Monday, August 6, 2007

Slouching Toward New York City to be Bourne

Note: It seems from surveying the Web that the first challenge in writing a review of the latest installment of the Jason Bourne spy-thriller film franchise, "The Bourne Ultimatum", is to come up with a headline that plays on the name of the title character. Most of the obvious ones have been taken. (For those interested "The Bourne Identity Theft" seems to be unclaimed.) My entry in the competition, which appears above, is not gratuitous - the film is, indeed, about a man, painfully but inexorably, making his way to the Big Apple to try to start his life over. Test marketing of my second title choice, "Three Years of the Condor", indicates that it relies too much on a familiarity with the oddly similar Robert Redford spy thriller of 30 years ago. So it goes.

When we last left Jason Bourne, played with precisely the right level of slow-burn intensity by now top-of-the-A-list actor Matt Damon, he was battling the powers that be - namely his former spy masters in the CIA - trying to stay alive long enough to determine his long-lost identity and, perhaps, to extract revenge from those who deprived him of it.

"When exactly," you might ask, "was that?" Could it have been at the end of "The Bourne Identity", the movie that kicked off the film adaptations of the Robert Ludlum novels? Yes, it could have been. Or was it somewhere during the second installment "The Bourne Supremacy"? That's a possibility, too. Well, it's hard to say just when we last left our out-in-the cold spy and, honestly, it doesn't matter all that much. You see, Jason Bourne inhabits a Nietzschean action-adventure world of eternal repetition, where, although being an Übermensch has its advantages, they don't include being able to advance the storyline very much.

Bourne is the latest rendition of a popular hero on an epic quest, a particularly existential one at that. "Who am I?" is the question that nags at him, amplified in "Ultimatum" by nasty flashbacks during which he is escorted, questioned and tortured by vaguely familiar people in an unidentified ghostly white building. (A plaque on one of the doors may have read "Richard B. Cheney Day Spa", but since these flashbacks occur in dreamland soft focus, it's hard to say for sure.) We and Bourne are subjected to these episodes of uninvited recovered memory a half-dozen times during the course of the movie, partly so that we can share his anguish at the intrusion of these post-traumatic recollections and partly so that we can, along with Bourne, come to identify each of the "vaguely familiar people" at appropriate turns of the plot, to the extent that there is one. Given the choice, I would have opted for the use of name tags to accomplish the same purpose.

These flashbacks are notable for another reason. That is that they leave Bourne momentarily incapacitated, such is the pain of his recalled agony and, apparently, such is the visceral dread of not knowing ones true identity. (Am I the only one who might find this kind of oblivion desirable?) His reaction may not seem out of the ordinary, but, be aware, this Jason Bourne is a man hardly phased by the detonation of a bomb a few feet away or by the multiple bone-crushing impacts of high-speed automobile collisions. In fact, the assassins - assets in spook speak - who are dispatched to kill him would have fared better if they would have traded in their sniper rifles, razors blades, and high explosives for a hand-held video player loaded with clips from one of Bourne's PTSD reruns. Thus it is, though, with eternal repetition: some people never learn.

With flashbacks to refresh our and Bourne's memories - not to mention two feature-length movies available on DVD on the shelf - we are sure of this much: Jason Bourne is an exquisitely trained contract-killer, the product of some super-secret, black-ops contract-killer factory set up - and shortly thereafter shut down - in the not too distant past by highly-placed individuals in the CIA who would just as soon not be associated with it anymore. (How reviled was this program? Apparently enough so that even the then White House Counselor, Alberto Gonzales, was reluctant to issue a memorandum authorizing its continued operation. It was that scary.) Needless to say the fathers of said program would like to see it dead and buried, along with Jason Bourne, who is both a durable and an enduring reminder of their youthful extralegal excesses, not to mention a potential obstacle to their hoped-for advancement up the civil service ladder and golden-years retirement plans.

