Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Bond Project: GoldenEye. Due to legal difficulties, several years passed between License to Kill and the next Bond film. For the first time in franchise history, fans would have to wait more than a year or two for the next exciting adventure. During that time, the world had changed tremendously. The Berlin Wall fell, and finally the Soviet Union collapsed. Despite the fact that the Bond franchise rarely looked to the Soviets as major villains, this nevertheless amounted to a massive change that the producers had to consider. The geopolitical realities of the world had transformed almost overnight, so the international political environment in which Bond operated had to be similarly overhauled.

The producers took this challenge seriously and met it head on. Some fans wondered if Bond could survive in the post-Cold War world. Mindful of this concern, the producers set out to prove that the same old Bond could function just as well in the New World Order. First things first, they needed to cast their new star. In the years since License to Kill, Timothy Dalton decided to relinquish the role (he had originally signed to a three-film contract). The producers didn’t have to look too hard to find there replacement. Pierce Brosnan, who had been literally hours away from taking the role after Roger Moore departed, was available. End of story.

In many ways, GoldenEye represents what might be called the first “modern” Bond film. It lots of small ways, the film was a huge departure from the past. One need look no further than the casting of Judi Dench as the new M to see evidence of this proposition. Moreover, M’s office was no longer a quiet, plain, tasteful room with desk and telephone. MI6 HQ now resembles a hi-tech operations center; vast, open spaces filled with computer work-stations, complete with a massive interactive monitor-board on one wall.

But the script, as well as sets, seems to have a more modern, or rather postmodern, flavor. For instance, Judi Dench’s M is given the role of expressing the same skepticism about Bond’s future as some fans already had. She refers to him as a “relic of the Cold War”. It’s not hard to see the parallel. Bond spends the film nonchalantly proving M wrong, just as the producers, without breaking a sweat, demonstrate that the franchise has plenty of life left in it. Also, by creating a villain who was formerly a double-0 agent himself, we get an enemy who is intimately aware of the standard Bond clichés, and can anticipate Bond’s actions, and also comment directly on the clichés of the franchise.

All of this, while very interesting, doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. Unfortunately for Bond’s long-awaited return to the big screen, this film is decidedly not good. Pierce Brosnan’s very first line as Bond is a stupid joke which is painfully unfunny, reminiscent of Roger Moore’s worst moments. All of the grit and realism established during Dalton’s all-too-brief tenure is swept away in minutes. It gets worse: the scene with Bond and a totally random pretty-young-woman in the Aston Martin is pointless and bizarre. Ok, sure, it sets up the meeting between Bond and Xenia Onatopp, but it feels isolated and intrusive.

Speaking of Xenia Onatopp, this character is simply dreadful, and Famke Janssen’s inept performance doesn’t help matters. It’s all part of the postmodernism of the film that we encounter a villain who kills via sex (a perfect villain for Bond, right?), but the character is both written and performed in so over-the-top a fashion that it feels forced and unnatural.

The major villain of the piece, however, is another story. Alec Trevelyan is a fascinating character superbly realized by Sean Bean. Alan Cumming, though pretty good as Boris, becomes more and more abrasive as the film goes on, to the point where you find yourself actively willing his death. The Russian villain, Colonel Ouromov, is utterly typical and entirely forgettable. One decent villain out of four is pretty horrendous, but thank goodness for that one.

There are a lot of compensating plusses, which make the film sufficiently enjoyable. Joe Don Baker (Mitchell!) returns to the franchise, this time as Bond’s new CIA ally Jack Wade. He too is given a little post-modern humor, mocking the cloak-and-dagger methods of his British counterpart. The inimitable Robbie Coltrane (who is only now getting the respect he deserves through the Harry Potter franchise) is a wonderful addition to the Bond family as Valentin Zukovsky. Again, he is used to add another level of self-awareness, undermining Bond’s seriousness and providing a welcome and effective jolt of humor. Michael Kitchen is excellent as Tanner, part of the MI6 team working under M. His role is small and not terribly important, but he plays every role with a sort of easy conviction which is utterly credible. Last but not least is Samantha Bond as the new Moneypenny. She’s fucking gorgeous. ‘Nuff said.

The story here is pretty intriguing, actually, but the plot has problems. All in all, it is very typical of the franchise, which I found disappointing in itself, especially when viewed directly following License to Kill. The Bond renaissance was short-lived, and it’s over now. This film ushered in the beginning of post-industrial Bond. Standing alone, I have to say that the film fails, but it definitely succeeds in its stated mission of proving the post-Cold War viability of the franchise.

Bottom-line: Effective cosmetic changes to the franchise re-invigorate it, but it’s ultimately let down by an all too typical de-emphasis on plot and story.

