Clear and Present Danger

Clear and Present Danger

I’ve been getting a little backed up on my movie watching lately. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a problem, and it’s really not—I’m just making a general observation, not a complaint. There are, of course, more serious things to be all backed up about; like actual work, or a busy schedule, or like that time in college when a guy in our dorm was dared to eat an entire block of Velveeta in one sitting—he was so backed up he had to go to the emergency room. I’m very fortunate to only be backed up on my movie watching time.

I only bring this up to explain why I’m now reviewing a movie that I didn’t even intend to watch this week. I actually intended to write something about a movie I watched last week, called Double Indemnity—and I’ll get back to it eventually, but a couple of nights ago I found myself randomly selecting a film that I haven’t seen since I was in high school: Clear and Present Danger. I’m still not sure what drew me into watching it again after so many years. As previously alluded to, I literally have a stack of movies and shows sitting on my desk that I’m intending to watch and eventually write about; Clear and Present Danger was not in this stack. Maybe I just needed a night of random spontaneity and this is what passes for living on the edge at age 39… or maybe it’s because I’ve been missing my mom recently, and this was one of her favorite movies—that probably has something to do with it.

Actually, this film was a favorite for both of my parents. They took my sister Emilie and I to see it in the theater when it came out, and it’s one of the movies that occupied a place of importance in their VHS collection. I never asked them why, but I was thinking about that when I watched it this time. I know they were both interested in the Jack Ryan films, and Harrison Ford was one of their favorite actors… but I couldn’t help thinking that there must be something more to why they loved this movie so much.

There are, as far as I know, five movies that center around the character of Jack Ryan, all of which are based on the books by Tom Clancy. In these five movies, the role of Jack Ryan has been played by four different actors: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Captain James T. Kirk… I mean, Chris Pine. In the first movie with Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Ryan is more of a side character, but in the other four movies he’s the main dude. These movies are, in order of release: Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Sum of All Fears (2002), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). It can all be a little confusing due to the fact that in each movie Ryan gets younger and younger, while the technology and political arenas get more up to date. There’s a sort of adaptable mythology surrounding this character, which means he’s the kind of hero that can be updated and modified to fit with current events. He’s kind of like a Batman or Superman in the sense that different filmmakers can choose to emphasize different aspects of his story based on their own perspective, while keeping the general guidelines of the character intact from one iteration to the next. In all of these films, Ryan is basically, as best I can sum him up, an honest ‘boy scout’ working in the CIA. That pretty much makes him completely fictional as far as I can tell.

In the two Harrison Ford films Jack Ryan is older, in his early 50s, and well established in his career with the CIA. In Clear and Present Danger he’s the Deputy Director of Intelligence, reporting directly to the President. The plot of the movie is very well constructed. It’s essentially a spy movie, a political drama, a murder mystery, and an action flick, all well balanced and baked together just right to form the perfect casserole of 90s flavor. I think when I first saw it as a teenager I was disappointed that there wasn’t as much action, but when I watched it now, I had a much deeper appreciation for the various elements being woven together.

Just to give you the highlights— The President, the National Security Advisor, and the CIA Director of Operations—or as I like to think of them, George W., Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—all decide to conduct a secret, covert war against the Columbian drug cartels. When things start to get out of hand, they decide to cut communications and support to their troops on the ground and give away their positions to the enemy — all to cover up what they’ve been doing. Jack Ryan is inadvertently thrown into the middle of this mess when his boss is overcome by cancer. The process of him picking up the pieces, gathering evidence, figuring out what’s been going on behind his back, and taking action is a slow build up to him eventually finding Willem Defoe (reprising his Oscar nominated role as Elias from Platoon) and flying into the Columbian jungle to rescue the abandoned troops. But the real icing on the cake, and the thing that gave me the chills this time around, is when Harrison Ford marches into the oval office at the very end, looks the President directly in the face and tells him he’s a bastard. This all may seem a bit overdramatic and passé to younger audiences today, but in the 1990s covert wars were still illegal… nowadays they’re a dime a dozen, and the President doesn’t have to cover them up—he can brag about them on Twitter—and a hundred thousand people cuss him out before he eats breakfast. But back in good ‘ol 1994, this was really something special that didn’t happen in real life.

Anyway, this all brings me back to surmising on what my parents found so interesting about this film. I guess I’ll have to ask my dad the next time I talk to him to get some more insight. Whatever the case may be, one thing’s for sure—It’s a great movie, there’s no doubt about that, and it has some important points to make about government, politics, and power. The overall impression that this story leaves me with—whether it was designed to do so or not—is the idea that the truth is a higher authority than the highest office in our land. And for the record, I don’t think this has changed. The truth is still the higher authority—and everyone still appeals to the truth, and people still demand honesty—the problem, however, is that no one really knows what the truth is anymore. And Jack Ryan doesn’t exist.