Bourne, though, is a man on a singular mission, the restitution of his former identity. He has no secondary goals, no ideological or political allegiance, and, in spite of his wits, no possibility of finding a safe haven in all the world, a point made brutally clear in the second film. Bourne will either succeed or he will die. Ironically his erstwhile masters fail to recognize the magnitude of the force that impels Bourne toward his reckoning with them, and, what is more, they fail - time after time - to appreciate how marvelously they have succeeded in transforming him into the perfect killing machine that they had originally sought to create. Eternal repetition, unfortunately for them, strikes again.

The first thing that rescues "Ultimatum" from B-movie oblivion is Damon's ability to bring to his Bourne a convincing mix of world-weariness, single-minded determination, and humanity. Without this balance the character could easily have morphed into a robot or a sociopath. Bourne is a hero, but a reluctant one, a trained killer for whom killing has become an unavoidable necessity. And while he barely breaks a sweat fending off the agents who are trying to eliminate him, an expression of true desperation flashes across his face when he sees that an ally, even one only briefly enlisted to assist him on his quest, has been placed in jeopardy. These are glimpses of the "inner" Bourne that Damon's performance reveals and they, more than any of the rather pedestrian facts about his previous life that we learn in the course of the film, suggest that this man's identity may indeed be worth reviving after all - especially given the cost that must be paid in human life, not to mention late-model luxury automobiles.

Although much of "Ultimatum" is little more than a framework in which the lead character ventures from place to place, battling the bad guys, it has the good sense not only to change, but even to celebrate, the scenery. Thus the film's second saving grace: it works well as a travelogue, a violent, kinetic one, but a travelogue, nevertheless. It sweeps us from the bustle of Waterloo Station in London, to the cluttered rooftops of Tangiers, landing finally on the gritty streets of Manhattan. The variety of these different settings not only enlivens the story, it also reinforces our understanding of Jason Bourne. Whatever his mysterious pedigree, he moves with ease between cultures, orients himself readily in any new city, and switches fluently to the local dialect, whatever that might be. (In this regard the movie would make for an impressive, if off-kilter, come-on for Berlitz or the Travel Channel - "visit exciting new places, meet the people there, speak their language and decimate the local constabulary.") Sadly, this film does nothing to explore the origins of this facet of the "Bourne identity" and leaves us longing to know more about the history of this man, an accomplishment of sorts, since a sequel is an inevitability, if not for dramatic reasons, then for purely financial ones.

The third redeeming feature of "Ultimatum" is its remarkable fight scenes. In recent years the innovation in action movies has been the introduction of "bullet time", a technique tuned to commercial perfection with "The Matrix" series. In bullet time we witness events from a vantage point of physical - and emotional - detachment. The action - and bullets and knives and fists of fury - slow to a veritable crawl and we are encouraged to savor the violence the way we might, say, a fine chianti. In "Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass, turns the tables, dispensing with ironic distance and, instead, immerses us viscerally in physical combat. Shaky hand-held camera work and staccato cuts erode any fixed frame of reference we might have hung on to and we are pressed from the safe haven of the bullet-time voyeur into the middle of the hand-to-hand battle as it unfolds. The effect is not unlike the unraveling of a cubist painting of a fight, in which the components, having been first assembled - with false simultaneity - as a patchwork on a canvas, then throw off their temporal confinement in a fractured attempt to restore some sort of time-ordered sensibility - "The Bourne Guernica", if you will.

With regard to the talented supporting cast, I wish I could say that "Ultimatum" had put them to good use, but it hasn't. David Strathairn is saddled with the unbecoming role of CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, a Paul Wolfowitz want-to-be, if there ever was one. Vosen is smart enough to have weaseled his way to a position of considerable power, but not smart enough to know when he is in over his head. His armchair ruthlessness and clueless predictability hardly make him a worthy opponent; Bourne bats him around much as a cat would a hapless mouse. Strathairn deserves better.

