Everyone in Hollywood knows sequels and remakes are tricky. You had the original Poseidon Adventure (1972) – pure schlock, but diverting – and then you got Poseidon (2006) – Wolfgang Petersen making the original more intense, gritty and suspenseful and all that. That one was gone in a week – off to the remainder bin of DVD’s no one really wants, and in rotation on the minor cable outlets, late at night. The joy of the first one was watching major stars on a kind of holiday, cutting loose – Gene Hackman and Shelly Winters hamming it up, really chewing the scenery, as they say, and Red Buttons being very, very earnest, while winking at his agent. The original was a bit of an insiders’ joke. As for the remake, Wolfgang Petersen just didn’t get the joke, nor did Warner Brothers Pictures, who green-lighted the production. This was not Das Boot – profound and serious death underwater, Wolfgang Petersen’s major success.
Ah well – sometimes you just lose the concept. It was the same thing with the oddly charming first Spiderman movie, followed by an even better sequel, followed by the pure crap of the third one. It happens – by the third time around you’ve got nothing (try watching Shrek the Third – even your kids will walk out of the room, and read a book). You lost the concept. You’re going through the motions. You forgot what works.
As with Hollywood, so with everything – you have to know what works, and why it works. And you have to know what doesn’t work, and what will never work. You need to pay attention, learn from the past – all that sort of thing. Otherwise you’ll pull a Wolfgang Peterson – doing something once again, thinking you’ll do it far better this time, but missing the point entirely.
An example of this might be Karl Meyer in the International Herald Tribune with this, a comparison of Britain’s 1930 agreement with Iraq to the one we are now trying to arrange:
The “strategic alliance” that President Bush is proposing eerily resembles, in spirit and in letter, a failed 1930 treaty between Britain and Iraq that prompted a nationalist eruption in Baghdad, a pro-Nazi military coup and a pogrom that foreshadowed the elimination of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community.
… According to press reports based on leaks from the Iraqi Parliament, the pact envisions giving the Americans rights to as many as 58 military bases and control of Iraqi airspace. It would grant immunity from Iraqi laws to American military personnel. And it would empower American officials to detain suspected terrorists without the approval of Iraqi authorities.
Joe Klein in his Time Magazine blog responds to that:
It is probable that the Maliki government will want a US military presence, for the time being. But the rules governing that presence should be similar to those accorded the US military in countries like Japan and Germany – i.e. without the right to act unilaterally on Iraqi terrain. Any intimation that the US is forcing conditions on the Iraqis will result, as Meyer notes, in long-term resentment and reaction – and continued violence against our troops.
In the end, as I’ve written here before, there is no good rationale for a permanent US military presence in Iraq; it will be a permanent irritant. And this seems one of the clear foreign policy differences in the presidential campaign: McCain wants a long-term presence. Obama doesn’t.
The remake – better than the first – is just one of those attempts to get it right, that misses the concept.
Ah heck, see “A Report on Mesopotamia by Ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence” – that would be the real Lawrence of Arabia, not Peter O’Toole – from August 22, 1920, Sunday Times (UK). The link is here, with stuff like this:
Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied, and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats, and armoured trains. We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely peopled; but Abd el Hamid would applaud his masters, if he saw us working. We are told the object of the rising was political, we are not told what the local people want. It may be what the Cabinet has promised them. A Minister in the House of Lords said that we must have so many troops because the local people will not enlist. On Friday the Government announce the death of some local levies defending their British officers, and say that the services of these men have not yet been sufficiently recognized because they are too few (adding the characteristic Baghdad touch that they are men of bad character). There are seven thousand of them, just half the old Turkish force of occupation. Properly officered and distributed, they would relieve half our army there. Cromer controlled Egypt’s six million people with five thousand British troops; Colonel Wilson fails to control Mesopotamia’s three million people with ninety thousand troops.
… We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?
Iraq 1920, Iraq 2008 – you don’t do a remake if the original was a turkey, especially if you don’t change the concept at all. And new and improved versions of anything are box office poison. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was fine as is.
But people love to try the do-over. Maybe it will work this time. And maybe pigs will fly. Go see the new Get Smart, if you must. You’ll miss the Mel Brooks television show.
Or listen to John McCain, or better yet, read this Associated Press item, Analysis: McCain Challenges Obama on Terrorism. That opens with this:
Republican John McCain paints Democratic rival Barack Obama as naive on foreign policy, weak on national security and, now, soft on terrorism.
