"The Departed" is directed by the revered auteur and film buff Martin Scorsese and finally won him a much-deserved Oscar as best director and an Oscar for best film, and various other prizes:
It is set, rather unusually, in Boston, though predictably it's about cops and gangsters, and "identity", which obviously fascinates actors, and, arguably lots of Americans as they ask themselves: "Why are we so hated when we're the good guys just trying to spread freedom and democracy?"
Matt Damon becomes a cop but works for gangster boss Jack Nicholson, while Lionardo DiCaprio comes from a family with criminal members, but really wants to be a cop, and is persuaded to infiltrate Costello's's gang.
While the film has made a lot of money, as well as winning four Oscars and had a great deal of critical success, some audience views on the internet were more critical: e.g. Jack Nicholson is just a caricature of Jack; holes in the plot and implausibilities - e.g. one person thinking it almost impossible Jack's chracter would be an FBI informer. However the latter critical comment is wrong - at least about the character that Nicholson's Costello is based on, cf.:
The two leads were happy that it offered more complexity than the average big budget Hollywood film:
Damon : "The script is really well-written and you don't really find... Leo and I read everything that comes around and you don't find characters that are this interesting and complex in movies where the budget is this high."
While Damon is from Boston, he is from a middle-class family, in fact his mother was:
..." a professor of early childhood. She specializes in nonviolent conflict resolutions, so I hear about the portrayal of violence in cinema all the time, particularly gratuitous violence, so I'm careful not to do any of that."
So I guess all that stuff in the Bourne films is not gratuitous at all. Damon also has a positive view about the message of this film:
Post 9/11 Nihilism
Scorsese see it in a rather more nihilistic way, and makes specific links with the wider political context:
"Don't ask me - I'm just the director"
In fact it ends (don't read on if you want to see it) with justice finally being done - but by a guy who has had to become a rogue cop to do it (a bit like like Dirty Harry). It's the usual - the good little guy is obstructed and overruled by the corrupt/incompetent bosses, but does the right thing - with a gun - this is the American way.
Nicholson was concerned that his character might not seem frightening enough, after all he can only maintain his control if he is feared by those he exploits and offers "protection":
The credibility of irrational violence
The next day there was one of those wonderful bits of serendipity, something on the internet led me to an interview with Chomsky - which included his non-standard view about the first Gulf War. It wasn't really about oil, he said, but about something different. Many know that Chomsky sees American corporations and the governments which largely represent their interests as little more than gangsters, and I've read a lot of Chomsky, but never seen him make the link between governments and someone like Costello (Nicholson) so clearly:
HG: What is that something different?
NC: It's what they call credibility. Credibility means people have to understand
that you don't disobey the master. Since we're the world's dominant power,
it's extremely important that we run the world the way any Mafia boss runs
his own territory. Let's take the Mafia analogy: Suppose you're in charge, and
some storekeeper doesn't pay the protection money. You don't just go in and
take the money. You make an example of him. You send people in to smash
him to pieces so that everybody else understands that's not the right kind of
behaviour. That's called credibility. In effect, the whole nuclear system is
about this - about credibility. How do you make people properly afraid of
us? Because nuclear weapons are always hanging in the background. Therefore,
we have to have a posture that's 'irrational and vindictive'. People have
to understand that some elements are 'out of control' and then they'll be
afraid. And that makes perfect sense. Why do we need credibility? Well, there
you get into other things. But the immediate policies are mostly just making
sure that people don't do the wrong thing.
The new credibility of Pax Americana through "a horrible example"
To most people, especially in the US, this will sound like a typically bizarre leftist theory and they instinctively react: "WE wouldn't act like that !" Even on the Left it's usually explained in terms of Iraqi oil, and control of the Middle East reserves in general (which are important factors).