Joan Allen, a favorite actress of mine, does a serviceable job as Pamela Landy, also a CIA higher-up, but one dedicated more to serving her country than her career. Her role demands that she demonstrate that - as Holly Hunter's character observed in "Broadcast News" - it is, in fact, awful to always be the smartest person in the room. To some extent Landy is Bourne's Doppelgänger, a noble soul battling the powers that be, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery in which she has been unwittingly ensnared. Of course she butts heads with Vosen, but these confrontations are mostly uninspired. Indeed, one of them is a set piece for a lecture by Vosen on how the "rules" have changed with the war on terror, meaning, apparently, that it's now OK for middle-level neocon functionaries to whack anyone they want to, anytime, anyplace. Although I don't doubt for a moment that this now may be the case, I would just as soon could have done without the the ham-handed lesson in twisted Bush-Cheney civics. The Bourne-Landy action-at-a-distance duet should have been the emotional center of "Ultimatum", but it receives neither the time on the screen nor the attention in the script that it deserves.

Fetching Julia Stiles reprises her role as Nicky Parsons, a young woman, who, from all appearances, had the decidedly bad luck of having signed on to the now ill-fated CIA build-the-perfect-contact-killer program back when she was scouting out a summer internship. Seeking redemption for these past sins while hoping not to be too readily recognized for her cameos in Bourne's fevered flashbacks, Nicky, too, flees out into the cold and joins Bourne as an ally and, briefly, but all too predictably, as a damsel in distress. The laws of eternal repetition say that these two must never consummate the unexpressed passion they feel for each other, but my bet is that the laws of the Hollywood box office will prevail in the next installment of the series and we will see Nicky doing more than tending to Bourne's bloody, battered hands.

It should not be surprising that the conclusion of "Ultimatum" is unsatisfying since the movie was never intended to move the Bourne narrative forward more than a bit. We are subjected to a tone-deaf "why can't we all just get along" coda, a plea to live and let live, one that didn't work so well for post-Rodney-King Los Angeles and seems bizarrely out of place when directed toward the brotherhood of factory-assembled perfect contract killers. More disappointing is the way, once again, consumer electronics are used to save the day. Without giving too much away, let's just call this particular application of office equipment a "deus ex fax machina". If I never again see a movie whose plot is rescued by the just-in-time use of a cell phone or a laptop computer, it will be too soon. That is my Bourne ultimatum.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Mixing Alphas and Oranges

This is my first post having to do with design. By design I mean very generally the way an artifact of any sort is thought about before it is built. It could be anything - an apartment building, a tourist map, a toaster oven, a website, a cellphone or, in this case, the set of announcements used on the subway system at the Atlanta airport.

You may have thought that the nerds responsible for creating computer programs had a monopoly on bad user interface design, but think again. A ride on the subway at Atlanta airport demonstrates convincingly that geeky thinking abounds, and that it is not restricted to hard-to-use PC applications.

"Wait a minute," you may object, "there's no user interface on the Atlanta airport subway." There is one, but it doesn't involve a mouse, or a keyboard, or an LCD monitor. The one I have in mind consists of the spoken messages that are broadcast as the train approaches and leaves each station. Their construction is a wonderful example of how technical knowledge in the wrong hands can be a confusing, if not a dangerous, thing.

To give you a sense of where I'm going with this, complete the following sentence,

A is for ...

If you responded with "apple", then, like the vast majority of English speakers, it is an association so natural, it seems reflexive. Then again, if you responded with "alpha", there may be a job waiting for you with the same outfit that scripted the airport subway announcements. For those guys concourses A, B, C, D, E, and the oddly named T, are best identified as alpha, bravo, charlie, david, echo, and tango, respectively. Why is this and why is it a bad idea?

