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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Star Trek and the War on Terror

Originally published on OpEdNews on June 5, 2013.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" still (Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios)

Star Trek Into Darkness is, among other things, a much more incisive film about the Navy SEAL mission to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" (minus the "or alive") than last fall's Oscar nominee Zero Dark Thirty was. Of course, unlike Kathryn Bigelow's docudrama, J.J. Abrams' sci-fi fantasy doesn't come right out and state explicitly that it's about the war on Afghanistan, CIA black sites, or the assassination of public enemy #1. But if top-level science fiction of the past has taught us anything, it's that setting a story in the future or some other kind of alternate universe is often a very powerful way to talk about our own society and about monumental issues. And it's well-known that this was an enduring strength of creator Gene Roddenberry's first Star Trek TV series in the 60's -- a show which Roddenberry, who his longtime personal assistant claims was a humanist,  labeled later in his career as his "statement to the world".

I have never been much immersed in Captain Kirk or Captain Picard's voyages around the universe, but as a youngster I watched enough reruns of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy pondering thorny problems in their crew-neck boys' pyjamas that I picked up on the "in" jokes sprinkled through Star Trek Into Darkness. (You don't have to be truly "in" to get them.) Still, I have absolutely no opinion on how this, the 12th film about the travelers on the Starship Enterprise, compares with the rest of the canon, or how closely it sticks to the lore. But seeing such a high-profile event film, not just a main prong of the summer juggernaut but an empire of its own, deliver a super-sized popcorn movie while also taking on the ethical failings of the "War on Terror" -- now that is my kind of thrill. It makes me feel as warm and cuddly as a Tribble. Who knows but that it might even turn me into some kind of a Trekkie down the road.

In contrast to the stern CIA hierarchy in Zero Dark Thirty and the isolated obsession of its red-headed agent, we get instead in Star Trek Into Darkness a long-arm-of-justice mission which is questioned before the spaceship has even left earth. And one which Kirk certainly doesn't lead in isolation -- his loyal staff would never leave him alone that long. The young Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) does not lack a commanding presence, but his devoted crew are all so passionate, perceptive, and full of ideas, he can't make a decision or face a dilemma without someone registering a formal objection or making a prediction about the ramifications. This allows story complications to ensue, supporting characters to steal scenes, and humor to be derived from the difficulties of leadership, but it also enables a more democratic aesthetic to be presented than we might otherwise see in such a community (one which after all has a semi-militaristic discipline and precision, though as is pointed out in the film, the Enterprise is supposed to always stick to completely peaceful aims).

In other words, the characters in the new Star Trek do that which no-one in Zero Dark Thirty does for even a second: debate the ethics of their actions. And they debate topics we barely hear mentioned in the national dialogue. Yes, it is actually mentioned in a big Hollywood movie that a society living by the rule of law might actually want to arrest terrorists for the crime of terrorism and put them on trial, not just extrajudicially execute them. (I'm not saying things actually turn out all moral and proper in this Star Trek, but at least it's part of the conversation.) Furthermore, it is actually expressed right out loud in a "War on Terror"-era film that saber-rattling against foreign governments, and issuing ultimatums backed up by massive lethal force, might not actually be the best way to ensure the safety of the people one is responsible for protecting.

Unlike ZD30 and other recent mainstream movies with criminal masterminds responsible for devastating terrorism (like Skyfall), Abrams' second Star Trek picture doesn't pretend that the Enterprise has been sent after this villain with no holds barred because that is simply the noble, brave-hearted, high-class thing to do in the face of pure evil. On the contrary, Kirk, personally aggrieved by the vicious surprise terror attack on Starfleet early in the film, is shown as all too willing to spring into action without much forethought -- he doesn't even inquire about the huge stash of WMDs he's been ordered to load onto his ship. He doesn't really care whether finding the perpetrator "John Harrison" (played by British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch) will prevent other attacks and keep the Federation safe. He just wants payback. And the movie is very well-aware (and very adroit in the way it saves the reveal of this point for the right moment), that this emotion actually leaves Kirk open to manipulation. Namely, he is prey to manipulation by war-mongerers. To those of us who watched how the reaction of the American public, shocked and traumatized by 9/11, was molded into support for invasions of several far-flung countries, this reality might seem self-evident, but plenty of movies regard Kirk's kind of vengefulness as morally desirable, even as morally superior. (Fellow blockbuster Olympus Has Fallen oozes that kind of mentality.)

