Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musings on "The Whistle Blower"

It's always a pleasant surprise when separate spheres of one's own interests overlap. This happened for me the other night when I watched a British political thriller called The Whistle Blower which was suggested to me by that quasi entity known as Netflix based on a recent interest I've taken in a TV show called Burn Notice (A friend gave me some of the episodes to watch while in Afghanistan but under the mistaken notion that the USA network ceased long ago producing quality original programming I kept putting off trying the show out until a few weeks ago and now Burn Notice is quickly becoming one of my favorite TV shows. Bravo, USA Network).

I was about to ignore the suggestion when I noticed that the movie starred a favorite actor of mine, Sir Michael Caine. So I thought why not go ahead and give it a go. Forty-five minutes in I almost gave up on it because the pacing was excruciatingly slow (even by 80's film standards), Michael Caine was so far barely in it, and I was getting aggravated at how I perceived the plot to be unfolding, namely, toward the revelation of a secret cabal composed of elderly white men influencing and directing world affairs, a trite plot device of political thrillers used and abused many times over (A good exception was the unfortunately short lived AMC show, Rubicon, which gave that worn plot device a fresh and unique spin.). But I decided to give it a stay of execution and continued on.

I guess I should try to convey as best I can the plot. The movie (based on a book of the same name) is about Michael Caine's character, Frank Jones, a Royal Navy veteran who gets caught up in a potential government cover up relating to the possible existence of a top level Russian spy in the British government. Frank's son, a linguist who works for one of the British intelligence agencies, through a series of events including the mysterious deaths of two of his colleagues begins to suspect that the British government is sinisterly involved in some secret affair. He makes these concerns known to his father who doesn't take them seriously, believing his son's paranoia to be related to his voracious interest in spy novels and all things clandestine.

But then his son suddenly dies. The police rule it an unfortunate accident but given what his son had just expressed to him the day before about a possible government conspiracy Frank refuses to accept their conclusion. From then on the film centers on Frank's tortured quest to find out the truth about his son's death. And it was here that I became hooked, mostly because Caine's acting was, as usual, phenomenal, his anguish and determination compelling you to see how his quest ends. Eventually he does sort things out, learning that there is indeed a turncoat in the British government and that the government has been aware of this for some time. However, they have yet to act, deciding instead to take some time to assess the damage the spy has done. Furthermore, the British fear that the United States will find out about this and then refuse the British access to their CIA spy network, something the powers that be in Whitehall deem necessary for the national security of the country. And thus they have "dealt with" those who have come close to revealing the Russian spy, including Frank's son. In short, Frank's son was deemed expendable for reasons of national security.

It is with considerable angst that Frank uncovers this truth. Intriguingly, though, he seems to accept the necessity of his son's death, albeit with grave agony. Yet, what he founds unacceptable is that the government has, for the time being, decided to let the spy remain as he is. This Frank simply cannot abide and upon learning the identity of the traitor seeks him out in order to try and force a confession from him. But in addition to extracting a confession from the man, Frank wants to know why he betrayed his country. The spy explains that his actions were the result of a resentment he had been cultivating ever since WWII when the former British empire became a subordinate power to the United States and the Soviet Union, citing events such as the Suez Affair as a prime indicator of this new reality. Britain, he goes on to assert, is slowly being squeezed out by the two new superpowers. Furthermore, he views the United States as the bully who has been forcing British interests to fall in line with its own policy and so decided to cast his support to the Russians. Frank finds this explanation incredulous, prompting him to ask: "Well, why don't you just live in Russia then?" to which the turncoat has no reply. From there the movie ends the only way it can and since I don't want to divulge everything about the movie I'll cease here with the plot description.

This movie really surprised me and in a good way. It has to be one of the more realistic political thrillers that I have seen. Everything makes sense in it: from the actions of the lay characters to the motivations of the government officials. It is all quite sensible, especially the rational basis the traitor gives for why he decided to betray his own country. In short, the movie is, well, believable. A trait I think of the utmost importance for spy thrillers.

Ok, I know that's not a profound assessment of the value of this movie but it is true and rings true to me especially. This is because for the past several months I've been studying British history (specifically their side of the American Revolution) as well as Anglo-American relations since WWII. And so the actions and grievances of the major players in this movie is an interesting reflection of some of my current interests. In sum, my love of movies and my current research interests fortuitously overlapped in a most pleasant manner. And it's always a great joy to me when that happens. Thank you, Netflix, for the excellent suggestion. You chose....wisely.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reflections on "Lost", Romans 9, and Purpose

I have been working on getting my second video review done so I don't have a new post available this week so I'm going to post something I wrote in my journal several years ago about the TV show "Lost" and Romans chapter 9. Note, it was written when "Lost" was still in its first season and fresh (I was ultimately let down by the conclusion of that otherwise entertaining show) and during a time of personal anguish which accounts for some of the emotional under current of the journal entry.