UPDATE: The Bond Project continues with Tomorrow Never Dies.

Friday, March 28, 2003

The Indispensable Josh Marshall. Forgive me for the sycophantic kiss-up, but I'm really impressed by this post. It's long and has a scattered focus, but it hits so many great points, and employs humor with far more subtlety than I'm capable of. [When I started this blog, I always figured it would naturally be very funny, but it isn't. I'm a pretty funny guy in real life, if I do say so myself, so I'm a little surprised that I've never been able to get that across, but I'll keep working on it.]

He starts with a happy note about Richard Perle resigning from the Defense Policy Board, which is wonderful news. [But Atrios suggests that it isn't as good as it sounds.] He then moves on to an extremely thoughtful and insightful comment about the state of the war so far, which functions as a kind of defense of the Rumsfeldian approach which has been coming under so much fire lately. The basic point is that the Rumsfeld strategy of having a small, mobile, high-tech contingent of troops carrying out lightning-quick operations with assistance from indigenous troops (or, as I called them at the time, "outside contractors"), worked like magic in Afghanistan, which is an important point to remember. It doesn't look like it's working out so well so far, but at this point, I would be no more surprised if this war ended on April 1 or May 31. In other words, anything can happen, so the jury is still out on the war plan. The fact that we'll be bringing in one-third more troops in the next few weeks certainly lends credibility to the Rumsfeld-bashing, but it's still up in the air whether the political leadership seriously fucked this aspect up or not.

He goes on to draw some fascinating parallels between modern America and 19th/early 20th century Germany, which is a little disturbing. I'm not very good on history, so this stuff goes a bit over my head. But it's still interesting.

But then he really brings it home, and this is where the humor comes in. As I reported previously, rather sloppily, the Bush Administration is bending over backwards to pave the way for American corporations (especially big-ticket donor corporations) to profit handsomely from this war, which just looks really really bad if you happen to live in a country that pays attention to what America's president does (basically, most countries other than ours, so far as I can tell). We've got Qualcomm lobbying to go in and install some American-standard communications infrastructure stuff, which would just so happen to replace the European-standard equipment in place over there all ready, and would just so happen to open up a lucrative new market for Qualcomm while excluding those dastardly French. We've got Franklin Graham (not Christianity's best ambassador, in my view) salivating over the prospect of delivering humanitarian aid to post-war Iraq, and, while he's there, perhaps finding a way to discreetly steer the conversation toward Jesus. As Josh puts it: "That should go over well."

I just wish the Administration would pretend that it knew what it was doing. I'd sleep better.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Dixie Chicks Scandal. Tomorrow, my law school is holding its annual Barrister's Ball. It's a sort of law school prom with loads of booze. Apparently, students attending had the opportunity to request music to be played during the event, and someone requested the Dixie Chicks. The third-year class president, who organizes the event, has decided to ban the Dixie Chicks' music from the event. I felt compelled to e-mail him regarding this issue, and I thought it might amuse you all to see what I had to say. Names have been deleted for privacy considerations.

"Although I have no intention of attending the Barristers' Ball (I don't go in for that sort of thing), I feel compelled to write you on the Dixie Chicks issue. I've known from the get-go, given your involvement with the Federalist Society, that your political views and mine were miles apart, but I have always found you to be a very personable and friendly guy, and I appreciate to this day how you went out of your way to welcome the 1-L class last fall. That's why I was very disappointed to hear that you have taken the petty and childish step of banning music by the Dixie Chicks at the Barristers' Ball.

"I could understand, and totally support, banning an anti-war song, even if I happened to agree with the content of the song. But to ban a song because of political disagreements you have with its singer is simply ridiculous. While I understand that millions of Americans, and a significant number of Rutgers Law students, found the comments made by the Dixie Chicks to be utterly inappropriate and totally off-base, you must also admit that millions of Americans, and a significant number of Rutgers Law students, agreed with the comments 100%. This isn't some deep fringe opinion. Recall that in the days immediately prior to the outbreak of war, when the comments were made, support for war in Iraq without even attempting to pursue a second UN resolution was polling at below 50% (while support for war even in the face of a UNSC rejection was polling above 50%). This shows that the comments made were not beyond the pale of reasonable discourse, or even outside the political mainstream. Beyond the sheer ridiculous of banning a band's music because of their political beliefs (the expression of which, thanks to thinned-skinned dissent-phobic war-supporters around the country, was solemnly apologized for), this band did not even say anything so awful that they should be censured for it.