Though ZD30 and Olympus Has Fallen are vastly different types of films, they are also similar in the way they minimize the "causus belli" behind the actions of the terrorists they depict. By contrast, this latest Star Trek takes into consideration that its villain's heinous acts might reflect something that has happened to him and his people; that he may, after all, have a motivation. Star Trek Into Darkness does not, of course, justify the path Harrison's murderous genius chose, nor does it shed tears for him, but it doesn't mock his ancient grievances, either. And I'm sure it's not an accident that the barren Klingon planet where this terrorist has hidden himself is reminiscent of the cave-like terrain where Bush first took the alleged hunt for bin Laden -- nor was it likely unnoticed that there's a faint Afghan quality to the Klingons' mode of dress. And there's even a whiff of the CIA's old friendship with bin Laden's mujahideen when we find out that Harrison actually once helped Starfleet's command with military development -- before the relationship went all pear-shaped.

Another distinction of the Star Trek universe that's worth mentioning -- lest we assume that all big action movies are alike -- is that unlike such movies as Olympus Has Fallen, 300 , and Red Dawn, the intellectual character in Star Trek is not a thorn in the side of the manly men. Far from betraying the good guys, or being a coward, in this movie, the intellectual misfit is valiantly courageous, a paradigm of morality and self-sacrifice. First officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is the kind of Voice of Reason who gave that term its good name. He holds everyone -- his superiors, his best friend, himself -- to high standards, and his Vulcan side lets him transcend human emotions and evaluate actions in their logical and ethical context alone. In that way, he really is like hard-core anti-war liberals, those who find themselves struggling upstream, buffeted by the crowds running in the opposite direction to support "targeted assassinations" and so on. (Now, it could be argued that the film undermines Spock's own perspective in the third act, but I think by that point the action has overtaken philosophy so completely that it would hardly register.)

ZD30's makers appeared to be baffled -- or unaware -- that there was criticism of their film from the anti-war and pro-human rights camp. They did not bother, either during the film itself nor in their awards season defenses of the movie, to contemplate the idea that perhaps there could have been another action taken with bin Laden besides killing him. However, that possibility is raised, by analogy, in Star Trek Into Darkness. As Spock points out, there are laws for these things. There are courtrooms designed to give every accused, even a terrorist, a fair trial. And the film illustrates what never seems to have occured to Bigelow or Boal, to Obama or Eric Holder, in the case of bin Laden; that a captured terrorist may have info on who his collaborators are.

I won't get into ZD30 's view on torture here, partly because it's complicated to interpret, but also because I have already gotten into it elsewhere

But we can clearly see a difference between Star Trek Into Darkness and another boffo box office hit: The Dark Knight. And it is gratifying to see Abrams offer an antidote to Christopher Nolan. Though in this film Kirk beats up a terrorist who is captive and defenceless, much the way Batman wailed on the Joker , this time there isn't the Frank Miller-ian implication that you have to become the evil you abhor in order to fight it. Instead, the outburst is completely gratuitous, and doesn't give Kirk any information -- nor cow his victim. In fact, Kirk just seems weakened by his stumble into the dark side; he is the only one who comes out of it all banged up, though his prisoner never lays a finger on him. And what the physical abuse says about character has already been set up by Kirk's nightclub conversation with his beloved Starfleet father figure: we've been reminded of the Kirk who had to rise above bar brawls to become a real captain, the hothead whose leadership ability can still be jeopardized by immaturity.

