May 31, 2009

Plausibility vs. Accuracy

Last night, I was attending a bachelor party for a friend, and after returning to his house, we grabbed some beer and pizza and turned on the movie Shooter. All the other guys there seemed to think it was an incredible movie, mostly due to the eponymous sniping and the 'hot chick.' I, to be completely honest, thought it was terrible. I was trying to figure out why the movie struck me as so bad. It wasn't the action scenes, since those were well executed (they had a home where the gas had been turned on explode like it was a petroleum tank; a real house would have simply caught on fire). It wasn't even really the plot (a Marine sniper is framed for the assassination of an Ethiopian archbishop). It was the over-the-top inaccuracy involved.

Before anyone chews me out for that statement, I know that many, many movies are inaccurate. However, most of those movies aren't trying to be real-life thrillers. What seems to make a good movie is one that remains accurate to the real-life institutions it is representing while pushing the envelope on plausibility.

As an example, take an excellent real-life thriller, The Departed. The film is accurate through its representation of the mob and the workings of the State Police and the FBI. Were a mole for the Winter Hill Gang to actually enter the Massachusetts State Police, he would likely act in the way shown in the film: he would seek as much information as possible, he would use a different cell phone setup when contacting his mob connections, and he would meet those connections in nondescript places where he would be unlikely to be trailed. The Police, on the other hand, would be restrained, as they are in the movie, needing to meet a high standard of evidence before taking an actual case to trial. The movie works within the real bounds of the institutions it represents. It pushes plausibility with the coincidences of the two moles at the same time, the parallelism of the characters, their simultaneous relationship with the same woman, and their ultimate fates. It is that 'what if' that makes the movie impressive.

Shooter is a plausible movie. The notion of a top sniper being framed for assassination by a rogue band of intelligence agents sound like an interesting plot. However, the abundant inaccuracies regarding the workings of the government were astounding and, ultimately, disappointing. A short listing of dead-wrong moments:
  • The military abandoning the shooter and his partner. Even on top secret missions, the Army makes every attempt to find a missing soldier. Beyond the obvious honor-duty-country reasoning, it is necessary not to abandon those who have families that might go to the press and seriously damage both the reputation and the morale of the armed forces. The CIA may have such moments, which the families would be made aware of; the military does not.
  • The military following orders of a rogue senator. Senators, even those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have no ability to issue orders. There would never be an operation without the express consent of the Secretary of Defense or the Director of the CIA, and the President would likely be briefed. A Senator (maybe) could hire out contractors, but the actual military would never be involved without someone else either being fooled (which the movie gives no indication of) or knowledgeable of it. It's called the separation of powers--the executive branch runs the military, the legislative controls the pursestrings.
  • The CIA knowing about a potential assassination attempt and allowing the President to speak anyway. This one is really ridiculous, and it harms the believability of the main character more than the movie itself. He's supposed to be trained in counterintelligence and intuitively brilliant. Wouldn't anyone with half a brain know that if there is a likely assassination attempt, then the President's remarks would be moved indoors or canceled outright? The Secret Service doesn't play games with the President's safety. Any idiot would realize something fishy with the government allowing a sniper to even get a gun and a clean shot at the President.
  • The Archbishop of Ethiopia. There is no archbishop of Ethiopia. There is an archdiocese in Addis Ababa (the Ethiopian capital), but not for the entire country. That should have been simple enough to correct. The writers could have just added the line "It's the archbishop of Addis Ababa, who they consider a spiritual guide throughout Ethiopia."
  • The punishment of the FBI agent. An FBI agent who was attacked by a suspected assassin (especially an assassin trained at the level of Mark Wahlberg's character) would be more important as a witness at the assassin's trial than anything else. It may be an embarrassment for him and for the agency, but he certainly wouldn't have a review with Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and be ostracized from the rest of the agents (add in that he was 'fresh out of the Academy', and he wouldn't be expected to handle that situation). Additionally, OPR only investigates attorneys accused of abuse of prosecutorial (or other) authority. It has nothing to do with agents for the FBI.
  • The final review with the Attorney General. This meeting was ridiculous on many, many levels. First, evidence for an assassination as important as a gun would never be simply left on a table for a meeting. Additionally, the gun would be with an agent at all times and not left (duh) at the end of the table next to the suspect, who is (duh, again) one of the world's best snipers. Second, a prisoner of that magnitude would not be 'uncuffed' unless there was security personnel around him. He certainly wouldn't be allowed to shake the hand of an FBI agent there. He also certainly would not be allowed to be there without an attorney present. Third, (and probably most importantly) the meeting wouldn't have even happened, since the Attorney General and FBI Director simply don't meet with prisoners, no matter how important they are. Bobby Kennedy would never have met with Lee Harvey Oswald for any reason. Instead, investigators and attorneys would have met with him. The Attorney General is an administrator, not an active investigator. Fourth, the Attorney General has no power to simply order that a prisoner be released. The Justice Department must first file paperwork order the withdrawal of a complaint due to lack of evidence, which must then go to a judge with jurisdiction. The judge orders the release. Fifth, somehow the Attorney General simply believes the FBI agent who says that Danny Glover's character was involved in Ethiopian genocide, after he provides 'proof', which is simply photos of a mass grave. Sorry, pal. You can't just show photos of genocide, accuse someone of perpetrating it, and then expect them to be detained. Even more embarrassing, however, is the Attorney Generals inability to know his own jurisdiction. 18 USC 1091 covers the crime of Genocide, which, if the perpetrator is in the US, can be charged.
Overall, an okay action movie with a really, really inaccurate subtext.

May 30, 2009

Up and Away!

This has been a very eventful week. We have a Supreme Court nominee to replace David Souter, Pat Fitzgerald indicted a Chicago alderman, North Korea is about to incite the Korean War Redux, and, on a more uplifting note, Disney/Pixar's Up is opening.