"I believe the posters supporting your impeachment, which refer to you as another "dictator from Texas", are similarly ridiculous and over-the-top, but I think you over-reacted first. If students want to hear Dixie Chicks music at the Ball (and, for reasons of musical taste, I emphatically would not), they should not be denied that opportunity because the band failed to comport to your definition of acceptable political discourse in war time. Remember, more than a few Americans consider dissent to be the highest and bravest form of patriotism. What makes your opinions trump anyone else's?"

I'll update you if there are any developments, though I don't expect any.
Diplomatic Quagmire. Michael Tomasky, writing for The American Prospect writes: "There is -- or was -- a diplomatic and political process on the one hand, and there's a fighting war on the other; and deploring the Bush administration's conduct of the former while supporting the speedy success of the latter now that it's under way is an entirely respectable and consistent position. Not only that, it's an important position to hold on to over the coming weeks." Couldn't have said it better myself, though not for lack of trying. The article is here, which is very interesting. [Thanks to Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media?, for directing me to this article.]

The article includes the "gotcha!" moment of the chief architect of the "shock and awe" strategy coming out against the war (or, at least, against the manifest incompetence displayed by the Administration in the months leading up to war). His name is Harlan Ullman, and he says "...if it had been up to me, I would have waited months, perhaps, to get a second resolution, when it would have been clear that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I don't agree with the administration view that Iraq is a clear and present danger."

The article also discusses, as I did a few days ago, the utter ridiculousness of using the term "quagmire" in the current situation. But Tomasky makes the point that the failed diplomatic process of the pre-war period was a quagmire, and diplomacy in the post-war period will be just as bad. He ends on an optimistic note by predicting that the diplomatic fiasco, which has only just begun, will bite Bush hard on the ass in 2004. We shall see.

I'm a Philadelphia sports fan, therefore a pessimist, and therefore I believe with some certainty that Bush will be re-elected in 2004 by a far larger margin than that by which he lost in 2000.
Investigation Stalls. The White House has no problem coming up with $10B for Israel, which is requested in that $75B budget request for the war that we heard so much about. Unfortunately, when Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey and head of the 9/11 commission, asks for a measly $11M so they can investigate everything they've been commissioned to investigate, the White House is dragging its feet. This is serious. While it looks like the White House will, sooner or later, authorize the money, they are taking their sweet time about it. I know, you're thinking, there's a war on! Yes, I'm sure that they're very busy, and a lot of lesser issues are being put on the back-burner (like North Korea). But the 9/11 commission only has until May 2004 to complete it's task. The money they've already been given, $3M, will run out in August of this year. They need to get this money quick so they can get on with their job.

Of course, the White House didn't want a 9/11 commission in the first place. That's why the White House underfunded it, and gave it a very strict and very brief timeframe. That's why the White House is dragging its feet on this reasonable request. I mean, seriously, this is the U.S. government we're talking about... they could probably find $11M between the cushions in a sofa at the White House. Anyway, here's the story from TIME.

And if you're not angry enough, just remember that Whitewater was investigated for seven years at a cost to taxpayers of over $75M, while 9/11 can't hope to get that kind of investigation. It's obscene, and it makes you want to puke. George W. Bush is not only a bad president, he is a despicable man. I would consider it a great honor to personally spit in his face.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Blood for Oil. Ok, I've never been one of these "No Blood for Oil" types. I think that phrase oversimplifies the motives of the Bush Administration so far as to be unhelpful. I think that the oil motive is one component of a very complex set of motives. I think oil is a necessary, but not a sufficient reason, within the nebulous and by no means unified mind of the Bush Administration.

Unfortunately, the White House is making it damn hard to continue minimizing the importance of oil. When U.S. companies with strong political ties to this Administration (first and foremost, Halliburton) start picking up highly lucrative no-bid government contracts for Iraqi oil, it shakes your faith. In other words, this may not be an oil war, but the Bush Administration is bending over backwards to make it look like one.

Jon Stewart agrees, as reported by Nathan Newman.
Senate Dems' Strategy. After the midterm elections, when the Democrats lost control of the Senate, many lefty bloggers began chiming in with strategy arguments for how the Democrats should position themselves for the 2004 elections. Liberal Oasis posted a 9-Point Plan for the Democrats to recapture the majority. It advises adopting a "government-in-exile" approach, whereby the Democrats sort of pretend that they control the Senate and put forward their own legislation on every issue. While the Republicans would vote it all down, they would thereby develop a "virtual" record to run on in 2004. Also, the Republicans would become solely responsible for the ensuing mess, entirely of their own creation. This would give Democrats tons and tons of material to run against.

This strategy hasn't really happened, mainly because of a few conservative Democrats who love crafting compromises with the White House. The President proposes some horrible, ridiculous thing. The Democrats start screaming about it, and the compromisers split the difference. This looks good on paper, and plays well politically for the compromisers, but totally falls apart when you reaize that the White House never really wanted the ridiculous, horrible thing at all, and was gunning for something like the compromise all along. It gives the White House the image of being willing to work across aisles to obtain bi-partisan support, but it still gets every thing it wants.