But the same sort of explanation as that given by Chomsky was offered for the more recent attack on Iraq, by Gwynne Dyer, a military historian who was a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England (which doesn't tend to employ leftists) and later freelance writer on international relations. In "Future:Tense, The Coming World Order", he too says that oil was not the primary motivation (though it was obviously a significant factor):
"The end of the Cold War destroyed the basis for the existing version of Pax Americana, but at the same time it seemed to enhance America's relative military power to the point where no other country in the world could defy it.
... the task was therefore to find a new rationale for America's immense military effort and its worldwide military presence. The 'rogue states with WMD' might work with the US domestic audience, but it just wouldn't fly with other governments. In fact, there was no cover story that they would swallow: they would just have to be shown who was in charge.
... So how could the neo-conservatives let the world know in a dramatic but economical way that the rules have just changed ... One good way would be to pick some country that that has repeatedly defied the United States in the past - but isn't actually attacking it just now, for we don't want this to look like mere retaliation - and to whack it very hard. Create a horrible example of what happens to those who get out of line ...
... Iraq practically nominated itself."
Authenticity not reality
The actors were impressed by Scorsese's concern with authenticity; but this is rather like naturalism; concerned with surface appearances, the streets of Boston, using real policemen, etc. But, for example, Costello was based on a real gangster boss, James "Whitey" Bulger", who was very different from the character played by Nicholson, with his constant grinning, over-the-top behaviour:
"He watched very little television besides the History Channel and was fond of reading books, especially true crime and military history. He did not drink, smoke, or use drugs."
"Bulger and his associates were looked up to and revered by several generations of South Boston youth. Those who have worked for him describe him as a benevolent but ruthless father figure who took very few steps without carefully considering all possible consequences [unlike Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al].
One former associate has described him as follows, "The more work I did for Whitey, the better I liked it. If I received a [NB] rare smile from the man, an extra bonus for a job well done, that could keep me going for days. I loved to listen to his theories about the great military strategists of the world - like Caesar, Maximus, Patton, MacArthur - and how they moved deliberately, evaluating every possible move before acting.
...Costello differs from Bulger in his lack of political connections, apart from his FBI deal."
Given his TV and reading preferences he might well have read Machiavelli, and known about this passage (which echoes the views of Chomsky and Dyer on US neo-cons):
"...Among the wonderful deeds of Hannibal this one is enumerated: that having led an enormous army, composed of many various races of men, to fight in foreign lands, no dissensions arose either among them or against the prince, whether in his bad or in his good fortune. This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valour, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect. And shortsighted writers admire his deeds from one point of view and from another condemn the principal cause of them..."
But, he added:
Of course the US government is now much more widely hated and has a lot more to fear in future.
By a remarkable coincidence, Chomsky actually works (at MIT) only about 5 miles from the centre of activity of the gang, which went on for decades. Luckily for Chomsky he was more interested in the media in general rather than doing journalism, and in the gangsters in Washington rather than the much smaller fry a short drive from him, who threatened local reporters, resulting in little investigation by journalists.
Freedom to be largely ignored
One might say that this just proves what a wonderfully open democracy the US has, if Chomsky can relentlessly attack the government and remain unmolested. But as Chomsky also points out, the US is quite ready to to do or pay for the bloodiest attacks on its enemies abroad, but at home the system just happens to work in a way which almost filters out such dissent, not by conspiracy, as Chomsky himself stresses, but just because of the nature of the system - in education, journalism, TV, etc.
Concision as exclusion
For example, its need for "concision": Thus Chomsky would need time to explain and provide evidence for such a view as the above, but, as he points out, that's just what the US media, TV in particular, don't offer; they want concision, opinions which will fit easily between the adverts, such as mainstream views which will be readily understood and accepted by most Americans.
http://www.postmodernhaircut.com/archive_page.php?id=5 (a very funny site)
As a result the fellow MIT academic who did the interview with Chomsky, introduced it by saying something which was almost exactly what an American here in Nice had told me:
Hugh Gusterson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
"I am struck that, when I travel abroad, foreign academics and activists often
ask me about my MIT colleague Noam Chomsky, whom they recognize as
one of the pre-eminent intellectuals, and critics of social injustice, alive in the
world today. On the other hand, when I mention him in my classes at MIT,
over half the students have never heard of him, although he is unarguably the
most distinguished faculty member at our university. Famed both as the
originator of structural linguistics and as a formidably knowledgeable and
intense critic of US military and economic intervention abroad, of the mainstream
media and of Israeli repression of the Palestinians, he enjoys a strange
mixture of local obscurity and global celebrity as a left-wing intellectual."
