Movie Doubles – ‘Gangster Squad’ & ‘Fair Game’

Sean Penn Special

Today’s movie double is hanging off the veritable Sean Penn. Sean Penn plays the historic boxer-turned-gangster Mickey Cohen in ‘Gangster Squad’, then plays a morally outraged Joe Wilson in ‘Fair Game’. it’s purely coincidental I caught these movies back to back but it made me think a bit about Sean Penn’s contribution to cinema in the last decade. Most memorable of his roles in the last few years include his portrayal of Harvey Milk, a scary gangster in ‘Mystic River’, and a fictional burnt out rock star in ‘This Must Be The Place’. When you look at all these roles, you’re struck by the variety of roles he’s taken on seemingly without fear. It’s an astounding body of work if there was nothing else, but of course, there’s loads of Sean Penn movies that came before this decade.

So this seems like a good time as any to try a Sean Penn movie double entry. Hey, usual spoiler alert.

True Story, Better Fiction

Both these films are the typical Hollywood fare where the plot is “based on a true story, loosely based on fact”. ‘Gangster Squad’ might be stretching things a lot harder than ‘Fair Game’ because it has an action movie quotient to live up to. ‘Fair Game’ on the other hand seems to re-touch the facts in other ways to put a  story across with an unequivocal capital ‘t’ Truth.

Still, it’s interesting going through wikipedia to pick out the bits that people think is distorted and both films provide ample ammunition for veracity-complaints. The tallest tale might be the big shootout that brings Mickey in to a fisticuff confrontation with Josh Brolin’s Sgt. O’Mara. It’s a strange climactic fight because on one level you know Mickey gets taken down and so you know he’s going to lose.

The veracity-complaint on ‘Fair Game’ might be ore problematic. The central plank of the war on Iraq came down to this notion that Iraq might have bought enough yellow cake for their own nuclear bomb project. In the movie, Joe Wilson’s visit to Niger is made out to be conclusive truth that the Iraqis could not have bought the yellow cake. However, logic also betrays the fact that if an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger to talk about buying yellow cake, that in of itself points to a nuclear project. It’s a double edged sword whether Joe Wilson’s findings in the movie actually prove there were no WMD programs inside Iraq. If it does, then it raises the question of what the Iraqi delegation were doing in Niger.

Expediency Is Politics

Both films portray the extent of the power of the state. What’s disturbing about ‘Gangster Squad’ is that the Gangster Squad assembled by John O’Mara essentially dwells and acts outside the scope of the law. They’re equally gangsters in prosecuting their cause. All of this gets put into play because the police chief Parker (played by Nick Nolte) wants to achieve this objective without being hindered by process or courts or law or facts.

Eerily, this is exactly what the Bush-Cheney administration wanted to achieve when they decided to go to war with Iraq. They knew the conclusion first – they were going to whack Saddam. The rest of it was to find any shred of evidence using the CIA to pin the blame and therefore discover a just cause they can sell to the electorate for going to war with Iraq.

In both films, the government unilaterally decides to bend all rules and protocols to get at their targets – Mickey Cohen the criminal boss or Saddam Hussein, dictator – and this is seen in the light of people who must go out and do the bidding of the state.

Interestingly, in both films, he unilateral conduct of these actions translate as the unmitigated reach of the powerful, disguised as justice. Now, the law can be good, the law can be bad. (Just ask Gary Gygax). The law on its own does not represent good. Indeed, power tries to make itself good through the selective application of the law. Both ‘Gangster Squad’ and ‘Fair Game’ are shot through with the idea that one has to go rogue and outside the law to achieve a greater good.

“Lawful Evil Is Still Evil”

Just to expand on the observation about lawfulness here… The Dungeons & Dragons view of the world through alignments is pretty interesting, because Gygax devised a world view in which people/beings are naturally mapped into a grid of Lawful-Neutral-Chaos on one axis and Good-Neutral- Evil on another. So the characters might be any combination of  qualities from both axes, such as Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil or for that matter True Neutral.

