Couch Potato Briefing: Five Movies that Explain the Week’s Events

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Compiled by Tony Karon and Ishaan Tharoor



The movie to watch apropos Libya this week is one you’ve seen before. Well, not the whole movie, but the scene of Hitler berating his generals as they break the news to him that the Red Army is closing in on Berlin — it has become probably the single most parodied bit of cinema on YouTube. But don’t let that put you off: Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s Downfall is a stunning depiction of the final 12 days of the Third Reich, from the perspective of those inside the bunker with its leader — played by Bruno Ganz in the performance of a lifetime. This is a fascinating film about power, and what happens as all those around the Fuhrer begin to realize that his regime has collapsed and that he no longer controls their destinies, acting out the rituals of that power with an increasingly obvious lack of conviction. Are you watching, Muammar? – T.K.



China announced its projected 2011 defense spending figures, which increased some 12% over the previous year’s budget. (This includes funding for a force of military pigeons.) It’s no secret that Beijing’s strategists are aggressively planning for a day when its military can neutralize, if not overthrow, the U.S.’s longstanding global preeminence. And PLA commanders have the luxury of scheming decades into the future whereas their counterparts in Washington can only plan till the next presidential election. When speaking of China’s geo-political ambitions, many invoke the country’s desire to return to its days of (often overstated) Middle Kingdom supremacy. Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) conjures up a mythical ancient time, lusciously stylized and choreographed, of sword masters, terrifying armies and one immovable emperor. Zhang, a cinematographer by training, made his name in the 1980s with touching social realist dramas, but has drifted over time into epics. Unlike some other prominent Chinese filmmakers, he’s beloved of the state — Zhang choreographed the elaborate opening ceremony of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, causing some pro-democracy activists to label him China’s Leni Riefenstahl. In Hero, the film’s main character, played by Jet Li, spends much of his time on a mission to slay the emperor. But such a challenge is antithetical to the myths of centralized power and unity actively propagated by Beijing. In the end, let’s just say Li’s character gets “harmonized.” –I.T.


Black Hawk Down

In the debate over sending troops into Libya, even simply to protect humanitarian operations, skeptics constantly warn of a Black Hawk Down moment, invoking this film’s title as short hand for the disastrous  1993 Battle of Mogadishu to highlight the risks attached  to even a humanitarian mission in a distant land gripped by a civil war poorly understood by outsiders. In August of 1992, with Somalia in the grip of a deadly civil war, President George H.W. Bush ordered U.S. troops in to secure a humanitarian mission. But protecting humanitarian aid required confronting local warlords, and the mission began to morph into combat operation. In October 1993, a raid aimed at seizing the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid went horribly wrong, beginning with the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter by an RPG round fired from the ground. Over the next 24 hours, 19 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed in a nightmare of urban combat. Ridley Scott’s vivid visualization of Mark Bowden’s excellent book of the same title — which painstakingly reconstructs a catastrophic military mission — is both a stunning action film and the consummate tale of a military road to hell paved with the best intentions.  Sure, Scott doesn’t bother to investigate why the other side is fighting, but he could argue in his defense that the U.S. mission in Somalia made the same mistake. –T.K.



U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, met March 3 in Washington to review their two countries’ ongoing struggle over the bloody drug war convulsing the border. It has claimed thousands of lives since Calderon stepped into office in 2006, including that of an American ICE agent killed last month near Mexico City. Tim Padgett spotlighted the many tensions simmering away ahead of the meeting, with both sides finding cause to grumble about the other’s failings. Steven Soderbergh’s critically-acclaimed Traffic (2000) delved into the complex, intertwined world of the cartels and the government agencies tasked to bring them down. It belabors the point, perhaps, that the crisis wouldn’t exist were it not for the huge demand for drugs in the U.S. — the daughter of Washington’s drug czar is a rich, suburban junkie? How ironic — but does an excellent job showing how no one comes clean in this desperate high-stakes realm of guns, drugs, and death. –I.T.


The Passion of the Christ

Pope Benedict XVI’s rejection of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus in an upcoming book has attracted attention and praise. Its the first time a figure of his ecclesiastical weight has directly intervened on the subject, one which has caused centuries of grief for European Jewry. To get a sense of how enduring that stigma is, one need only turn to Mel Gibson’s recent The Passion of the Christ, where mobs of Jews baying for Jesus’ blood hound him down a gruesome path to his crucifixion. As the New Republic‘s Leon Wiseltier wrote at the time: “anybody who says [the film isn’t anti-Semitic] knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson’s Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images.”—I.T.