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WARNING: COMPANY SPOILERS
How far have we fallen as a country in the last 30 years? Here’s how far.
Our movies about the CIA used to be this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the president of the United States! Oh my god!
Now they’re this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the vice-president of the United States! Yay!
The assassins in this latter case, in the movie “Red,” are, to be sure, rogue agents, or retired agents, who have been forced out of retirement because this vice president, with war crimes to hide, has targeted them. So our heroes are less “the CIA” than individual agents. They’re soldiers. Support the troops, man.
But it’s still odd and disheartening.
Our fear used to be Frankensteinian in nature. The monster we created, the national security agency, had turned on its creator, the U.S. government, and through a rogue agent (“In the Line of Fire”), or with the help of the entire agency (“JFK”), was trying to remove the democratically elected president of the United States. The CIA, created to protect the people, but unaccountable to the people, was subverting democracy.
Now? In “Red”? The agency still sucks because it’s a bureaucracy and bureaucracies suck. But democracy sucks, too. The vice-president needs to be assassinated not only because he’s immoral but because he’s running for president—he has the money and the organization—and we have no faith that we the people won’t see through the money and organization, and we’ll elect him anyway. We are, in a certain sense, the movie’s unnamed villains. Democracy, a good idea in its day, doesn’t work with people as stupid as us.
When the movie opens, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is dealing somnabulantly with retirement. He gets up at six, pads downstairs in his robe, drinks coffee, works out. He’s a retired CIA agent—we know that going in—but he’s like someone in the witness protection program. A neighbor says hi, he says hi back, then notices all the other houses have Christmas lights up. So he buys some. He’s just trying to fit in with these people.
The one bright spot in his day, or his week, is talking on the phone with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer-service rep whom he contacts when he doesn’t get his retirement check. He gets it all the time but he keeps tearing it up so he can talk to Sarah. It’s a small life.
One morning, though, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep (I know the feeling), so he pads downstairs. In the darkness, three men wearing ninja clothes, infrared goggles, and carrying high-tech weapons, silently follow him as he walks into the kitchen. Then they shoot up the kitchen. But he’s not in the kitchen, he’s in a nearby room, and he takes them all out. They’re just the first wave of the assault team. The second wave turns his house into swiss cheese with automatic weapons fire but by this point he’s safe in the basement; and when the second wave enters the house he takes them out, too, then leaves while part of his house crumbles. He doesn’t look back.
He’s on his way to Kansas City and Sarah. He assumes the CIA hit squad was targeting him because he had been talking to her. So they must be targeting her, too.
Sarah is the typical civilian in these kinds of stories. She dates badly and reads thrilling adventure novels to make up for the boredom in her life. Nothing ever happens to her. Until Frank shows up at her place, or in her place, and freaks her out.
Some good comedic bits here. “Did you vacuum?” she asks, looking around her apartment. “It was a bit messy,” he admits. Later, as they drive away, he talks about how he imagined it would be different the first time they met. Cut to: her, tied up in the back, duct tape over her mouth.
Moses is a man on the run trying to figure out why he’s on the run. He visits other retired agents: Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) in New Orleans and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) in Florida. Joe has a bit of a good speech: “I never thought this would happen to me,” he says. “Getting old.” For a moment we identify; then we realize he’s talking less philosophy than lifestyle. “Vietnam. Afghanistan. [pause] Green Springs Retirement Home?” Marvin, meanwhile, is nutso. He thought they were feeding him daily doses of LSD, and, Moses admits, they were, for 11 years. He’s the kind of anti-government paranoid that used to be associated with the left but is now wholly associated with the right. Libertarians are beating anarchists in the battle for nutjobs everywhere.
So why is Moses being targeted? I alluded to it earlier. Seems he and some others—all of whom have died over the last year—were part of a CIA extraction team in Guatemala in the fall of 1981. They were extracting a war criminal, the son of a rich man, who became Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon: Dr. Doom from “The Fantastic Four”), the vice president of the United States. Stanton is now running for president, and he, or someone backing him, doesn’t want any skeletons. Moses doesn’t want to be a skeleton. Thus the conflict.
I wonder how these movies play abroad. Are they accurately translated? There’s a moment, for example, when the young CIA buck, William Cooper (Karl Urban), enters the archives in Langley, Virginia, watched over by Henry the Record Keeper (Ernest Borgnine), to check out the file of Moses, the man he’s been ordered to kill. He opens it up... and almost everything is redacted. There’s nothing to read. It’s a good bit, worth a laugh. Karl then talks up Moses. How he was the best. How in his day he took out drug lords and terrorists. “Hell,” Henry says with a bright smile, “he toppled governments!”
Really? That’s the kind of thing that used to cause major moral qualms in this country. We’re toppling democratically elected governments? I thought we were the good guys. Now it’s a throwaway line said with pride. It’s what our heroes do.
You know that scratchy, sickly feeling you get in your chest and throat right before you get a cold? How you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s an indication something worse is coming? That’s how I felt walking out of “Red.” It’s a movie that demonstrates how sick we’re becoming.
October 16, 2010
© 2010 Erik Lundegaard