Films Worth Watching
by Robert Alstead
Al Pacino tinkers with his virtual star in S1m0ne
Photo copyright Fine Line
"We have stepped into a new dimension. Our ability to manufacture
fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it." The words are
those of Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) in S1m0ne, the film, you will
remember, about a movie director who makes the world fall in love
with his computer-generated star. It was one of the more thought-provoking
lines in what was a disappointingly dumbed-down satire on Hollywood
This fabrication is nothing compared to the grand artifice created
by the master doctor of spin Conrad Brean (played by Robert de Niro)
in political satire Wag the Dog. An unscrupulous Mr Fixit, Brean
manufactures a fictitious crisis in Albania to divert attention
from a presidential sex scandal during the election campaign. Little
is left up to chance. His team hire Willie Nelson to write the conflict
"anthem" and shoot war footage for the networks in an
American film studio showing an innocent "Albanian" girl
fleeing from rapists clutching a kitten. Even the kitten is faked
by superimposing it on a bag of Tostados.
Taransky had a point, even if the central premise of S1m0ne that
a world could be taken in by a CG star who did photo-shoots, television
interviews and Oscar-winning movies but was never seen in the flesh,
was unbelievable. Special effects have still a long way to go before
they replace living-breathing actors, even the wooden ones, as sci-fi
movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within proved. But we live in a
world where digital fakery is routine.
We are so accustomed to neat, glossy news "product" that
it would not cross our minds that the dirt under Michael Moore’s
fingernails was digitally air-brushed out for his publicity photographs
until he made a passing quip about it. And how would you know that
it wasn’t crash dieting but handiwork in the virtual dark
room that caused curvacious British actress Kate Winslet to shed
"a third of her legs" for the recent cover story of a
British men’s magazine? Until she spoke out against the "excessive"
retouching of her photos you probably would not.
As the tools of mind control have grown more sophisticated, the
possibilities have grown more wild. In 1978 Capricorn One was playing
with the idea of conning the masses through television. In the film,
astronauts on the first manned flight to Mars are whisked away just
before launch and forced to act out "their mission" in
a film studio in the desert that looks like Mars. The film enters
thriller territory when the space capsule burns up on re-entry and
the astronauts (including, eerily, O. J. Simpson) realise that they
The US media respond like Pavlovian dogs to the suggestions that
Albania is "a staging ground for terrorists" and cells
could be slipping in from Canada with "suitcase bombs".
The icing on the cake is when they create a hero Sgt. William Schumann,
"good old Shoe", who, the story goes, is captured by Albanian
terrorists. As patriotism surges around the country people take
to hanging shoes in public places as a show of support for "Shoe".
Wag the Dog may have lost some of its sting five years on, the world
being so wired up that we can find out what they are having for
breakfast in Tirana with a few taps on the computer keyboard. But
it’s spooky how much the "Old Shoe" episode echoes
the US reaction to Saving Pte Lynch.
If truth is the first casualty of war, in movies it’s often
because the war correspondents are shooting themselves in the foot.
No Man’s Land, a satirical wartime drama focusing on two opposing
soldiers stuck in a trench together, is a scathing indictment, among
other things, of the reporting of the civil war conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Here the CNN-style reporter is so desperate to get the story that
she rides roughshod over everyone’s feelings and ends up having
to swallow the official line whole. She’s not helped by a
callous UN commanding officer who through a combination of bullying
and stage-management manages to gloss wartime tragedy into a PR
coup. Well worth seeing.
The concept of journalistic collusion is rammed home in Three Kings,
a stylish, wartime heist flick about four GIs on a daring raid to
steal "Saddam’s gold" immediately after the Gulf
War of Bush Snr. When we first meet press liaison officer and hero
George Clooney his trousers are down and he is giving a new meaning
to the term "embedded journalist". The two female news
hounds (why are they always female?) are hungry, clueless and pliant.
When they start to rock the boat with "negative" reporting
for their respective television stations, the military threaten
to revoke their press passes. The film was criticised at the time
for going soft in its critique of American policy, although for
all its puerile jokes and buddy action it seems subversive by modern
Robert Alstead writes for movie ezine iofilm