sets him up with someone who can get fake passports. He also does some Internet searching on the drug company, but since he suspects his own communications are bugged, he uses the computer at his friend's place. The friend's son has provided ultra-secure access by installing a password that spells his name with the numeral 5 instead of an S. Nobody in the world would have seen THAT coming.

Justin learns that there's a global pandemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis on the way. Tessa, during a hospital stay, had seen a woman being injected with a mystery drug and deteriorate as a result. After getting out of the hospital, she began snooping about and was finally eliminated by goons hired by the drug company.

The craftsmanship of the film is marvelous. The outdoor shots, and particularly some aerial views when Justin flies to Sudan to meet the inventor of the fatal drug, are spectacular. But one night shot in particular of Justin conversing in a garden has to be among the most effective uses of lighting ever in a film.

The problem I have with this film is not the film itself, which is superb, but with the superficial commentary about it. Supposedly it's all about corporate greed. At least the villains are European and not American. In fact, the closing credits include a statement by the filmmaker that he learned that the reality of drug testing in the Third World was far worse than anything depicted in the movie.

On the other hand, this isn't something as trivial as Viagra we're talking about. The drug company is testing an anti-tuberculosis drug intended to combat an anticipated global pandemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis that could kill a third of the human race. And it's not like they're injecting people with random mixtures of bleach, turpentine and insecticides to see what works. These drugs have already gone through lengthy laboratory tests, including presumably animal testing and possibly some human trials as well. They are as safe and effective as they can be at the laboratory level.

The real moral issue in the film is this: if the affluent West will benefit from a successful drug, shouldn't affluent Westerners accept the risks of clinical testing? Admittedly, the only way to see how effective the drug is against tuberculosis is to test it on people with tuberculosis, who are not numerous in Europe or America. But surely tests for side effects could be done in the West. So who's really killing innocent Africans here - a drug company trying to avert a global pandemic, or cowardly, selfish Westerners unwilling to accept risk?

More and more, we are seeing cases where drugs that have gone through extensive trials and the full approval process of the FDA are turning up, years later, with unanticipated side effects. As drugs become more and more subtle and complex in their biological action, we can expect that we will see more and more cases where side effects are subtle, unanticipated, and delayed in their onset. Anyone who doesn't want to accept that risk is perfectly free to avoid using medication.

V for Vendetta

We have seen the future and it sucks. The United States is now the "former United States," ravaged by civil war. Britain is ruled by a fascist theocracy which rounds up political prisoners and engages in ethnic cleansing against Muslims. Paramilitary thugs, reminiscent of the Saudi Arabian religious police but far nastier, enforce morality on the streets.

Into this dystopia comes the shadowy V (Hugo Weaving), whose face is never seen. He always wears a Guy Fawkes mask (Guy Fawkes was the leader of a failed plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, and the British still celebrate the anniversary of the plot's discovery on November 5). The film hints strongly that he was horribly disfigured. Considering the wooden performances turned in by many actors with real faces, it's astonishing how effectively the director conveys emotion by camera angle, lighting, and voice inflection. (In fairness, some viewers found the mask annoying.)

Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) falls into V's clutches when she makes an ill-advised attempt to evade curfew and is cornered by the religious police, who are not about to let their official puritanism prevent them from having a little fun first. V rescues her and takes her to watch his first major public demonstration, the destruction of the Old Bailey (the London court house).

After V succeeds in blowing up the Old Bailey, he invades the headquarters of the state television network and broadcasts a message inviting the populace to meet at Parliament the following November 5 to overthrow the regime.

Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea) is assigned to find and catch V (a totalitarian regime under attack by a charismatic rebel who calls the public to open rebellion only puts one cop on the investigation?) and soon finds his investigation hobbled by blocked access to records. He does discover that the people assassinated by V all had links to a secret facility, about which he can learn little. But through Finch's investigations and flashbacks we learn the back story. The government had seized power and launched a pogrom on Muslims after a series of bio-terrorist attacks, which were actually staged by the government itself as a pretext for installing a totalitarian regime. V was one of a number of political prisoners used as guinea pigs at the facility. Somehow the facility is destroyed, V is the sole survivor, and the silhouette of him emerging from the flames leaves a strong hint as to why he wears the mask. The experiments apparently also gave V his strength instead of killing him.