Of course, this is not the first big fantasy blockbuster to critique what the U.S. government has been up to since 9/11. There was, for instance, plenty of political allegory in the Star Wars prequels of the early 2000's (fittingly, since the original Star Wars, according to George Lucas' own statements, was about the Vietnam War). In V for Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings adapted a graphic novel about Thatcherism into a subversive analogy for George W. Bush's fear-mongering, repressive government. And James Cameron crafted a searing indictment of resource wars and corporate imperialism enforced by an explicitly American military -- with his state-of-the-art extravaganza Avatar. But Star Trek Into Darkness is no Johnny-come-lately to the party, either. It is not merely reconstituted criticism of the Bush Administration. It also points its laser beam on the policies of the sitting Democratic president.

The assassination-instead-of-capture of bin Laden happened on President Obama's watch; the failure to take any meaningful action against America's use of torture is at his feet; the bombing of other cultures continues under his command. All three of these come under scrutiny in this 12th Star Trek film.

And even more encouragingly, in terms of what might be getting discussed behind closed doors these days in the Hollywood Hills, it appears this Star Trek team may well have an opinion on how Obama has waged a "war on whistleblowers", to cite the title of Robert Greenwald's new documentary. Obama has relentlessly pursued whistleblowing against government abuses -- as seen in the treatment of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake -- and this is especially grievous because, rather than utilize his Department of Justice to go after those who tortured during the Bush Administration and committed other war crimes, Obama has used it instead to prosecute those who let the cat out of the bag about the atrocities. Just when you're wondering if anyone in the Democratic stronghold of liberal Hollywood has even noticed (besides John Cusack, who writes online protest articles on the subject occasionally), lo and behold, Abrams comes along with an entertaining and moving defense of whistleblowers smuggled inside the new Star Trek.

Early in the film, Spock files a report about rule-breaking which he witnessed; a major violation, in fact, of the hallowed Prime Directive not to interfere with other races or peoples. Kirk allows a primitive planet to see the Enterprise rise up right in front of them, and it's a religious experience for the natives which may ultimately alter their belief systems -- or their technology, perhaps. (Kirk dismisses the idea of any ill effects.) Soon, Spock's report has gotten Kirk into serious trouble, and this causes a rift between them. The tension is then milked for much of the picture; Kirk is especially miffed since he was trying to save Spock's life at the time of the infraction.

Much comedy is made of the fact that Spock simply can't help his compulsion to do the right thing. (The same could be said, perhaps, of many whistleblowers. They are driven by an internal moral compass which will not permit them to see injustice without speaking up. And that just seems weird to folks.) Spock gets lots of flak for his strict morality, not just from Kirk but also from Spock's feisty girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana). But of course it's his great charm as well, and moreover, time after time, he's right -- and his wet-blanket precautions turn out to be vital.

It is frustrating, however, that there's an initially important set-up of the story thread about Spock's tattling and an eerie glimpse of the indigenous people on the primitive planet starting what appears to be a Starship Enterprise-cult, but it's crowded out by the many other very active plot strands in the picture, and never revisited. I suspect, however, that the filmmakers did not forget about it -- this is movie #2 in a trilogy, and that tends to be the film that leaves a few things in play for the follow-up. Consequences may arise in the next movie.

Still: Spock & Kirk by Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios Inc.

And in any case, the inclusion of the Prime Directive, and warnings about its violation, in Star Trek Into Darkness has a great poetic resonance. First of all, the whistleblowers which Obama's DOJ has targeted all blew the whistle on violations, in one form of another, of what could be seen as the Prime Directive. Secondly, this rule was a cornerstone of the original TV series, and emerged from creator Roddenberry's disgust with the Vietnam War. Thus, if anyone ought to weigh in on America's military adventurism in the "War on Terror", and remind us that we really have no business interfering in the affairs of other nations, it's the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Glad to hear from them, and glad that they don't think everything got better when Bush left.

As Spock himself might remind us, true wisdom involves placing principles before personalities.

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