The origin of this instance of interface design obtuseness is rooted in an inappropriate affinity for technology - or in this case, technologese. The alpha-bravo-charlie, triad is familiar to some of us. We hear it often these days in battle reports from Iraq which may refer to an alpha battalion or a bravo company, for example. The use of these alphabetic placeholders in the military derives from - and is best illustrated by - the "aviation alphabet" which defines word correspondences for each English letter. Apparently someone working on the announcement system had the bright idea that, since there was a need to identify letter-designated concourses and these concourse were, after all, part of an airport, then the ready-made aviation alphabet was a good fit. Indeed, it had been around for for decades. Why reinvent the wheel?

Well, the fact of the matter is that the aviation alphabet came into being to meet a specialized need, and that was the need to transmit letters clearly and unambiguously over what were often noisy and only intermittently reliable radio channels. Associating letters of the alphabet with words made it more likely that they would be heard over the crackles and pops of radio static. Choosing these words carefully made it less likely that one letter would be confused with one another. The advantages of these so-called "phonetic" alphabets should come as no surprise, since each of us, every now and then, has to struggle transcribing a confirmation code - usually a mix of numbers and letters - as it is spoken to us over the phone by a hotel reservation agent, for example. To do this we often resort to our own improvised phonetic alphabets, typically consisting of commonly occurring first names or other simple words.

So aviation alphabets come in handy when there is a need to transmit arbitrary letters reliably, either individually or as part of a mixed sequence of letters and numbers, over a noisy communication channel. Not exactly the requirements that emerge when facing the challenge of announcing the single-letter airline concourses encountered - always in a predetermined order - on the Atlanta airport subway. But there is another feature of aviation alphabets that makes their application to the airport subway especially misguided. That is that, in order to be at all effective, the people who employ these letter substitutions - both those speaking and those spoken to - are presumed to have studied them well in advance. In fact international standards have evolved to define the exact letter-word correspondences and to detail their precise pronunciation so that users can become proficient.

Now the likelihood that a given passenger riding the airport subway in Atlanta is familiar with the aviation alphabet in its full-blown glory is slight, but that hardly matters since mapping alpha to A and bravo to B and the like is hardly a challenge for an experienced English speaker. The problem is, of course, that we are talking about Atlanta Airport - a.k.a. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport - and, consequently, many of the 80 million of so passengers who ride the airport subway every year are not only not native English speakers, they may in fact have only a cursory knowledge of the English language. Of course, if they know no English at all, there is little the aviation alphabet or any other could do to assist them. But, to the extent that they know a little English, the following alternative associations would probably sound much more familiar to them

A as in Apple,
B as in Baby,
C as in Cat,
D as in Dog,
E as in Elephant,
and T as in Television

(These are my own untested suggestions. I will leave it to the reader to provide his or her preferred substitutions.)

Now the point of this discussion is not to revise the script of the Atlanta airport subway announcements, although I would be pleased to see that happen, but to provide an example of how clumsy design ideas arise and how they can be avoided. To bring the matter home, consider the story of the letter D in the original version of the airport subway script.

Two years ago, as I recall, shortly after the aviation alphabet system was put in place, a subway rider outbound from airport concourse C would have heard the following announcement coming from the loudspeaker, "the next stop is concourse D ... D as in delta." The selection of this particular substitution, delta for D, in complete conformance with the NATO phonetic alphabet I might add, was no doubt a disaster. As anyone familiar with Atlanta airport knows, it is a hub for Delta Airlines, which uses, I would guess, about half of the gates there scattered among almost all of the concourses. An unfortunate traveler, unaware of Delta's dominance in the Atlanta market and desperately trying to make his or her way to a connecting Delta flight, would hear the magic word "delta" as the subway pulled into concourse D and would exit the train to march down the corridor only to arrive at what would likely turn out to be an incorrect departure gate. I'm not sure how long it took the airport authorities to notice this problem and replace "delta" with "david" in the concourse D airport subway script, but I suspect it required numerous complaints from angry misdirected airline passengers.