Yep, it’s a remake – Bush talking about Kerry in 2004 (it worked), and Rove and the rest talking about the Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections but failed (it didn’t work, and Democrats won control of both houses of Congress). So, will “Be Very Afraid – III” work? The odds are against it. Invoking 9/11 – again – after all these years, it is kind of tired, and gas is nearing five dollars a gallon, and the housing market collapsing, and there are all the layoffs, and hard times, with all prices rising.
And the remake has, amazingly enough, the same actors, in the same roles:
“The Democrats want to go back to a pre-September 11th view of terrorism … The Democrats, led by Barack Obama, want to go back to being on defense,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and top McCain surrogate said Wednesday, a day after McCain’s campaign claimed Obama is naive and “a perfect manifestation of a September 10th mind-set.”
Rudy Giuliani? He’s the Shelly Winters of politics – given to over-the-top dramatic flourishes, in his own, private disaster movie. He thinks he’s still in the Poseidon Adventure, even if the theater is empty now. People have moved on:
An AP-Yahoo News poll in April showed that while three-fourths of people said terrorism was an important issue, voters ranked eight other issues as more important – the economy, gas prices, health care, the Iraq war, taxes, Social Security, political corruption and education. Of those calling terrorism an important issue, 41 percent said they’d vote for McCain while 30 percent said they’d choose Obama.
Terrorism may not be as potent a campaign issue as it once was.
It has been seven years since 9/11 – even if not for Rudy. And McCain too cannot let go of the past:
In some ways, it’s almost as if McCain is embracing the residue of the Democratic primary in which Hillary Rodham Clinton portrayed herself as stronger and Obama weaker on national security.
Like Clinton, McCain has repeatedly criticized Obama for saying last year that he would be willing to meet – without preconditions – with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
Bush, too, weighed in last month when he hinted that Obama wants to appease terrorists and radicals.
And there’s much more – the Hamas “endorsement” of Obama, and Obama being okay with the Supreme Court ruling that detainees in Guantanamo have a constitutional right to challenge their indefinite imprisonment, which McCain maintains is just awful. In short, he’s hoping the remake of 2004, and 2006, will be a box office smash. That’s possible, or he might have Spiderman 3 on his hands.
As for Rudy, Greg Sargent and Eric Kleefeld, at TPM Election Central, actually listened in on the conference call, and report this:
Rudy is now officially John McCain’s lead crooner when it comes to singing the GOP’s Dems-are-weak-on-terror golden oldie.
On a conference call with reporters just now, Rudy bashed Obama and Dems as weak and “defensive” and unleashed a whole bunch of boilerplate that we’ve been hearing for many years and will hear for many, many more.
“The reality is there seems to be more concern about the rights of terrorists, or alleged terrorists, than the rights that the American people have to safety and security,” Rudy said. “I do not understand why, at a time we’re facing this terrorist threat, we want to create new rights that didn’t exist before for people alleged to be involved in terrorist activities or alleged to be enemy combatants.”
“It is fair to say that Osama Bin Laden would be given new rights that nobody ever had before,” Rudy continued.
They then ask the obvious question, one a casting director might ask:
How much authority will the national press accord Rudy as a voice on terrorism during the general election? Rudy has no foreign policy experience whatsoever. His aura of national security experience comes solely from having been photographed walking through the smoke and dust on 9/11.
When Rudy ran for president it took the press corps many months to realize that Rudy has absolutely no authority to speak on this topic. Now that he’s popped up again as McCain’s front man it may take the press many more months to awaken to this reality again – unless perhaps Team Obama makes sure to stress this obvious point as often as possible.
Well, Team Obama was on it, immediately:
“Democrats are not going to be lectured to on security by the mayor who failed to learn the lessons of the 1993 attacks, refused to prepare his own city’s first responders for the next attack, urged President Bush to put his corrupt crony in charge of our homeland security, and was too busy lobbying for his foreign clients to join the Iraq Study Group,” DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney said. “Rudy Giuliani, can echo the McCain campaign’s false and misleading attacks, but he can’t change the fact that John McCain is promising four more years of President Bush’s flawed and failed policies on everything from energy security and the economy to the war in Iraq.”
That wasn’t nice, but here we see that former Navy secretary John Lehman – a leading McCain adviser and surrogate (see USA Today) – once said Rudy was a fraud. This is what Lehman had to say to the 9/11 Commission about that man’s performance in “defending New York” as Mayor:
It was Lehman who, during a Sept. 11 Commission hearing in NY City, took the Giuliani administration to task for the failure to have effective radio communications in place on Sept. 11, leading to chaos.
”I think the command and control and communications of this city’s public service is a scandal,” Lehman said at the time. In his most memorable quip, he said the city’s disaster-response plans were ”not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city.”
If even the McCain campaign’s national security expert says that Rudy failed to defend his constituents adequately, why is the McCain campaign enlisting Rudy as a voice of authority on the question of who is best qualified to defend America?