America is now more civilized
Despite the jokes on the www.postmodernhaircut.com site, where Chomsky is portrayed as a miserable pessimist, in fact he remains very optimistic - about people in general if not US governments and corporations. But, being a realist, he reminds us of uncomfortable truths about the recent past of the US, even in liberal Boston, before giving reasons for remaining optimistic:
"... I was here [during the Vietnam War]. Boston, the most liberal city in the
country. We could not have a public demonstration against the war without
it being physically broken up, often by students, until late 1966. Literally. At
that time there were a couple of hundred thousand American troops rampaging
around South Vietnam. The war had been around for five years. And
there were hundreds of thousands of people who had already been killed. And
at that time if we tried to have a meeting on Boston Common it would be
broken up violently.
HG: Not by the police . . .
NC: Not by the police; the police were protecting us. If it hadn't been for the hundreds
of State Troopers, we probably would have been killed. They didn't
protect us because they liked us, but because they didn't want to see people
murdered on the Boston Common. In fact, even when we tried to do it in a
church, the Arlington Street Church, it was attacked, in April of '66.
HG: I was here during the Gulf War . . .
NC: See, but notice the difference. The Gulf War was probably the first war in
history where the protests, massive protests, took place before the war started.
Not six years later. That reflects the change in the attitude of the population.
HG: Do you feel the chill of the '50s returning? In a different way because orthodoxy
is mediated through money and funding?
NC: It's nothing like the '50s. The whole mood of the country has shifted
And attitudes have changed on all sorts of things. Feminist issues didn't exist,
environmental issues didn't exist. The rights of Native Americans didn't exist.
The opposition to repression didn't exist. The whole tenor of the culture has
changed. It's become a much more civilized place. And that leads to all kinds
How different from the pessimistic nihilism of Scorsese. But then the kind of work Scorsese wants to do requires lots of money, i.e. working within the system and that tends to set limits (see the example of "concision" above) - until the power elite decide that Iraq is a lost cause (as many of them have done already) and a new set of politicians gets into power. Then we might get a spate of films about Iraq as happened about a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, e.g. Oliver Stone's "Platoon":
Ironically what was needed in both cases was someone more like Whitey Bulger, "who took very few steps without carefully considering all possible consequences" and would have looked beyond the macho gesture of "Shock and Awe" and probably have decided attacking Iraq would only add to his problems, not solve them. If he'd made mistakes like this he'd have known he would have ended up in prison, or on the run (as he is now apparently).
Recently Chomsky gave a lecture at MIT, Boston: The Current Crises in the Middle East (September 21, 2006) where he said about Iraq:
Whitey Bulger probably wouldn't have joined in the applause, he might well have given one of his rare smiles and called it a "supreme piece of stupidity" and returned to the History Channel.
Need to know
In fact while the system leads to most Americans being ignorant of Chomsky's political work, those who run the system need to know what's going on in the world and seek the best analysis - hence Chomsky's point that one can often find useful information in the elite papers (while the tabloids keep the masses distracted and purvey the dominant ideology). This "need to know" extends to the senior ranks of the military; thus Chomsky has even given a lecture: On Just War Theory and the Invasion of Iraq - at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ! He concluded:
"... the codification of laws of war has over time had a notable civilizing effect, but the gap between professed ideals and actual practice is much too large to be tolerated in my opinion. Thanks."
http://readingchomsky.blogspot.com/ (Saturday, September 30, 2006)