Saturday, May 11, 2013

A few more thoughts on Oblivion (and Homeland, too)

Oblivion reminds me of Homeland. Jack Harper is a lot like Nick Brody, the marine held captive for several years during the Iraq War before being freed. Each man is captured by his enemy. Each man is shown kindness by the leader of his enemies, whom eventually becomes his trusted adviser and/or guide. Each man become a suicide bomber (though, ultimately, Brody decides to abandon his plan). Oblivion and Homeland both strive to create characters whom an audience will empathize and sympathize with. Both face the challenge of making a terrorist sympathetic to their audiences. The two stories do this is slightly different ways. 

First, consider Nick Brody. Homeland humanizes him and, at least by the end of season 1, empathize with him. The show achieves this, even as Brody seems committed to terrorism against America, by divorcing Brody's motivations from the ideological. Brody never self-identifies as a terrorist. He becomes a bomber to kill one man (not incidentally, the Vice President of the United States) who orchestrated the drone strike which killed Brody's sort-of-adoptive son* (not coincidentally, the son of Abu Nasir, terrorist mastermind). Killing the VP has political implications, obviously, but manipulating politics isn't Brody's goal--this opens the door for us to understand and sympathize with him, and helps us categorize him as something other than "terrorist". If he were at all motivated by ideology, instead of revenge, it seems unlikely than American audiences could stomach his character--if he we committed to destroying America, Americans would have a hard time empathizing with him.

Now consider Jack Harper. Jack's motivations are entirely political by the end of the film: he wants the occupying aliens to leave Earth. The best way to do this, in his estimation, is to pilot a spaceship carrying a nuclear bomb into an alien control center. The goal is totally ideological. In fact, this final, ideological goal is at odds with Harper's goal for the rest of the film, which is to be reunited with his former wife. By killing himself, he makes that impossible, obviously**.

What allows Oblivion's protagonist to be a sympathetic suicide bomber is its remove from reality. The film's world, in 2077, is sufficiently different from our own, and Jack Harper's cause is sufficiently well motivated, that an (American) audience never parses him as a terrorist. Jack Harper is one of the good guys. He does what he needs to do to promote the good guy cause. And he's played by Tom Cruise. For all that Tom Cruise is, he's no terrorist. This is why the movie can tell its story. It's what makes the movie watchable.

But what makes the movie valuable, beyond its visuals, is its commitment to showing how its protagonist is radicalized and decides to become a martyr in a context not (totally) unlike our modern world. Oblivion shows us a character who chooses to kill himself for a political cause, using the methods of modern terrorism.

Why is this valuable? If a legitimate goal of art is to create characters and make us understand who they are, both Oblivion and Homeland have tried, in some small way, to help us understand our (America's) enemies. Both the film and the TV series chicken out from providing us with true enemies of America to grapple with--Oblivion is set in another, post-national time, and Homeland's bomber denies terrorist ideology. But, because both of them went halfway there, we might be able to imagine the rest.

*The tragedy--the death of a young boy in an U.S. drone strike--is incredibly simple to understand. The U.S. has done something wrong--they've bombed a school in the hope that Abu Nasir will be there. He isn't, and the bomb kills dozens of children. The scenario has so little nuance that it feels manipulative.

**The movie is clever about this bit by having a final scene of reconciliation between a clone of Jack Harper (not our hero, the martyr) and his wife. A bit of manipulation to make us feel better about his suicide.

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