Hollywood is still mostly trapped in its view of itself and society. A stale, 1960’s era view of themselves as the good enlightened, struggling against a repressive, McCarthyist people and populace. A group of the true saved enlightened saints, against a dark and evil American people. But recently a glimmering of change is sprouting through Hollywood. Oh don’t worry … they still hate America and Americans. But their attitude about themselves is changing. Partly this is due to economics and technology, but partly because of how they see themselves. The change is mostly in the ranks of producer/director/writers, not actors, of course, but it is quite interesting.
The change is that instead of seeing themselves as the new Puritans, “saints” who persevere against a repressive, sexually and politically, “evil White male” regime, the new crowd sees themselves as Batman. Who everyone wants to save them, by extreme violence, while condemning them for doing so if they ever get caught.
Mostly, of course, I’m talking about the Nolan Brothers, and JJ Abrams. The Nolans are famous for the Batman movies, which endorse pre-emption and snooping and all sorts of vigilante violence. Abrams has joined with Jonah Nolan, Christopher’s brother, to produce “Person of Interest,” perhaps the most unsettling and for what it is, revolutionary conservative show on television.
Nolan’s Batman, famously, exists in a world and a city that has failed. Gotham is a pit, decaying into corruption. The cops, save one man, Gordon, are corrupt. Criminals run everything. The few honest District Attorneys are slaughtered, or driven insane, and cannot function. Judges routinely send criminals into a revolving door nuthouse. Nothing works, which is why Batman is needed. He exists because no one else will save Gotham. Leaving it to him, and whatever methods he himself finds appropriate or not. The only lines he follows are ones he draws himself.
You can immediately see the appeal for Hollywood’s creative people. All their institutions are failing or have failed. The Studio system that gave them money, a budget, people, and told them what to do are long gone. Have been for nearly forty years. What replaced them, the Agent system, is failing. People are not buying DVDs anymore, nor are Blu-Ray sales fixing the deficit. TV rights are down, foreign sales have been no help with massive piracy, and 3-D is a gimmick whose time has now definitively passed. As Chris Nolan says, film-makers and audiences have spent nearly a century getting ordinary films right, and knowing how to see them. You can’t watch 3-D with vision problems (most of the audience), on an Iphone or Ipad, or on ordinary TVs, where people most want to watch movies.
Nothing has worked, and so a few creative people have cast themselves as vigilante heroes. Determined to save the city (Hollywood) from the forces of darkness and violence (foreclosing on the Malibu beach-house) by whatever means required (appeasing the audience with traditional heroes). This earns them disdain from the populace (Hollywood’s in-crowd) but they are extra heroic and mavericky.
I’m sarcastic, but that is the process. And more are joining them. Captain America and Thor, no matter what their problems, were straight ahead super-heroic. Therefore, ultra-mavericky when everyone wants to be the hip new happening guy who is the toast of the town and ticks off audiences. Fear, desperation, and a desire to stand out have led the Nolans and others to make movies that appeal to ordinary people with heroics and a distance from the Hollywood mores of “you stupid hicks, your 1950’s values stink!”
Person of Interest takes that even further. It is astonishing that a conventional liberal like Abrams is even associated with it (he executive produces). In a key scene, the character Finch explains to the character played by James Caviezel, what he did for the government. Finch, he tells the man he hopes will work with him, developed a software system that would sift through everything. All the phone calls, emails, bank account activity, surveillance videos, supermarket purchases, everything, in daily life, that records activity in a database. And it would look for things, to predict violent acts about to happen.
The public, he says, wanted no more 9/11s. They just did not want to know how it was done. The government having given itself permission to read any e-mail and listen to any phone call, after 9/11, used his program to find out terrorist plots. But he tells the Caviezel character, there was a problem. The program found other things, mundane murder plots not associated with mass casualty terrorism. So he threw those away, but later came back and had the system send him just the social security numbers, of those people who were of interest. They could be the killers, they could be the victims, he could not tell because all he could safely send himself was the social security numbers.
Here there is another failure. The government could, if it wanted to, stop the murders from taking place. As the Finch character tells Reese (Caviezel), while crimes of passion or the heat of the moment cannot be prevented, those plotted over days and weeks and months, often can, because the plotters leave clues that his system can spot. But the government only cares about mass murder terror plots. Because that is the only concern of the public.
Caviezel’s character is a former CIA man, presumed dead, who killed a lot of terrorists and enablers after 9/11. He himself, like Batman, decides where he will draw the lines, and what he will or will not do. He does not like killing people, but is good at it. A burnt out and bitter man, he finds redemption in saving people who can be saved but the system lacks the will and ability to save.
The pilot was based on a screenplay developed by Abrams and Nolan, and is pretty revolutionary. The government, far from being an omnipresent fascist state, does the bare minimum to protect a public that wants to pretend it doesn’t know what is being done. Again into the gap of failure, by the government AND the people, rush the heroes using new technology and will power, to “be there in time,” to stop murders. The pilot tested off the charts, the highest of any drama pilot in 15 years, with “crazy broad appeal you don’t usually see,” so much so that CBS moved CSI aside for it, and won its timeslot in the premiere with 13 million viewers.
What Hollywood is very cautiously nibbling around the edges of, is that PC and Multiculturalism and restraint and all that, don’t work. More 9/11s don’t happen because lots of people get killed by drone strikes, combat patrols, and the like aided by outsourced torture, lots of software sweeps of bank accounts, phone calls, emails, travels, airline tickets, and more, plus human intel from forces needing US help/protection/assistance against enemies. Not by a heavy dose of hope and change. More like lots of drone strikes and SEAL missions never publicized, which the public would like to ignore.
Ultimately this is not sustainable, and the lone hero model while very dramatic has its own limitations, as actual policy. Which Hollywood’s creative types understand because no one makes a movie by themselves. Indeed the series raises all sorts of questions. Are we willing to tolerate thousands of murders, each year, because we don’t want to have intrusive, software-spying? If a couple of guys using the software can save that many, why not the police using it at will?
Naturally, this only around the edges. There is the PC heroic Black female cop. The usual “corrupt White cop ring” though the hot young female prosecutor is corrupt, the schlumpy divorced White guy is the intended victim not the killer. PC still reigns supreme in some areas. No one is asserting a broad-based challenge yet.
But … the whole point of the show is that the good guys use the ever-present surveillance technology (the hero Reese snoops a lot on targets electronically) to stop crimes from happening. In the pilot, they save three lives. They stop murders by not just breaking but obliterating every law, rule, and criminal procedure on the books. They step in because the government will not. The heroic Black female cop is shown as always three steps behind, not knowing who she is pursuing, or even why the hero acts as he does.
Let us put it this way. Not even JJ Abrams believes in Hope and Change and the West Wing anymore. Instead it’s a couple of vigilantes stepping in where the FBI or NYPD will not.