And the clearest and most present danger is not a Columbian drug cartel.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A long time ago, in an America far far away…

A gifted director made a film about a greedy, imperial machine that was threatening freedom, and wielding its power over the innocent, the helpless, and the downtrodden. In the way of this immoral juggernaut stood the courage and the tenacity of one man—a man who grew up as a simple farm boy from the outskirts, suddenly finding himself thrust unwittingly into a struggle for truth, justice, and hope.

The director was Frank Capra, the year was 1939, and the film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

1939 was a great year for movies, giving us The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others, but it was a tumultuous year for planet Earth in general. The world was shuddering as millions of white men began slaughtering each other in Europe, and eventually roping the rest of the world into the carnage with them. The United States had not yet entered the conflict, but tensions were high as the doom of its European allies looked certain. Only a month and a half after Germany invaded Poland, Capra’s film blitzkrieged its way into American theaters with a Washington D.C. premiere. It was not well received by the local establishment. Though it was eventually banned in German occupied territory, the powers that be—in our nation’s capitol—were afraid that the movie was too un-American, at a crucial time, when anything but unquestionable patriotism was unacceptable. Thankfully, none of the unwarranted denunciations produced any real fruit as more serious and credible movie critics defended the film’s integrity. Through the lens of time, it has become clear that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not a film that criticizes Washington, democracy, or the political process—on the contrary, it’s a film that seeks to provide education on how Washington functions, defend pure democracy, and shine a light on elements that would seek to destroy the political process from the inside. And it’s meant to inspire hope. As Capra himself stated: “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals.” History agreed with him, and 50 years after its release, having come full circle, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of a place in the preservation vaults of the United States National Film Registry.

As for the plot… I’ll give you the overview. The ultimate villain of the story is a corrupt business mogul who has bought influence in the Senate by extracting the loyalty of those who are only concerned with maintaining their seats in Congress. The hero is Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart; he’s the down to earth country boy that is appointed to the Senate by the Governor of his home state when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The central conflict of the film revolves around a land appropriation bill that Smith introduces without knowing that the other senator of his state (an old family friend who he looks up to as a mentor) has already introduced legislation dealing with the same parcel of land—land which will profit his corrupt business mogul partner. As Smith is slowly drawn into a position where he is at odds with those he admires, and eventually threatened by them, we see him age from a wide-eyed, innocently naive, good guy, into a distraught, desperate, pariah who has had the wool pulled from his eyes. Jean Arthur plays the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary and aide who has spent enough years in Washington to know how things actually work. The relationship dynamic between her and Smith is on point, as she helps him to see the reality of his situation and understand the struggle in which he’s embroiled, while he, in turn, helps her to shed her cynicism and recapture some of the hopeful idealism that she has lost along the way. The two of them genuinely need each other as the main battle ensues on the floor of the Senate, before eventually spilling out into the realm of public opinion—public opinion that is bought and paid for by big business and the press outlets it owns.

As I watched this movie, I found myself becoming more and more sad as I realized the terrible truth embedded in its plot—Capra’s film is highly satirical of course, but it contains a warning that our government and political process might be in jeopardy by immoral forces seeking to buy it, own it, and sell it at their leisure. The story that Capra told was ultimately a hopeful one. As Stewart collapses like a sacrificial lamb on the floor of the Senate after a marathon filibuster, the corrupt senator who has been accusing him becomes overwhelmed with guilt and confesses that he has been compromised and is morally unfit to maintain his seat in the government. This brings the story to a satisfying ending… that would never actually happen in real life. While Capra’s film has a positive, redemptive conclusion that should leave one feeling hopeful, it did not leave me with this feeling. Because it was made in 1939—at a time when there was still a chance to prevent what was happening, and to salvage American democracy from the hands of greed, corruption, and indifference.

Maybe I’ve become too pessimistic about this subject… Maybe I’m just tired of hearing everyone talk about it, when most people have no clue what they’re saying… those are two very good reasons for me to end this review right here, lest I begin spilling my thoughts out into the open as well. I don’t want to be that guy. So I’ll just end with this final thought:

We are now living in a time when even the echo of Capra’s warning has long since faded away, and in the wake of its passing, we have exactly what he imagined could happen if corruption was allowed to mature and thrive.

Or maybe it’s just a really good movie.