Couch Potato Briefing: Genocide, Gold and Liz Taylor

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Global Spin’s weekly guide to five rental movies that will bring you up to speed with with the past week’s global events. Compiled by Tony Karon and Ishaan Tharoor.

Hotel Rwanda

The point about genocide movies like Hotel Rwanda is to reinforce a message of “never again!” Well, it may be about to happen again, not in Rwanda, this time, but in Ivory Coast. The standoff there is between a President, Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to accept the verdict of his country’s electorate in an election he lost last November, and the supporters of the rightful president-elect, Alassane Outtara. Gbagbo has rallied his army, and has armed many thousands of supporters, not simply in support of his own power, but on a xenophobic principle — he insists that opposition supporters are, in fact, “foreigners”, descended from immigrants to Ivory Coast from neighboring West African countries. And his supporters have already begun unleashing a pogrom, randomly attacking anyone deemed to be of the “wrong” ethnicity, as the international community stands by, largely paralyzed and distracted by troubles elsewhere. (When the Rwanda genocide played out the West’s attention was on the Balkans; today it’s on Libya.) Hotel Rwanda is an inspiring and terrifying story of the heroism of an ordinary man, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, in the performance of a lifetime), who saves many hundreds of his fellow citizens from a mindless slaughter of Rwandan Tutsis and those Hutus who protect them, orchestrated by political demagogues for their own ends. The purpose of the movie is to remind us that the Paul Rusesabagina’s of the world need our help – as much, now,  in Ivory Coast as then in Rwanda. – T.K.

Beau Geste

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the forefront of world leaders eager to intervene in Libya and turn back the Gaddafi regime’s offensive against towns and cities held by the rebels. Embattled by low ratings at home, Sarkozy clearly wanted to play the lead hero in the international rescue of Libya; his government initiated air strikes without fully notifying allies and resisted, for almost a full week, calls from other capitals to have NATO assume full control of the coalition’s Libya campaign. But after days of tense negotiations, Paris relented and NATO’s now in the driving seat, its policy being shaped by members more wary of Sarkozy’s zeal for regime change. The French, of course, have a long history of intervention in North Africa. The French Foreign Legion—romanticized by the 1924 novel and later 1939 film (one of four cinema iterations of the tale) Beau Geste—trooped across the deserts and mountains of the Maghreb in the late 19th and early 20th century. A motley corps of European mercenaries, runaways and adventure-seekers, the Legion earned a reputation for brutality — exacted both upon the natives in their crosshairs and insubordinate soldiers in their own ranks. Beau Geste, while eulogizing the camaraderie of many of these men, is also a bitter critique of the hubris and violence of France’s earlier delusions of imperial grandeur. – I.T.

Three Kings

It’s not only the fact that stories of Colonel Gaddafi’s massive stashes of gold are in the news this week that make David O. Russell’s Three Kings a must-renter; it’s also the fact that the film depicts rebels encouraged by the U.S. to rise up and overthrow their dictator, but then abandoned to their fate — a scenario the U.S. is trying to avoid in Libya. The movie updates the plot of the iconic Kelly’s Heroes in which Clint Eastwood leads a band of U.S. troops (including Donald Sutherland as a Woodstock-era stoner somehow commanding a Sherman tank in Normandy in 1944) in “a private enterprise operation” to steal a load of Nazi gold. In Three Kings, George Clooney leads a team of U.S. infantrymen (including Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube) looking to line their own pockets by taking charge of a stash of gold taken from Kuwait by retreating Iraqi forces at the close of the 1991 Gulf War. “Saddam stole it from the sheikhs,” says Clooney’s Maj. Archie Gates. “I have no problem stealing it from Saddam.” But in the course of the escapade, the bandits run headlong into the doomed rebellion by southern Iraq’s Shi’ite population at the end of the war. “Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam,” says Gates. “Now they’re getting slaughtered.” Confronted by the consequences of the cynicism of their leaders, Gates and his team face a moral choice – of  a type that many U.S. personnel serving over Libya could face, too. What do they decide? Watch the movie! — T.K.


We would be remiss if we failed to honor the passing of the magnificent Elizabeth Taylor this week, and what better way to do so while keeping an eye on contemporary global events than Cleopatra, her 1963 tour de force as “Siren of the Nile.” Unable to oust the usurper Ptolemy on her own, Cleopatra enlists the support of the superpower of the day, Rome. Things get complicated, and decidedly steamy, when after Caesar’s murder she takes up with Mark Anthony (played by the love of her life, Richard Burton), looking to remake the map of North Africa. Oh, and lest we forget, the Libyan civil war has broken down territorially largely on the lines laid down by the Romans back then, with Gaddafi controlling the territory named by Rome as Tripolitania, while the rebels hold the erstwhile Roman province of Cyraneica. And those inclined to unkindness may be tempted to note similarities between Gaddafi’s halloween costumes and Liz’s fabulous wardrobe in this epic spectacle of orgies, battles and pageants – featuring the proverbial cast of thousands. No better way to bid farewell to a grand dame of the screen and make a few notes about historical roots of the contemporary turmoil in the Mediterranean. – T.K.


President Obama kicked off a tour of Latin America earlier this week in El Salvador, a trip that saw him hail U.S. economic and political ties with the region and praise the progress of democracy in this part of the world as an example that a Middle East in transformation ought to follow. Less was said about the U.S.’s own troubled legacy in Latin America during the Cold War. Oliver Stone’s excellent 1986 Salvador takes place during El Salvador’s grisly twelve-year civil war. Some 75,000 people were killed as the Washington-backed right-wing government sought to crush a leftist insurgency. Subsequent commissions have concluded that the majority of civilian deaths laid at the hands of soldiers and paramilitaries backed by the U.S. – I.T.