Thursday, 10 February 2011

Film reviews: the War on Terror

Since 2001 Hollywood has been gingerly approaching the subject of the War on Terror, with directors feeling their way in a moral jungle that can be difficult to navigate and protray effectively. The 'conflict' and the issues it raises has been done well in some cases, but in others there has been a distinct failure to really get to grips with the topic. Here are some examples I've watched recently, and the opinions I have which stem from them.

The Kingdom (2007), dir Peter Berg; Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper

The Kingdom deals with an FBI team sent to Saudi Arabia to 'assist' the local authorities in their investigation of the bombing of an American civilian compound. In many ways it reminded me of Black Rain, 1989's Ridley Scott exercise about a joint investigation into Japan's yakuza crime cartels.

The Kingdom is more about the Arab-American culture clash that results when gung-ho US cops are unleashed into a more totalitarian environment, where they must respect (or not) the wishes of their hosts as well as the delicate ongoing domestic political situation in the kingdom as well as the larger diplomatic game. More could really have been made of this in The Kingdom to be honest. The State Department does rear its ugly head on a couple of occasions, but if I had been running this scenario as an RPG adventure, I'd have made more use of the FBI v State possibilities.

The photography is lush in this movie, and as a former resident of the Gulf, I could almost feel the heat, even though much of this was shot in Arizona or New Mexico or somesuch. You would not know from watching it, however. Saudi Arabia remains a key battleground in the War on Terror, and is a critical strategic ally of the US in the Middle East region, but the delicacies surrounding this relationship are quickly lost once Foxx and company start the gunplay.

I think more could have been made of what actually goes on in Saudi, and why it is that the Saudi regime is higher on Al Qaeda's hit list than the US, but Berg chooses not to go there.

Body of Lies (2008), dir Ridley Scott; Leonardo diCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong

Body of Lies swaps the FBI for the CIA, and Saudi Arabia for Iraq and Jordan. This film is much more about the off-the-books, covert espionage side of the War on Terror. As with The Kingdom, some effort is made to tackle some of the human issues, including the legacy of the Palestinian problem. I've always been impressed by the Palestinians I've met in the Middle East, and the Palestinian character in this film lives up to that high standard of education you see elsewhere.

Body of Lies' main CIA characters come across fairly realistically, and it certainly brings home some of the difficulties of inter-agency cooperation in the Middle East, as well as the frustrating turf wars that can crop up in any large organisation staffed with ambitious individuals who see a dynamic situation as a way to climb the greasy career pole.

Mark Strong, who plays Hani, the head of the Jordanian counter-terrorism unit, is a real find. I've been very impressed with his work in Stardust and Sherlock Holmes, and he is good here as well. If Body of Lies does succeed, it is with the message that only by relying on trust and solid relationships locally, as well as the value of human intelligence over the high tech espoinage the US is increasingly relying on, will progress be made on this front.

Rendition (2007), dir Gavin Hood; Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reece Witherspoon

Rendition deals with the controversial CIA tactic of moving suspects to interrogation centres outside US jurisdiction, in order to avoid any 'inconvenient' legal complications, a policy I suspect will come home to roost for many of the individuals and governments involved.

In this case, it deals with an Egyptian-born American citizen who has a background in chemistry and is mistakenly thought by the CIA to be involved in some way with a terror network. It shows how he can be kidnapped from a US airport and shipped to a North African ally of the USA's, and there tortured for information he does not have.

Rendition also looks at the relationship between the daughter of the head of the country's secret police, and a young lad who is being inducted into the terror cell his dead brother was a member of. It examines what motivates the terrorist, and the human cost of terror on their families. The film is structured interestingly, in that the sequence of events is not what it seems, and much falls into place in the last 20 minutes, but I won't say more than that.

I was most interested in Gyllenhaal's character, the CIA analyst who thinks he can hack it as a field agent once his main 'knuckle dragger' in-country is killed in an explosion, but ultimately finds he can't deal with the blood and guts side of counter-terrorism.

Syriana (2005), dir Stephen Gaghan; George Clooney, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig.

Syriana is a massive canvas portraying the interlocking lives of a number of people involved in a Gulf state's political trials. It feels a little like a James Clavell novel. Clooney is an embittered CIA agent on the trail of a missing Stinger missile, Damon is a securities analyst who thinks he can make it as a power broker, and Jeffrey Wright is a forensic accountant looking into corporate wrong-doing while battling with a dysfunctional relationship with his ageing father. There are others of course - the great Alexander Siddig as the far-sighted emir trying to modernise his country is particularly good, and reminiscent of Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on whom the character is probably based.

Like Rendition, Syriana also takes time to answer the question, 'What makes a terrorist?' In this case, it features the very tough working conditions suffered by migrant workers in the Gulf States, although whether these have produced many terrorists in the past, compared with, say, grinding urban poverty in other parts of the region, is an open question.