The misapplication of the aviation alphabet to this situation and the truly ill-advised use of the word "delta" to designate a concourse at Atlanta airport illustrate a not uncommon design failure: that is a failure of imagination. By imagination in this context I don't mean the kind of visionary genius that is the engine of true innovation. I mean more prosaically the activity of imagining how a product - in this case a subway announcement system - will be used in practice. This kind of imagination requires that the designer or designers place themselves in the position of the variety prospective users of their creation and mentally step through numerous scenarios that these users may encounter.

This was the kind of imagination missing from the process that led to the selection of the aviation alphabet for concourse identification in the airport subway. My guess is that the people who formulated the scripts didn't think much about them, certainly not about the context in which they would be used, specifically the number of non-proficient English speakers who would rely on them for assistance. There was a readily available technical "solution", the aviation alphabet, which seemed superficially appropriate - after all, it was the aviation alphabet - in addition, it had the imprimatur of an international standards organization which made it an easy sell bureaucratically.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the use of the aviation alphabet as part of the scripts for the Atlanta airport subway is hardly a design catastrophe of the first - or second - order. But, as an example, it does capture quite compactly how apparently "safe" engineering choices can lead to flawed products, especially when the people responsible fail to perform the most critical part of the design process and that is to put themselves in the shoes of their potential users.

Mike-Alpha-Romeo-Charlie, signing out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More News from the Travolta Wars

It looks like the exchange of fire between "New Yorker" film critic, David Denby, and Times reviewer, A. O. Scott was just an opening volley in the battle over whether John Travolta's portrayal of Edna Turnblad, an oversize mother in 1960s Baltimore in Adam Shankman's recently-released version of the movie "Hairspray", was an acting tour de force or a casting mistake of the first order.

No sooner had I read and commented in a previous blog entry on what those writers had to say, yet before I had a chance to see the movie myself, I came across Felicia Feaster's critique in Atlanta's "Creative Loafing". If Denby ever needed re-enforcements in his Travolta bashing, he has found them in Feaster's full-bore complaints. In some ways they see eye to eye, with Denby calling the casting of Travolta for the role "an idiocy" and Feaster characterizing it as "miserably failed." Feaster, though, does Denby one better, especially when comparing Travolta's performance to that of Divine, the erstwhile king of crossing-crossing queens, in the earlier film version.
Where transvestite Divine was just another another component in [director John] Water's wonderful scuzzy tapestry, Travolta is a beady-eyed freak with a mouth full of marbles forming an incomprehensible accent and the kind of caricatured body that transforms bosomy, motherly softness into a malicious dart board.
Feaster does not stop there; see finds lurking behind Travolta's realization of Edna not just poor casting and acting decisions, but a "frat boy" misogyny, emanating from
... a straight guy's sense of hilarity at the fleshy absurdity of the female form and the fun of imitating it for a time.
Well, you'd think that such an accusation of political obtuseness would pretty much put the nail in the John Travolta / Edna Turnblad coffin, but another one of Feaster's observations turns the tables - at least for me - in an unexpected way. Feaster is perplexed that Christopher Walken, Edna's hopelessly devoted husband Wilbur, could appear so smitten with Edna. She attributes this to either "Walken's delicious perversity or his acting ability" since he, against all odds, "manages to rake his eyes over Travolta in a latex big-mama suit with an expression of typically ravenous rapture."

Not to fault Walken in the least, since he is indeed a magnificent actor, but there is of course another explanation for this love-sickness and that is that John Tavolta's striving for authenticity in his portrayal of Edna Turnblad not only makes her, in A. O. Scott's words "the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film", but I would dare to say the very heart and soul of "Hairspray". Count me with Walken as one captivated by Travolta's Edna.