That’s a good question. And why is Stallone still making Rocky movies?
It would seem, from this AP item, that the other guy just isn’t into remakes – “Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Wednesday he would bring Osama bin Laden to justice in a way that wouldn’t allow the terrorist mastermind to become a martyr…” He’d rather capture him alive and put him on trial:
Obama said he wouldn’t discuss what approach he would take to bring bin Laden to justice if he were apprehended. But he said the Nuremberg trials for the prosecution of Nazi leaders are an inspiration because the victors acted to advance universal principles and set a tone for the creation of an international order.
“What would be important would be for us to do it in a way that allows the entire world to understand the murderous acts that he’s engaged in and not to make him into a martyr, and to assure that the United States government is abiding by basic conventions that would strengthen our hand in the broader battle against terrorism,” Obama said.
Okay, okay, that may be a remake of Judgment at Nuremberg – you know, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark – but that was a pretty good movie.
But there are problems:
How to handle bin Laden has been a tricky question for presidents and those who would like to be in the White House. In the 2004 campaign, Democratic candidate Howard Dean was criticized for refusing to prejudge bin Laden’s guilt before a trial. President Bush has said his statement that he wanted to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” was one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency because it was misinterpreted around the world.
Yeah, the rest of the world is a problem, as one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers tells us:
I was in Europe the past two weeks and it was absolutely stunning. Everywhere I went, people wanted to speak to me about Obama. An old woman sweeping the street in Lisbon stopped me when she heard me speaking English and said: “American? Obama?” I could only shake my head and smile since I don’t speak Portuguese. The doorman in Frankfurt, the waiter in Munich and the hotel receptionist in The Netherlands all bent my ear for about 10-15 minutes about how they are so looking forward to having Obama as President. Notice that they didn’t say “your President” or “the American President” – it was simply “President.” Everyone feels like they have a stake in this election. I hope the American public understands just how important it is that we get this one right.
Finally, at a medical conference a doctor from Angola came up to me with tears in his eyes and implored for me to vote for Obama. I told him that I was an Obama supporter and he thanked me over and over. As he left, he said to me – “Only in America. Only in America.”
Well, that’s a new movie. And the new movie also has villains. From McClatchy, see General Who Probed Abu Ghraib: Bush Officials Committed “War Crimes” – and yes, you read that right:
The Army general who led the investigation into prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison accused the Bush administration Wednesday of committing “war crimes” and called for those responsible to be held to account.
The remarks by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who’s now retired, came in a new report that found that U.S. personnel tortured and abused detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, using beatings, electrical shocks, sexual humiliation and other cruel practices.
“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” Taguba wrote. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Taguba, whose 2004 investigation documented chilling abuses at Abu Ghraib, is thought to be the most senior official to have accused the administration of war crimes. “The commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture,” he wrote.
The White house had no comment. But the McClatchy item does comment on the Physicians for Human Rights report:
The group Physicians for Human Rights, which compiled the new report, described it as the most in-depth medical and psychological examination of former detainees to date.
Doctors and mental health experts examined 11 detainees held for long periods in the prison system that President Bush established after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. All of them eventually were released without charges.
The doctors and experts determined that the men had been subject to cruelties that ranged from isolation, sleep deprivation and hooding to electric shocks, beating and, in one case, being forced to drink urine.
But we don’t torture:
“All credible allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated and, if substantiated, those responsible are held accountable,” said Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. The Defense Department responds to concerns raised by the International Committee for the Red Cross, he said, which has access to detainees under military control.
“It adds little to the public discourse to draw sweeping conclusions based upon dubious allegations regarding remote medical assessments of former detainees, now far removed from detention,” Gordon said.
The physicians’ group said that its experts, who had experience studying torture’s effects, spent two days with each former captive and conducted intensive exams and interviews. They administered tests to detect exaggeration. In two of the 11 cases, the group was able to review medical records.
And the detail:
One of the Iraqis, identified by the pseudonym Laith, was arrested with his family at his Baghdad home in the early morning of Oct. 19, 2003. He was taken to a location where he was beaten, stripped to his underwear and threatened with execution, the report says.
“Laith” told the examiners he was then taken to a second site, where he was photographed in humiliating positions and given electric shocks to his genitals.
Finally, he was taken to Abu Ghraib, where he spent the first 35 to 40 days in isolation in a small cage, enduring being suspended in the cage and other “stress positions.”
He was released on June 24, 2004, without charge.
Damn, we need a new movie, not a remake, even if it were to be sold to us as “John and Rudy’s Excellent Adventure.” All remakes, all sequels, are doomed.