Sunday, December 18, 2005

The action-hero presidency

I used to wonder, back when George W. Bush was doing things like flying in a fighter jet onto aircraft carriers while wearing well-endowed jumpsuits, and then getting action figures made to commemorate the event, how many times he had been watching Air Force One. Because it was self-evident that Bush was going to model his presidency not after his famously wimpy father, but after Harrison Ford.

You've seen Air Force One, right? I thought the movie was a clever idea: the president as action hero. Personally, I most liked the climactic scene where a really pissed-off Ford finally shoves the evil terrorist Gary Oldman out the back end of a plane. Boy, talk about satisfying.

And then there was the speech he gave:
Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right. Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them, your day is over. We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It's your turn to be afraid.

Sounds like ... a George W. Bush speech.

Of course, like all action films, Air Force One is terribly cheesy in execution, and all slathered with the usual moral fable: the instinctive action of the hero is always superior to the overwrought intellectualism of his enemies, not to mention their morally feeble enablers.

It's the same in every action film: In addition to the actual enemy, the hero must also overcome the limp-wristed hang-wringers who think too much: they worry about things like constitutional rights and whether or not the enemy is being mistreated. Sometimes these people are politicians or law-enforcement officials; sometimes they're members of the media. But it's always the same: They're nearly as noxious as (and sometimes share the fate of) the enemy himself.

Clint Eastwood was especially good at films like this: Dirty Harry is a classic of the genre, replete with an interfering DA who handcuffs our hero at every turn. Bruce Willis also made a lot of flicks like this; the first two Die Hard films featured both FBI agents and local reporters who cause trouble for our hero.

Then there are more recent permutations, particularly on network TV (think action shows like 24) in which the hero is forced to push the boundaries of what's legal in order to achieve results -- especially when it comes to saving thousands of lives from a terrorist attack.

Now, to hear folks on the right talk, you'd think that George W. Bush was indeed cut in the mold of Harrison Ford and Kiefer Sutherland, with a dash of Bruce on the side. Don't these wimps complaining about his surveillance of American citizens without warrant or oversight know we're in a war on terror?

I mean, what good is the Constitution if all it does is enable evil terrorists to endanger the lives of us all? Right? We should be able to pick and choose whose rights we protect, because you never know when someone is gonna set off a nuke in your kids' playground.

It's too easy to say that George W. Bush and his cult of defenders on the right have watched too many of these action films. Rather, what is more noteworthy is that this public response taps directly into those well-established sentiments about heroic action. It's actually rather a brilliant stroke: Republicans are appealing to an American public already profoundly propagandized by a steady diet of Hollywood-produced action flicks and revenge melodramas. Movies in which such niceties as civil rights are readily discarded in the pursuit of justice.

Mind you, it matters little that the reality is that 24-type situations, in which life-and-death issues hang on questions of torture and surveillance, are so extremely rare that their likelihood is nearly nil. Moreover, the system of justice is designed so that considerations like preventing the deaths of innocents can be readily taken into account later.

These "annoying" laws exist for a reason fundamental to the very foundations of modern society: This is a nation of laws, not men. And while it's easy and convenient to discard those principles in the flimsy context of a movie, doing so in real life has profound and lasting complications.

I think what you can say is that the Bush team is cynically manipulating public sentiment for the sake of pushing the limits of presidential power. It's a brilliant move, really, tapping into an aspect of the psyche that has been preconditioned by a hoary myth that has been perpetuated over the years by Hollywood: the notion that the action-driven hero's instincts for "saving lives" are superior to careful reasoning and principled restraint.

But it sure is weird for a bunch of people who make a living out of deriding "Hollywood values."

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