Not being a professional critic it's hard for me to say authoritatively what makes for good character or a great performance. One thing that comes to mind, though, is whether an actor succeeds in having us identify with the character that he or she is portraying. Sometimes the part is written in such a way that identification, if not automatic, is at least not unexpected. At other times it requires the wit and resourcefulness of the player to draw us in to the humanity we share - if only marginally - with the character on the screen. Anthony Hopkins' embodiment of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" is a marvelous example of this kind of acting triumph.

Travolta's decision to play Edna straight - complete with a realistic Baltimore accent, which, contrary to Denby and Feaster's claims, I found to be an asset to his characterization - opens the door for this identification. To have mimicked the exaggerated performances of Divine in the first movie or that of Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical would have been to have kept that door shut. By identifying with Edna we come to care about her and even to develop - much to Feaster's surprise - the kind of affection for her that Walken exudes as he serenades her with song and dance. This is what elevates Edna in Travolta's hands from being a prop to being a person.

But our identification with a movie character is only a starting point. Even characters that invite our sympathy often don't affect us unless they change in some significant way in the course of the film. "Hairspray", ironically, offers its lead character as an example of how this sometimes doesn't work. Tracy Turnblad, Edna's daughter (wonderfully performed by Nikki Blonsky), begins the film as a effervescent idealistic irrepressible young woman and ends the film much the same way. She is the hero of the film, of course, but a guileless one. We cheer for her the way we might cheer for a valiant clever puppy in a remake of a "Benji" movie, but we never really get to know her any better.

Edna, unlike Tracy, is a diffident pessimistic inhibited woman of middle years, who, because of her daughter's enthusiasm for dance, is forced to come out of her shell and to explore a world that, due to her obesity, she has shunned for many years. Hesitant and uncertain Edna, nonetheless, slowly develops the confidence to step out into a new life, first as Tracy's business agent, and eventually as an activist on the front lines in the Civil Rights Movement. By first having us identify with - and therefore care about - Edna and then setting that character in motion, having her learn and change, Travolta makes "Hairspray" a much more interesting film.

But that is not all. It is not for nothing that "Hairspray" is set in 1962, at the verge of a sea change that will transform the cultural landscape of a nation. The storyline features the struggle to integrate a TV dance show in Baltimore as its emblem of the changing times, but we know implicitly that other catalysts of change, the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles and the Vietnam War, for example, wait in the wings. I don't think that it was an accident - much less a clumsy mistake - that Travolta was cast to play the part of Edna and that he decided to do so in a way that depicts her in earnest as a woman emerging from a period of private torpor and hesitation into an era that demands she become publicly engaged and fearless. On the contrary, unlike Denby and Feaster, I see the selection of Travolta for the role as a casting coup, one that fostered the creation of a character whose humanity, in particular her suffering as an outcast, and whose personal transformation, bravely asserting herself in a challenging new world, not only mirror but indeed undergird the central themes of the movie.

"Hairspray" would hardly be the film it is without John Travolta's turn as Edna Turnblad. You do have to be willing, though, to look a beyond the "latex big-mama suit" to see what he's all about.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Perfect (Critical) Storm

My 10-year-old friend, Margaret Thomson, is prone to remind me when I balk at the suggestion of accompanying her to a movie on the top of her list, but because of unfavorable criticism, at the bottom of mine, "You know, Marc, the reviewers aren't always right." I typically stammer and make a special pleading for avoiding the film under consideration - "Evan Almighty" having been the latest example - but can hardly refute the truth of Margaret's assertion.

Reviewers aren't always right. In fact, there is no better way to demonstrate that they are sometimes wrong than to exhibit how they contradict each other, and I don't mean with some general expression of approval or disapproval. Two reviews of Adam Shankman's "Hairspray", which opened in theaters this week, illustrate how reviewers can out-and-out disagree, not just in a general thumbs-up or thumbs-down sort of way, but in their very specific opinions about the way an actor, in this case John Travolta, chooses to play a particular role.