Something like this has just happened in the Senate, where Bush's $750B tax cut written into the latest budget was slashed to $350B (these numbers are approximate). There is currently a bit of a debate among liberal, progressive, and lefty bloggers. $350B in unspecified tax cuts is too much. Something closer to zero would be better, especially since we are paying 100% of the war costs, and we're paying it 100% on credit. In other words, we simply cannot afford a tax cut. It's like a guy working nights at UPS who can't afford to pay rent on his apartment quitting his job without a back-up plan. If you don't have enough money to function to begin with, you don't intentionally slash your revenue stream.

There's no question that $350B in tax cuts is better than $750B. But since the Democrats, and a few moderate Republicans, have gone on record in favor of this tax cut, it undermines their positioning for 2004. It makes it harder to credibly run on a fiscal responsibility platform. So the argument goes. On the other hand, it shows how vulnerable Bush has become on domestic issues, particularly on the economy. If a ragtag bunch of spineless Democrats can stand up to the White House during a war, than the White House must be pretty weak. And the press has picked up on this dynamic big time, and it's filtering through to the public consciousness as we speak. Sure, so long as the war is on, and going fairly well (which it is), the President is going to be broadly popular. But as soon as the war stops, doestic issues become more prominent, and Bush starts looking shaky again.

For more on this strategy debate, check out Eschaton, which argues that this is a big victory for the Dems, and also Seeing the Forest and Ruminate This, who think this is a strategic disaster for the Dems.

I'm kinda on the fence, but I tend to lean toward Eschaton's analysis. The deficit is, after all, already established as a huge issue in the next election. In 2000, Bush promised that we could have massive tax cuts, pay down the debt, protect social security, and meet needed contingencies all at the same time. He lied. If the deficit isn't at record levels already, it will be soon. Despite voting for this tax cut, which is huge, Dems can still position themselves as fiscally responsible as compared with Republicans, whose lustful thirst for tax cuts is utterly boundless. Besides, it sends a loud message to the White House: the tax cut strategy has failed miserably, and we're not going to take much more of this.

Oh, it's typically weaselly spineless Democrat compromising, and we've had far too much of that, but I still think it works out to a net gain for the Dems politically.

Monday, March 24, 2003

War Commentary by Blog. If you're like me, you resent intensely how unreliable the news media is during war, particularly this war. We all understand that the Pentagon uses the US media to disperse propaganda aimed at our enemies, and that's ok. But I don't have to listen to it, and why should I if I can't believe anything I'm being told? Some cynics would say that this is no different from everyday media unreliability. Not so. Normally, the media are incompetent cowards. Now, they are knowing dupes. And I don't like to be duped.

But I found a great resource for gettig reliable news and news analysis, and it's a blog. DailyKos became one of my favorite blogs back before the midterm elections. It generally focuses on electoral politics, and it is an indispensable resource within that area. I've been surprised and delighted by the sterling work it's been doing on the war. Its author has a strict policy against reporting rumors, which makes it a far more reliable news source than anything on television. The site also displays a healthy skepticism of the Pentagon, and a very reasonable pro-troops, anti-war ideology which I wholeheartedly share. Check out this post, which is particularly note-worthy. dKos reports that a reporter has uttered the most dangerous, inflammatory work imaginable at a time like this: "quagmire". Quite rightly, dKos dismisses this as irresponsible exaggeration. The war may not be going as well as many Americans expected, but it is certainly well within the expectations of the military brass who are paid to come up with realistic expectations. [The story is in how the Bush Adminstration fast-talked the country to war without honestly discussing what they knew would be the result. Imagine if you could go back in time and tell people roughly what the first week of war would be like... would that have increased or decreased public support?] The use of the word "quagmire" is inaccurate, unhelpful, and just silly. It's important for all of us to remember that word, and remember the war that its usage evokes, because the weeks and months ahead, both during and after the war, will be very hard. But we're simply not there yet. Nowhere near.

The post goes on to deconstruct the propaganda failures of the war to date. The number one example of this is Umm Qasr. I thought that was taken ages ago, but every time those nifty maps show up on the news, the graphics indicate that fighting is still on-going. But there have been plenty of claims made by the Pentagon (whether they be assertions, speculations, or sheer wishful thinking) that have been reported as fact by the media, which have turned out to be just wrong. Some of this is inevitable. It's not called "fog of war" for nothing. But it looks bad, doesn't it? There are a lot of levels to modern warfare, one of which is propaganda. The U.S. isn't doing very well so far in this area.