Battle in Seattle and Virtual JFK Ask Are We, or He, the People?


Who makes history? Is it the great man, the great mass, or the great revolutionary vanguard? For the movies, it’s usually all three: The studio elites employ famous stars to lead the mass audience into the multiplex. Battle in Seattle, however, is a docudrama that celebrates historical change as spontaneous uprising, and Virtual JFK is a docu-essay arguing the primacy of the individual.

A first film, written and directed by the Irish actor Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle re-animates the recent past—namely the late-1999 street actions that, as the largest organized protest of the Clinton era, successfully shut down the World Trade Organization’s “Millennium” round of negotiations. While the rest of the developed world quaked in fear of the dreaded Y2K “virus,” tens of thousands of costumed demonstrators—described by Thomas Friedman as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix”—danced in the streets of downtown Seattle.

Billed as the “Battle in Seattle” before it even happened, this was the first Internet protest in history, as someone explains in the movie with reference to the demonstrators’ uncanny ability to coordinate blockage of the city’s pressure points. For his part, Townsend is rather more labored in orchestrating the ensemble. His protagonists are taken from all sides of the event, including glamorous demonstrators of various persuasions (notably OutKast’s André Benjamin), a police officer (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Townsend’s girlfriend, Charlize Theron), a feisty TV-news reporter (Connie Nielsen), Seattle’s beleaguered mayor (Ray Liotta), and a few dissident delegates (among them Isaach De Bankolé). Their intentions, like Townsend’s, are mostly good, and the movie’s tumultuous jumble of family crises, tear-gas-drenched demos, and interpolated news was excitedly received at last year’s Toronto film festival.

Townsend has made no secret that Battle in Seattle aspires to be a contemporary version of Medium Cool—the 1970 drama that Haskell Wexler managed to set amid the 1968 Democratic convention. Like Medium Cool, Battle in Seattle recounts the radicalization of a TV reporter and gets maximum impact from the spectacle of a vulnerable woman trapped in the midst of police-riot madness. The difference is that where much of Medium Cool was shot amid the Chicago disturbances, Battle in Seattle has to restage the action or cobble it together from archival footage. These sequences represent Townsend’s best filmmaking, with anarchist kamikazes smashing the Christmas shopping malls as helmeted robots stage counterattacks, everything punctuated by ironies too good to be true. (Starbucks’ CEO complains on TV about the unfairness of having to close up downtown stores during Christmas shopping).

It’s not exactly Bloody Sunday (another model), but still a credible fiesta of unintended consequences, with the system made visible in the damage it wreaks on the protagonists—relationships smashed, trust destroyed, eyes forcibly opened. If any material could justify the we-are-the-world all-overness of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, it would be this. But Townsend smothers any sense of global immediacy by covering the action with a frayed patchwork of melodramatic coincidences: The good-looking young people take crazy existential chances, but live to tell the tale; one or two of the older characters accept responsibility for their deeds and get to keep their jobs. Townsend does his best to coax out an affirmative ending: The funkiest of the demonstrators vow to keep on keepin’ on.

Flapping like a scarecrow in the wind, Battle in Seattle is too frantic to make more than a transitory impression, yet too responsibly hackneyed in its characterizations to achieve pure tabloid hysteria. In that sense, it’s true to the actual event. The impression that the movie leaves is less what the French activist Yves Frémion termed an “orgasm of history” than a hiccup. The world held its breath and moved on.

The mass is the audience but the star is the show in Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. Film Forum’s contribution to the 2008 presidential campaign is an elegantly constructed if misleadingly titled class lecture, written and delivered by Brown professor of international relations James G. Blight, and directed by a former student, Koji Masutani. The question: Can an individual leader take a nation to, or keep it from, war? The conclusion: Individual temperament matters, and John F. Kennedy’s example proves it.

Professor Blight, an associate of Kennedy defense secretary Robert McNamara (and a consultant on Errol Morris’s The Fog of War), argues that Kennedy’s thousand-day reign was basically one continuous crisis—with Cuba, Berlin, and Indochina as a cycle of blinking flashpoints. Kennedy was traumatized by the Bay of Pigs debacle and was thereafter, per Blight, the most pressured president in U.S. history. Regarded by the military brass as a “young punk” and taunted by Republican opponents as a wimp, Kennedy was put to the test six times and each time successfully avoided armed confrontation with the Soviets—at odds not only with the Pentagon, but also his own advisors.

Virtual JFK ponders the mystery of the Kennedy personality mainly as manifested during his televised press conferences—radiating star power, the coolest man in the room disarms adoring tweedy reporters with his dry martini wit. (Thanks to these sequences, Masutani’s no-frills, largely black-and-white production is as evocative of early-’60s masculine styles as any episode of Mad Men—an alternate title, actually, given the significance of the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.) Masutani is restrained in handling the assassination—if overly fastidious in avoiding any mention of the Kennedy administration’s clandestine activities in Cuba and Vietnam.

A less hysterical version of the Oliver Stone thesis that Kennedy was assassinated precisely so the Pentagon could have its war, Virtual JFK suggests that—unlike Kennedy, and despite his tremendous victory in the 1964 election as well as a detailed cautionary memo from his new vice president, Hubert Humphrey—Lyndon Johnson was susceptible to pressure and immediately capitulated to demands that he escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (The filmmakers are too polite to recall that McNamara was among those egging Johnson on.) Given the Kennedy record, it does seems unlikely that he would have been stampeded by the Gulf of Tonkin—although, given as well that this questionable incident occurred in the midst of a presidential election, who can say?

As Wilson’s Ghost, a treatise on idealism and American foreign policy that Blight wrote with McNamara, was haunted by Kennedy’s, so Virtual JFK conjures the specter of George W. Bush (and also the spirit of Errol Morris in solemnizing its footage with the music of Philip Glass’s public-domain precursor, Erik Satie). There’s no need to note that Kennedy’s assassination has its equivalent in the stolen election of 2000, or to raise the question of whether Al Gore would have responded to 9/11 by going to war in Iraq. In the current context, Virtual JFK is a virtual paid political ad for Barack Obama.

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