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Illustration by: Lou Beach
War  on  Trial
Riding to Syriana in the backseat of this car called America.

Not that long ago, I worked as a personal assistant for a director who was having a nervous breakdown. The director saw his shrink five days a week for three hours a day. He talked about his father. The shrink told him to walk with his emotions. He went for a walk with sadness. His sadness spoke to him, often about his assistant. “You get everything from this relationship, and I get nothing,” he would say, as he tore through packets of monogrammed socks that I had picked up for him at some place or other. At the time, I was trying to write a satire on the war on drugs. I was finding it very difficult. The “war” infuriated me. How could you declare war on a part of human nature? How could you declare war on a molecule? The director looked at me as if I was a feral child. “War on trial?” he would yell. “War’s always on trial, but you want to make a $50 million movie for Hollywood, you better have a goddamn antagonist! And in the third act the goddamn antagonist better go down. And when he goes down, the audience comes up out of their seats and clap, clap, claps.” He mimicked the clapping, then: “Would you mind terribly running to get me a green tea?”

This director had made only artistic films, films of true vision, and was now having trouble getting a deal, so he longed for a kind of simplistic clarity that did not come naturally to him. “And you know what a satire is, don’t you?” he would mock. “Satire is a film that opens on a Friday and by Sunday is gone.” We bickered endlessly, and later he fired me.

I would think about the War on Drugs more or less constantly for the next few years. And the more I thought about it, the more pissed off I became. So cocaine blocks the reuptake inhibiters of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine and that’s bad, but alcohol binds with your GABA receptor to increase serotonin levels and that’s good. Umm. Okay. And let’s not forget about our old friend “The Drug Czar” and his determination of which chemical reactions are “moral” and which aren’t. Apparently, gambling away your children’s education funds in Vegas while wasted on vodka is moral, and maybe scamming illegal prescription drugs in the parking lot of a Florida Wal-Mart is moral, but woe be to the inner-city or minority pot smoker. Sin-City, baby. And what is government doing making these kind of judgments anyway?

So we put the War on Drugs on trial and then along came a new war, a bigger, stranger war, and it had another odd name, the War on Terror, which sounded suspiciously like we had just declared war on an emotion. I thought, Hmm … all right, but shouldn’t we first start with fear and misunderstanding? I mean, by the time I get to terror, by the time I’m the horse fleeing the fire—TERROR—I’m completely useless. When I was researching Traffic, the Pentagon’s Counter Terrorism and Counter Narcotics department was the same department. And now we’re expanding like crazy, expanding our nation’s ability to “take people out.” We’ve got new organizations dedicated to whacking our enemies—the Grey Foxes, for instance. And we’re torturing people in dank, secret prisons, the CIA actually taking over the Soviet Gulags that Solzhenitsyn made famous. And we’re using remote control drones to drop missiles on people’s heads in distant lands. And we’re going into Afghanistan and then Iraq, and I’m in the backseat of this car called America and I’m holding on as we make a very sharp turn, and the driver is waving his fist out the window, yelling, “Bring it on, motherfuckers! Throw down Muslim World, whattaya got? This ain’t no roadtrip here, we’re on a crusade!” 

I realized this depressed director for whom I had fetched tea and socks had helped me with two lessons. First of all, you can put “war on trial,” which I probably wouldn’t have had so much energy for if I hadn’t spent so much time buying socks for a basically decent but abusive man. The second, and more important, lesson is that the most dangerous corruption that can happen to a writer or producer or director is the surrender of one’s internal editor to murky conventional wisdom. “In Hollywood, you can only do such and such,” or “That movie will never be made.” It’s insidious and can kill a voice inside a person before the first terrified yelp. For me, war movies and sock shopping are forever linked. It may actually be that the way into a war movie begins with sock shopping, a mundane and human event that everyone must do, most of us for ourselves.

The first scene I wrote for Traffic was of Catherine Zeta-Jone’s character talking about “duck salad” and how she never used to eat it until she was pregnant. She’s at a country club. She’s having “ladies lunch,” and this is where the War on Drugs begins. For Syriana, I saw a couple in a café. They’re drinking tea and arguing about his work. The wife wants the husband to make a small career sacrifice to help earn money to pay for their son’s college education. And as they talk, we realize she’s wearing her headscarf a little differently, the tea glasses are unusual, all around them are Farsi speakers… we’re in Iran, he’s a CIA officer, he’s George Clooney 30 pounds heavier, and this is the front lines of the “War On Terror.” And on the front lines, they are worried about how to pay for college.

If I surrendered my internal editor to conventional wisdom, I would never have started Traffic or Syriana because how can you tackle war by talking about socks or duck salad or college loans? What is it about us that we need war on an abstraction to define ourselves? And why are the details of actual life such a potent defense against that abstraction? To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson: All politics is personal. To quote Robert Caro, Johnson’s biographer, “Absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely; it reveals absolutely.” We hold a mirror up to ourselves and find our political institutions in the reflection. We are our government. We are what is done in our name. So what kind of government are we? If our self-interest is borne out in our personal ambition and we wish the world to be shaped in that image, then what is the shape of the world? And what is the shape of us?

“You realize they will never make that movie. That movie will never get made. It’s too political; people don’t go to films they can see on the news. You can’t show the War on Terror to be wrong or, worse, absurd and tragic. There’s no clear-cut antagonist. No hero. No victory. No life-lesson to go home with. Too much is left unanswered. Politics is personal? The limits of self-interest? Where are the easy answers? Where is the catharsis? Where’s the part where the ‘antagonist goes down?’”

Well, as a filmmaker friend of mine said, “Isn’t the goal always to write something unmakeable, but then execute it so well they have to make it?” If we’re going to drop bombs on schoolchildren’s heads, then shouldn’t this process always be on trial? Shouldn’t there be a fairly high standard of examination required before, during, and after you drop a JDAM on a five-year-old? I can’t think of anything more important than war, or anything that matters more than putting it on trial. War should be on trial pretty much all the time. And if cinema can help… well, clap, clap, clap.