David Denby of the New Yorker discusses the casting of Travolta as the mother of the movie's heroine, Tracy, contrasting it with the selection of his predecessors for the same gender-bending assignment in the earlier version of the film and in the Broadway musical,
I admire John Travolta, but using this movie star, rather than the show’s Harvey Fierstein, as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s hefty mother, is an idiocy on the same level as replacing Julie Andrews with Audrey Hepburn for the movie version of “My Fair Lady.” Both Fierstein and Divine, who played Edna in the original movie, worked as female impersonators who confidently let us in on the joke. In the show ... [Fierstein] was not a man pretending to be a woman; he was a man openly playing a woman and speaking in his own voice.
Travolta's sin, it appears, stems from his misguided commitment to authenticity, as Denby explains,
But Travolta does a wistful imitation of the female sex. ... The role demands exaggeration rather than modesty, yet Travolta, with a misbegotten sense of duty, tries to give an authentic performance as a working-class Baltimore housewife of forty-five years ago—a shy, guarded woman who is embarrassed about her weight. It’s a touching attempt, but the lunatic joke that started with Divine has almost vanished.
Denby's conviction about the matter - calling the decision to cast Travolta an idiocy, for example - would suggest that his opinion would be one readily shared, but A.O. Scott of the New York Times weighs in with an entirely different take on the matter. Indeed, Scott commends Travolta for exactly those things for which Denby pilloried him,
Perhaps wisely Mr. Travolta does not try to duplicate the outsize, deliberately grotesque theatricality of Divine’s performance or to mimic the Mermanesque extravagance of Harvey Fierstein's Broadway turn, choosing instead to tackle the role of Edna as an acting challenge. The odd result is that she becomes the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film,
Unlike Denby, Scott apparently feels that modesty not exaggeration is the order of the day for Travolta, as he notes,
A shy, unsophisticated, working-class woman, Edna is ashamed of her physical size even as she seems to hide inside it, as if seeking protection from the noise and indignity of the world outside. [... Without] entirely letting go of Edna’s timidity, Mr. Travolta explores the exhibitionistic and sensual sides of her personality.
Now, who's right? Denby or Scott? I can hardly offer an analysis, having seen neither the latest version of the movie nor the Broadway production on which it is closely based. But, honestly, my opinion of John Travolta's Edna Turnblad would hardly settle the matter. The point is not so much deciding who is right, but emphasizing the value of movie reviews to raise issues that potentially heighten the appreciation of the movie in question.

As Margaret observed, the reviewers aren't always right, but, then again, there may be something to be learned from the ways in which they reach their conclusions, right or wrong.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

We Have Met the WMD and They are Us (with apologies to Walt Kelly and "Pogo")

Interrupting the concerted efforts by the United States to thwart renegade nations in their attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction comes this news item. The Bush Administration announced on March 2 that the specifics of a plan to begin upgrading many of the almost 10,000 weapons in its nuclear arsenal with a new and improved warhead design, the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). It is hard to imagine a step that this government could take - short of the use of nuclear weapons - that could undercut more thoroughly the moral basis of its opposition to the proliferation of nuclear arms. Yet, somehow this story goes largely unnoticed by a public that, in spite of its weariness with the war in Iraq, stands confidently behind the administration in its attempts to staunch the spread of WMD to other countries. Why is this?

To some extent, our collection of thousands of fission and fusion bombs is the elephant in our living room. These weapons have insinuated themselves so thoroughly into the status-quo, that they are seldom remarked upon anymore. As a result, the debate that raged over the RRW was not about the size of the nuclear stockpile, but about which of the two competing designs - one from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, the other from Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico - would be selected. (The politically expedient, but technically flawed, idea of a "Frankenbomb" mash-up of the two proposals had been jettisoned soon after it was suggested.) Sadly, as has become common in discussions concerning U.S. weapons systems, the fundamental question - do we really need all of these warheads - was avoided entirely. It was assumed that program would go forward. The only issue that remained to be resolved was how the money, in this case billions of dollars, was to be distributed.