One of the few television shows that I keep up with is "Lost". So far this show has many of the elements that I enjoy in a TV series. The thrust of the show is this: Oceanic Flight 815 has crashed on an unknown and mysterious island. The survivors of the crash are ultimately trying to find a way off the island but at the same time are trying to uncover some of its mysteries. Now this premise is in no way unique but the creators of the show, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, added one interesting feature to this often used plot device which, in my opinion, gives it a fresh spin. In short, they gave the island a personality. And it's this "personality" that in some manner, I suspect, is the source for many of the oddities of the island such as polar bears, an invisible monster that devours people, the miraculous healing of a former paraplegic, just to name a few.

Now this former paraplegic is one of the central characters of the show. He is John Locke, named after the famous philosopher who developed a theory of epistemology which argued that humans were not born with innate ideas. Instead they come into the world with a tabula resa or blank slate in which knowledge and, ultimately, experiences are "chiseled" into over time. In other words, Locke squarely came down on the side of nurture in the seemingly interminable "nature vs nuture" debate. Incidentally, one of the episodes in season 1 is named "Tabula Resa".

Obviously, because of his seemingly supernatural healing, Locke is the most driven of the survivors to unlocking the secrets of the island. It is Locke who constantly refers to the island as an entity. Furthermore, it is Locke who sees purpose in everything that has been happening on the island summed up when he tells one of the other characters that "it is the Island that brought us here." Ultimately, Locke is the man of faith who sees purpose and destiny in everything that has happened to the survivors. And if Locke is the man of faith on the island then without a doubt Jack Shepherd, the surgeon, is the man of doubt. In fact, in a heated argument between the two concerning the island Jack explicitly tells Locke that he doesn't believe in purpose or fate and vehemently argues that everything that has happened can be ascribed to a series of coincidences.

Maybe it is too much of a generalization but it seems to me that these two types of characters represent the divide that most people fall into when it comes to questions of fate and randomness. Some are inclined to see purpose in everything while others are satisfied to relegate everything to the workings of chance. I guess I have grown up being one of the former. Some of which surely stems from my love of certain movies like Star Wars that heavily involve a motif of destiny in their plots. But mostly this comes from my Christian heritage. You see when you grow up in a Christian atmosphere you are constantly told that God has a purpose for your life. Indeed, the preferred text cited in support of this notion is almost always Jeremiah 29:11 which states, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares YHWH, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."

But the older I get the less sense this viewpoint of "God having a purpose for everyone" makes. To be honest, I'm inclined towards the negative of that statement which, incidentally, seems to be supported by the texts deemed in some sense sacred and divine by Christians. One need look no further than Romans chapter 9. Now I've stated before that I don't think the Calvinist interpretation of this chapter, i.e., that it is concerned with God's right to predestine some to eternal salvation and, at least passively, the rest to eternal damnation. But one thing is clear to me now: this passage is definitely about God's sovereignty in election to promise (purpose).

The problem that Paul is exploring in this chapter is the seemingly apparent rejection of the Jews in favor of the Gentiles displayed in the fact that so few Jews are accepting the gospel message. If this is the case then it would seem, Paul implies, that God's promises have failed. But Paul of course immediately rejects this implication with a hefty, "God forbid!".

Yet through all of Rom 9-11 Paul fails to give us a clear solution to this problem. But what he does say is nevertheless important, namely, that God's choice of receives promise (purpose) has always began with his election and mercy, and therefore not based on anything in man or of man. To support this Paul cites the example of God's choice of Jacob over Esau: "Before they had been born and before they had done anything evil or good, so that God's purpose in election might stand not on man who wills but on he who shows mercy, it was told to Sarah that the 'elder shall serve the younger'". Then Paul quotes from Malachi to further strengthen his argument: "For it is written, 'Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.'" Though most scholars understand this harsh saying to be a Hebrew idiom meaning simply "Jacob I have chosen, Esau I have rejected" we should not let this detract from the harshness of the saying. The impact is the same: God's purpose for people begins solely from His own purposes. For no reason but his own, God chose Jacob over Esau to be the child of promise, through whom would emerge Israel, his chosen people. This is reinforced by the fact that by birthright Esau should have been the chosen because he was the first born but God upended this traditional mode of election by choosing the second born. In short, God gives purpose to some and not to others.

Now though I've rejected the traditional Calvinist interpretation of this chapter which Calvin himself called "The Terrible Decree" that sees this as about predestination, I wonder if my interpretation is not at least as terrible? Indeed, God choosing only some for purpose seems a hair's breadth from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

But some might try to reply to my argument by quoting Romans 8:28 which states that "God works all things for good." But in reality, that passage has some restrictions that many miss. You have to love God and more importantly you have to be called according to His purpose. For this is what the passage actually says: "For God works all things for good to those who love him and who are called according to his purpose."

What can be inferred except that not all are called according to purpose? And again, if this is the case, is this not just as terrible an implication as Calvin's "terrible decree"? I guess then it is God who decides who will be the John Lockes and Jack Shepherds.