I haven't seen the movie, and I don't know the full plot. What I do know is that an old man wants to go on an adventure so airlifts his house out of the city by way of thousands of balloons, inadvertently carrying an adorable boy scout with him. Somewhere in there a dog named Dug (who wears a collar that vocalizes his thoughts) and a female bird named Kevin show up. It seems totally random, but, as per usual with Pixar, the reviews are outstanding.

There are a few featurettes that I've found. Enjoy!

May 25, 2009

In Memoriam

Memorial Day Order

General Order 11.

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way, arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are here to play, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldiers and sailors widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander in Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this Order effective.

By Command of:

John A. Logan
Commander in Chief

May 5, 1868

May 22, 2009

Liberal publications suck now

Remember the halcyon days of liberal ascendancy, back when Iraq was flubbing, U.S. Attorneys were being fired, Valerie Plame was whining, and Hurricane Katrina was sinking George Bush's approval ratings as fast as it was flooding the Ninth Ward? Those sure were the days for liberal publications. Back then, they could spend their time excoriating the President (and, before 2006, Congress). They did so regularly. And, even from my conservative vantage point, a lot of them were well thought out and argued. They saw what they didn't like and opposed it.

Now, they have nothing to say.

Browsing through the pages of overtly liberal publications--The Nation, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, The Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo--you get the feeling that they don't know what to do anymore. Even those publications that lean left without officially acknowledging it--Slate, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times--offer pretty terrible reporting now. None of them wants to really go after Obama, or even question him harshly for that matter, what with their perpetual 2008-gasm over him, making their articles pathetic recitations of the White House's policies and throwbacks to what they didn't like about Bush. Take, for example, Slate's recent "How Obama Is Like Spock" article or Newsweek's "Obama Struggles With Life in the Spotlight" (detailing how Obama never really wanted to be such a public person). The problem isn't the articles themselves so much, since many of them could stand alone and be somewhat interesting; it's the fact that the publications of repute now have nothing to say. The media thrives when it challenges the authority, not when it coddles. John Dickerson asking George W. Bush what his greatest mistake had been was a perfect example--the media (and the American people) expect good answers for tough questions. The problem is that they need the tough questions to be asked. Offering arguments of why Obama is so thoughtful or why Dick Cheney shouldn't be listened to because he's so mean doesn't confront the core of the debate--ultimately, do 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and Gitmo work, and if so, do their benefits (information gained, potential terrorists taken out of the field) outweigh their costs (respect lost around the world, incitement of extremism)? That inability to deal witht the arguments seems to stem from (a) a desire to not harm or question Obama's policies, and (b) a refusal to allow an argument by Dick Cheney to be considered, simply because it is from Dick Cheney.

Now, liberal publications are looking a lot like The Weekly Standard and The National Review did during the Bush years; they are simply fighting back against the onslaught, combining puff pieces for the president and 'it's not that bad' articles. Instead, they should be leading the mob, probing our leaders in a constant, considered fashion.

It's a shame. I used to enjoy perusing most of those sites and dealing with their arguments, but now that all I need to do is listen to Robert Gibbs's press briefings to get the same thing, there's no real point.

Getting back on the horse

All right; I'm trying to get back into the swing of things. It's been hard lately to find the time to write on this, though I've certainly had plenty of things that have interested me and would have been worthwhile to post.

It's springtime in Chicago, which, every year, makes me feel like Rip van Winkle--waking up from the long winter's nap and realizing anew how different and lovely the world can be. Of course, poor Mr. van Winkle's experience wasn't particularly enjoyable. Nonetheless, the analogy is apt.

Today, the WSJ has an interesting opinion piece on Joe Biden, effectively decrying him for introducing pure, unadulterated partisanship to the judicial confirmation process. It says, in summary, that Obama and Biden can't whine if Republicans try to stymie the upcoming Supreme Court appointment, since Mr. Biden himself was the first to do so to Republicans.

I'm not sure if Joe Biden deserves all the blame for that. Judicial nominees have been routinely rejected by Congress since George Washington. However, Joe Biden did turn it into an art form, following Ted Kennedy's lead with Robert Bork's vicious nomination fight. One of the less-discussed political hatreds still hanging over Washington is from the nomination that followed Bork--Clarence Thomas. It's between Joe Biden and Clarence Thomas (mostly one way, with Thomas despising Biden). You see, during the confirmation hearings, Biden kept reminding Thomas that he would be the judge's biggest defender. That turned out to be a bald-faced lie, as Biden (the chair of the judiciary committee), allowed the circus of Anita Hill to materialize, destroying Thomas's reputation, though failing to keep him off the Court.

Anyway, it's an interesting read. I don't particularly like the whole 'you did this to us, so we'll do it right back' mentality in politics. Democrats ripped George Bush apart savagely, justified sometimes in their arguments, however rarely justified in their rhetoric. Some Republicans show signs of "ODS"--Obama Derangement Syndrome, a variation of the "BDS" that most of the Left still has. Politicians should be challenged on the merits of their policies, not for simple revenge.

May 12, 2009

Link Parade

Here are some recent articles that I found interesting:

Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics discusses why acting as if Republicans won't make gains in the 2010 midterms is impossible to tell now, and how the historic trend is pretty good for them.

Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post
asks whether Mitch Daniels (governor of my home state of Indiana) will be the face of the new GOP (link to his speech that made somewhat of a kerfuffle here).

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate yells at conservatives for not liking Obama's Supreme Court 'empathy' standard.

Joel Bleifuss at In These Times discusses how moderate GOP members moving to the Democratic caucus actually helps conservatives in one sense by forcing the political center farther right.