I wish I could say that the waste of taxpayer dollars was my primary criticism of the warhead program, but its fiscal impact pales in comparison with the harm it will do to U.S. - and international - security. Whatever safety is gained by having marginally more reliable nuclear weapons will be dramatically offset by the fact that such a modernization effort will only encourage other nations either to acquire nuclear arms, if they don't have them, or to upgrade them, if they do.

The insistence on the part of the U.S. on building and refining nuclear weapons while continuing to demand that other countries remain nuclear-free is yet another chapter in its half-hearted compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) of 1968. It is widely known that the NNPT restricted the possession of nuclear weapons to the 5 nations who were the acknowledged nuclear powers at that time - the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China. What is seldom remembered is that the treaty also obligated members of the so-called nuclear club to work toward the dismantling of their own nuclear arsenals. These lesser known provisions were ignored by the super powers from the start, and, by the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had amassed around 20,000 nuclear explosives each. A couple of rounds of strategic arms reduction talks and the dissolution of the USSR have cut those totals in half, yet there are no significant reductions in store.

Once upon a time the justification for brandishing a large number of these fearsome weapons was that they provided deterrence against nuclear attack according to the appropriately named doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Although the relationship between the U.S. and Russia could not now be described as untroubled, it is certainly a far cry from the state of nuclear brinkmanship that once prevailed. The U.S. hardly views Russia as the existential threat it once did (although Russia's estimation of the United States may differ), and it would seem that both countries could meet their security needs with drastically reduced nuclear stockpiles. If that is the case, why does the U.S. want not only to maintain but even to modernize a nuclear force whose size exceeds any reasonable military requirement?

With the end of the Cold War the U.S. was at a foreign policy crossroads. Should it take a place as the first among equals in an international framework in which power is shared and security is collaborative, or should it seize the opportunity to pursue a kind of global military supremacy the likes of which the world had never before seen? The die was cast, and, unfortunately, the unilateralist path was chosen. What began in the immediate post-Cold-War years as a slouching toward a "New World Order" became, with the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, a headlong rush toward "Pax Americana" and the of creation of a military force so formidable that, it was imagined, no adversary would dare challenge it. An unassailable stockpile of "modern" nuclear arms was considered to be an essential component of this strategy.

Of course this direction in U.S. policy is questionable on a number of grounds, but with regard to nuclear arms it is particularly troubling. What has differentiated nuclear weapons (along with their chemical and biological counterparts) from conventional ones for the better part of the last 40 years was the understanding that their use had to be avoided at all costs. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty recognized this fact both by attempting to limit the spread of such weapons and by requiring nuclear-armed powers ultimately to liquidate their own stockpiles. For a period of time the Cold War gave the U.S. cover to disregard these obligations, since it otherwise would have not have been able to deter the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but that exemption ended with the collapse of the USSR. Instead of seizing the opportunity to move forward with reductions in these "exceptional" weapons, though, the United States adopted a policy whereby nuclear weapons have become "unexceptional" ones, in the sense that they could be employed to accomplish military objectives at its discretion. This legitimation of the use of nuclear weapons is the Pandora's box that the Bush administration has opened further with its decision to fund the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

Now, I don't believe for a minute that Iran or North Korea, for example, would refrain from pursuing the development of their own nuclear weapons based upon a U.S. decision not to proceed with its own weapons modernization plans. But I do believe that the cooperation of the international community is essential in securing the compliance of nation states with the non-proliferation treaty and that such cooperation is drastically undermined when the U.S. hypocritically reserves the right to build and deploy nuclear weapons based exclusively on what it considers to be its interests while denying that very same prerogative to other countries.

If the United States is genuinely committed to ensuring that the proliferation of WMD is restrained, there is no better step that it could take than to reaffirm its commitment to the NNPT and reduce its arsenal of nuclear weapons and forgo the development and modernization that make the use of such weapons more likely.