A very astute boy somewhere in North America made the observation “Neutral Evil is still Evil” – which is to say it is possible to be lawful and law abiding and be evil. Like, say an evil magistrate as they appear in Chinese fiction, or a crooked judge who uses the law to pursue nefarious ends.  When you consider the three lawful options of Lawful Good Lawful Neutral and Lawful Evil, you have to concede that the law in of itself has nothing to do with good or evil. This seems to be the great insight coming out of North America with the advent of post-modern cop dramas like ‘Gangster Squad’ – that there is great confusion as to what is lawful and what is good. And America at its heart does not embrace the Socratic adage about obeying laws even if they are bad laws.

You wonder why the Christian Right and the gun lobby align themselves closely. They all want to marry up lawfulness and goodness when in fact there is an essential disconnect between that which is lawful and that which is good. Similarly, the impulse of the Bush-Cheney government was to dress itself up as doing good deeds while going outside of the law for exactly the same kind of impulse as ‘Gangster Squad’, but of course this results in the great injustice of what happens in ‘Fair Game’.

Penn Plays The Grotesque In Society

Sean Penn’s greatest roles seem to hover around the miserable and grotesque. Even Harvey Milk, in the context of the 1970s, was conceivably socially grotesque in its time. The rock star he plays in ‘This Must Be the Place’ extends on the grotesque angle of a rock star who cannot go out without makeup, while Mickey Cohen in ‘Gangster Squad’ oozes misfit and alienation to the point of being grotesque. Joe Wilson, as played by Penn in this context then, seems to be far away from the grotesque except for one quality, which is his inability to shut up about the misdeeds of the government.

Penn is of course one of the actors lampooned mercilessly in ‘Team America’ and going back further, was much maligned for being “Mr. Madonna” and a Hollywood bad boy. Combined as a whole, the Penn oeuvre and persona seems to have evolved into a kind of expression of aching conscience and disruptive honesty. He’s come a long way from being the professional misfit of ‘We’re No Angels’.

Interestingly enough, the discourse about wanting more by an outsider, as expressed by Penn’s Mickey Cohen has an important antecedent in ‘Untouchables’ with Robert DeNiro offering up an equally grotesque Al Capone. There are echoes of that performance in Penn’s offering in ‘Gangster Squad’.

Everybody’s Good Looking

There’s a Sheryl crow song where she describes movies based on fact with people who are too good looking to be true. If you watch ‘Fair Game’, you’re constantly struck by how much better looking the actors are than the real people. But the only way you’d get the people to watch a movie like this is if you got good looking people to play people who are not as good looking. This aestheticisation is actually at once fascist as well as consumerist pap, but it’s Hollywood and you accept it.

Sheryl Crow’s song goes on to sing about how the facts are embellished until the story is unrecognisable. This is particularly true in ‘Gangster Squad’ where certain key facts are re-written to suit the dramatic arc. The point being you wouldn’t get people to watch a movie that doesn’t have a dramatic arc that is recognisable as a dramatic arc. To that end screenwriters toil and bend and twist the truth to make a palatable narrative. This is also a kind of aestheticisation that is fascist and consumerist pap.

Take a bow Sheryl.

Ten Years After

I just want to point out how depressing it was to revisit the events that led to the invasion of Iraq. The rhetoric and the arcane, twisted pseudo-logic that dominated the news headlines at the time were simply abominable. If there ever was a sign that American hubris had somehow derailed the nation, it was the moment American media played along and convinced the people of America there was a legitimate anti-terror cause in invading Iraq. The events that unfolded as a result of the invasion have shown just how idiotic the insistence about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ turned out to be.

Beyond that is the carnage and the media circus and the inevitable movies about the invasion like ‘The Green Zone’ as well as accounts of pursuing Osama bin Laden like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. ‘Fair Game fits right into the awful genre of rewriting and re-couching the immediate past when in fact the memories are fresh and pain still throbbing. The least admirable thing about American politics might be its incessant need to have patriots, and talk about patriots, all the while doing the most inhumane things. We are none the better, none the wiser, none the richer for the misadventures in Iraq. We are robbed of our dignity and integrity, thanks to the leaders we elected in good faith, who then lied to us in what can only be described as immense bad faith. We are less informed, less educated of the facts, and materially poorer for having expended the stupid sums of public monies to fight Saddam and his ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

And if what we get out of all this is ‘Fair Game’, maybe it’s exactly the kind of grim entertainment we deserve for letting the bastard politicians get away with it. To those politicians – George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and John Howard, I still say, “Fuck you, you motherfuckers, may you all rot in hell”.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, Movies

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