Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Who Can You Trust?: The Book of the BFI Season

Delighted to report that the BFI Thriller compendium is now for sale in shops and online: another first-rate and very handsome gathering of critical/historical work under the BFI label, assembled by Sight & Sound's James Bell.

It was a pleasure for me to be allotted such generous space in which to discuss what we have learned (after Hofstadter) to call 'the paranoid style in American politics'; and its presence in American cinema from The Manchurian Candidate to The Parallax View, JFK, Syriana etc. With so much to discuss it would have been superfluous for me to cite Norman Mailer's famous contrast, in The Presidential Papers, between the history of politics (‘concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull’) and ‘the dream life of a nation’ (‘a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires.’) But you all know that one, right? The point is that we need, via fiction, to put a foot in that river now and then - remembering all the while that 'paranoia' should not be dismissed, but neither encouraged nor indulged while we're about it.

Arguably I could have used my allocation a bit more shrewdly to permit a discussion of certain famous UK films and TV series on the paranoid theme, most of them hailing from the 1980s when arguments were especially heated on the subject of what a Conservative British state might conceivably do to protect and enhance its status as a nuclear power allied to the USA: I’m thinking of Defence of the Realm, Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup, Hidden Agenda. Another time, perhaps.

Here’s how my essay, 'Can You Trust The Government?', begins:

Closing his farewell address to parliament as UK Prime Minister in 2007, Tony Blair seized the moment to mount a defence of politics as a vocation. ‘If it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery,’ Blair contended, ‘it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.’ Where politics has inspired thrilling movies, though, it’s mainly that sense of skulduggery that has interested filmmakers and audiences alike – both groups inclined to suspicion of the powers-that-be, believing, as did Lord Acton, in ‘the certainty of corruption by authority.’

Thus, in the modern political thriller the usual villain is corrupt government, its corridors of power purposely darkened so as to conceal malfeasance from public scrutiny. The ur-plot will involve one law-abiding citizen stumbling on a stray insight into this nefarious world, resolving then to expose the truth, but having to learn fast against a ruthless, hydra-headed adversary. As such the genre relies heavily on the exciting tropes of the detective and the fugitive – elements that might be expected to work against a plausible depiction of real-life politics. 

I've probably argued a few times too many that political thrillers ought at least some of the time to depict elected representatives as human figures, confronting dilemmas, racing against time, conscious of their own failings - rather than, say, malevolent members of an Establishment cabal covertly stitching up the People at any given opportunity. Mailer performed the former function with distinction in his epic novel of the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost. When asked by an interviewer why on earth he would want to humanise such people, Mailer replied, 'They really are pretty awful. But on the other hand, who isn't?’ That’s a wittier way of rephrasing Senator Silas Radcliffe, anti-hero of Henry Adams’ great novel Democracy (1880), who argues, rightly in my view, that ‘no representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’