In the process of helping V with one of his assassinations, Evey is forced to flee and takes refuge with a well-known entertainer. This entertainer, emboldened by V's escapades, has recently ridiculed the regime on his show and the regime, it turns out, is not amused. The secret police invade the house and drag him off. Evey escapes only to be captured outside the house.

Evey finds herself shaved and tossed into a cell and subjected to intense interrogation. While in the cell she finds notes from a neighboring cell that give her courage to endure, and when finally given an ultimatum to talk or face a firing squad, Evey tells her interrogator she chooses death. The interrogator directs her down the hall, where she discovers that the guard at the door is a dummy. Opening it, she finds herself in V's lair. Evey, understandably, is somewhat put out at the deception. V points out that the process showed Evey exactly what she was willing to endure. The notes were real notes from a fellow prisoner, a well known actress, that sustained V during his own captivity.

Supposedly this film raises difficult questions about where freedom fighting ends and terrorism begins, but only for people completely incapable of seeing any sorts of moral distinctions at all. What separates V from all terrorists is that he scrupulously avoids targeting innocent people. His assassination victims are exclusively the people responsible for the torture he experienced. The only one he treats with compassion is also the only one who shows any signs of remorse. His building demolitions occur at night when accidental victims are least likely to be around. The only collateral casualties in the film occur when he targets the state broadcasting network and security police respond indiscriminately.

If the 9-11 hijackers had stolen military aircraft and crashed them into military command centers, we would be outraged at the killing of unsuspecting military personnel, but the attack would have been a military one, not terrorism. We were outraged at the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese military personnel who participated were not war criminals. Civilians died at Pearl Harbor, but not because they were specifically intended as victims. The attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the attack on Khobar in Saudi Arabia and the attacks on patrols in Iraq were actions against military targets. The 1998 attack on embassies in Africa was terrorism, first because embassies are protected under international law and secondly because of the indiscriminate killing of uninvolved civilians. Seizing airliners full of civilians and using the planes as missiles to hit buildings full of civilians is terrorism. Blowing up markets full of civilians is terrorism.

Admittedly, the film is based on a comic book (oops, graphic novel) and has a comic book flavor. V has somehow acquired substantial wealth but manages to stay off the state's radar. Like Zorro and Batman, he has trained himself to a prodigious level of strength and agility. He puts together demolitions that require superhuman ability to procure, transport and install explosives (wouldn't a fascist state control these?) while simultaneously evading surveillance. Apart from minor help by Evey, V seems to have no assistance at all. V's demolitions somehow avoid hurting any innocent people at all - nobody is so much as hit by flying debris. The theocracy has been in power briefly enough that it can be cleanly decapitated, and the society has not totally lost its decency. When the general in charge of guarding Parliament cannot get through to his superiors, he doesn't order his soldiers to fire on their own fellow citizens. So the ending has a comic book tidiness about it. If only it were this easy to bring down real totalitarian regimes.

The most morally problematic part of the film is Evey's imprisonment and torture. Since Evey herself finally becomes reconciled to V's actions, one might gloss over this issue, but nevertheless the episode shows that V is willing to be ruthless and inflict fear and pain on an innocent person in pursuit of his aims. Admittedly the purpose is to reveal Evey's own depth of morality to her; nevertheless, it's a troubling affair.

Other commentators have seen the film as a message about the war in Iraq, since the collapse of Europe and America is described as the aftermath of a world war that spun off of an American war in the Middle East. To be sure, the film can be read that way, as well as a warning about the dangers of a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. But in any discussion of the dangers of theocracy, Islamic theocracy has to be seen as far more ruthless and intolerant than anything Christian fundamentalists are likely to put up. The film can be seen far more as an object lesson in the need to prevent the rise of Islamic theocracy.

