In the uncannily prescient 1975 movie “Three Days of the Condor”, Turner (Robert Redford) gradually unravels a rogue CIA plot to destabilize the Middle East in order to secure vast supplies of oil for the U.S. We are, wisely, not given too much detail– it’s more believable that way.
A hired killer named Joubert played suavely by Max Von Sydow, has been trying to murder Turner since he stumbled into the plot. He seems to have finally tracked him down just as Redford has uncovered the mastermind behind the oil plot, a middling CIA manager named Leonard Atwood. But instead of shooting Turner, Joubert suddenly turns and kills Atwood. Turner is shocked, and puzzled– why did you kill Atwood? Joubert doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. I suspect, he says, that he was about to become an embarrassment. Then he offers Turner a ride back into town. He sees that Turner is still afraid of him. Joubert smiles– my contract to kill you, he says, was with Atwood. As you can see…
It’s an elegant, profound moment. Joubert is one of the more intelligent creations of the genre– a professional, passionless, rational killer. There is baggage with the term “hired killer”, but how different, really, is he from a soldier? I liked him. He advises Turner to go into hiding. There is no future for you in New York (his home). Turner insists he wants to keep fighting the corruption he has uncovered. Doesn’t Joubert care? How do you not care?
Joubert tells him, life is easier if you don’t believe in either side.
Later, Turner meets with another CIA manager, Higgins. Higgins is probably not part of the corruption, but he must protect the agency from the threat Turner represents. He argues with Turner: Americans want us to make those difficult, morally ambiguous decisions, without telling them, so they can preserve the illusion that they live moral lives while enjoying their big cars and heated homes.
Cut to 1992 and “A Few Good Men”, far inferior film even if it was written by Aaron Sorkin. (After all, it was directed by Rob Reiner, not Sydney Pollack.) We all know the line spoken by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson): “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” In this case, a pair of marines have caused the death of a fellow marine who brought discredit upon their brand by complaining about his treatment. The viewer perhaps needs to be reminded that in most other dramatizations, the two marines would be the villains. Here they are the heroes: stalwart, proud, professional. Oops– we killed a fellow marine. Jessup is the villain because he ordered them to do it, and then strung them out to dry, dishonored.
Higgins might well have said to Turner: “You can’t handle the truth”. “It’s easier if you don’t believe in either side”. Jessup believes he is so right that he must make life and death decisions for us. He passionately argues that our society can’t stomach the kind of moral decisions he has to make all the time, but, by God, we want killers like Jessup out there on the walls protecting us from …. well, the truth is, from the other Jessups out there, on the other side. He and Atwood and Higgins are all of a piece: we make the unpleasant decisions so that you can enjoy your Hummers, your air conditioning, your jobs.
Cut to Norway, 2011. Anders Behring Breivik. Europe is being overwhelmed by Moslem immigrants who threaten the foundations of Western Culture and religion. And Norway’s political leaders do nothing, except welcome them with open arms, and allow them to build their mosques and cover their faces.
What’s an earnest little fascist to do? His lawyer says, “he hates all the Western ideas and the values of democracy.”
Cut to the Tea Party: at a recent debate, the Republican presidential candidates were asked if they would accept a deal with the Democrats that made $10 of cuts for every $1 of increased revenue, if it meant raising taxes. Not a single one was willing to compromise. That is the definition of fanaticism: they are so right they need to defy all common sense and reasonableness.
There is not much of a future in Washington for a reasonable man.
You can’t handle the truth.
Aaron Sorkin is a brilliant writer but, like the Editorialists at the New York Times and 60 Minutes, he has an odd, fetishistic reverence for the military, because he really believes in the myths of honor and integrity, and that there really are enemies out there trying to kill us. He’s right about the enemies, but that doesn’t mitigate the creepy allure military men posses in Sorkin dramas, especially since Sorkin himself, of course, of course, never served in the military.