Children of Men

Brilliant. The future sucks even worse than in V for Vendetta. It's 2027, no babies have been born in 18 years, and Britain, the last functioning society, is propped up by fascist security measures. A narrative so tight it twangs, impossibly long complex single takes, the most realistic battle sound effects outside of Saving Private Ryan (impacting bullets go "thump" not "pwnnnng"), and the dumbest on-line comments imaginable. Too dumb to walk and chew gum at the same time? These folks are too dumb to breathe and pump blood at the same time. They have to be slugs.

First, quite possibly the most racist comment ever posted, anywhere (this is on YouTube):

The last thing the world needs is a niglet with no father. The movie is great but they should have chosen a white women as a pregnant mother.

Another Ph.D. candidate said "just because he said that doesn't make him a racist."

Just to prove it can be just as dumb at the other end of the political spectrum, another YouTube contributor wrote:

I think this film oppose to right-wing government but support right wing value This film admired non-Western women because they played their "female's roles" (Orthodox lady who fed the baby, and the African girl who had the baby). Even though Julian Moore is nice but she was killed because she became a leader instead of playing "female's role" (all grammatical errors in the original)

Well, of course the film is cliched! A pregnant woman. How hackneyed. A real innovator would have had a man getting pregnant. And Julianne Moore was actually killed because she favored a non-violent uprising, not that we expect YouTube comments to be, you know, informed or anything. But this writer's not done - we also read:

This movie is a powerful film, even though it is right-wing (immigration and low birth rate destroyed the Western civilization...)

Yet another clueless type who fails to see the difference between describing a society and endorsing it. Pearls before swine...

The really interesting science is in the novel, where all animals lose the ability to reproduce. That would be the end of the world. Within a year most insects would be gone. We wouldn't miss house flies or mosquitoes, fleas or ticks, but we would miss bees and other pollinators, so insect pollinated crops would mostly die out. So would small insectivores. Within a year or two there would be no shrews, moles, bats, warblers or thrushes, amphibians, or small reptiles.

One interesting question is how far down the taxonomic chain the failure extends. If single celled animals can't reproduce, then why can cells of any kind reproduce? If all animal cells stop reproducing, the story won't last 18 days, much less 18 years.

Within five years or so almost all small animals would be gone, either starved or dead from old age. No more rats or mice. Human animal parasites would be gone. There would be no malaria, sleeping sickness, trichinosis, river blindness, or guinea worm. Even long-lived parasites, like tapeworms, would be unable to infect new hosts. Nuisance plants would spread unchecked by insects or rodents.

Aquatic food chains would collapse immediately, since they are so dependent on small invertebrates. Larger fishes could subsist by attacking others, but within a few years starvation and aging would kill them off. Meanwhile, decaying dead animals would support algal blooms that would cause oxygen starvation and further die offs. Herbivorous fish would be the only temporary survivors, assuming they could hide from increasingly desperate predators. Filter feeders that can eat algae might last for a while.

Within ten years there would be virtually no small animal life on land or in the water. Larger herbivores, a few carnivores and scavengers, domestic animals, dogs and cats would still be common. Meat would be a precious commodity since every butchered animal is one that will never be replaced and livestock would have to be closely guarded. Wildlife would probably be poached to extinction. Would the loss of reproductive ability mean the end of dairy products? Eggs would long since have disappeared as poultry died off. Pets would be jealously guarded since they are also irreplaceable.

After 18 years, the point in the film, most animals will have died of old age, starvation, or being eaten. Most of the survivors would be unable to reproduce even if a cure for the infertility were found. Tortoises, elephants, and humans are among the few species that could still reproduce. By 50 years, humans would no longer be able to reproduce.


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Created 15 August, 2006;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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