Syriana is almost Tarantino-esque in the way it tries to weave together the various plot lines. It is interesting how many of the key characters 'see the light' and recognise the error of their ways towards the end of the film. My only real criticism is the attempt to somehow mesh an Enron-style corporate malfeasance scandal into Mid-Eastern politics. I didn't really feel it worked, and the movie feels almost too crammed as a result.

A quick update on Pathfinder: vacillations in Varnhold

Since the end of the festive period, we've begun playing the third arc of the Pathfinder Kingmaker story. Past readers will remember our party had reached the dizzy heights of 7th level, and had successfully established the kingdom/duchy of Staghelm, led by elven druid PC Cassie. We had proceeded to pacify the southern parts of our allotted fiefdom as well (populated by pesky trolls in the main), and Grameer, our elven PC wizard, had ably managed the economy of the realm, increasing its GDP exponentially, as well as vastly boosting the output of magic items (without any contingent inflation, as we're still pegged to the gold standard).

Following a break over Xmas, we returned to the news that Dave, one of our players, was moving to Canada, leaving us one man down and without Olban, our Changeling rogue. Still, we had two tough warriors, the barbarian Artemisia and the tengu monk, Wu Ya.

I missed the first session, but suffice to say we've heard that the founder of an adjacent fief has vanished along with the entire population of his main town. The mysterious disappearence is very reminiscent of the disappeareance of the people of Roanoke, one of the earliest English settlements in North America.

Cassie and Grameer have both acquired cohorts, and each has a 5th level side-kick (Cassie has gone with a human cleric/druid, and Grameer has a female human witch, a new class from the Paizo Advanced Players Guide, or APG for short). In addition, we now have about 40 1st level 'followers'. We're kicking around some ideas about what to do with these, and my view is to assign them roles as and when required, but to otherwise leave them relatively faceless. For example, we now have two trained owl bears in our party, and it was felt we should have a pair of 1st level rangers skilled in Animal Handling who could manage the owl bears in a fight, leaving the PCs free to do other important stuff, like cast spells. Another example is a gnome with a high Swim skill, whom we can call on when any underwater recon is required, although now Cassie can turn into a water elemental at will, there is less need for that.

We've investigated the town of Varnhold, and found it to be infested with spriggans, who had occupied the town's fort after the humans vanished. We wiped these guys out in fairly short order, and I was impressed at how lethal some of the other characters have become. Both Grameer and Cassie can now fly, Cassie's ability to turn into innocent fauna means she can scout locations unseen with relative ease, and set herself up to surprise opponents. In the attack on Fort Spriggan she changed into a crow, landed on the roof of their watchtower, and blanketed it in mist, preventing them from seeing the approach of the party.

Grameer can now summon rhinos using Summon Monster, and these beasts have proved particularly deadly in battle. He has also called in a flock of eagles to good effect, as they can flank opponents, giving the main fighters a valuable +2 bonus.

While in Varnhold, we were also assailed by some kind of summoned creature that attacked Grameer while we were staying the night in Varnhold's sole inn. As Grameer can now teleport, he is a pretty difficult target to deal with. The critter, whatever it was, got one attack on him in his room, then had to turn to mist to pursue him, and get past Artemisia, who now has a magic +2 great sword with defending and thunder attributes, making her particularly dangerous.

We've also now learned that there is a considerable centaur presence in this region, that they are not TOO friendly to humans, and that there used to be some kind of ancient cyclops empire here as well. The daughter of the centaur chieftain has vanished, and we're on the quest to find her as well as the missing village (although Grameer and Artemisia are quietly hoping that Varnhold can be assimilated into Staghelm - finding the original lord alive and well might be...inconvenient).

We've now discovered some kind of cyclops tomb in the mountains to the south-east. It seems as if a magical ward at the entrance to the tomb was broken, releasing not only some cylcops zombies, but also - and this is really just a suspicion of ours - a cylcops lich or spellcaster of some kind.

I've really skipped over about nine hours' worth of play in this entry, although much of this time was spent in some fairly extended combats. The party is now 8th level, which to be honest is the highest level D&D game I've ever played in. Previously, my record was 7th level back in the days when I used to play Expert D&D. So kudos to us all for bringing the game this far.

Having said that, the party is now BIG. Apart from four PCs, we have two 6th level companions who are powerful in their own right, including one of the new APG witches. We also have two animal companions, an elk and a dog, we have the ability to summon a griffon to our aid using a magical item, we have Artmesia's war horse, and two trained owl bears. That's before you factor in an air elemental that is travelling with the witch, and the various critters Cassie and Grameer can summon.

Our opposition seems to be composed increasingly of large beasts, like a chuul, cyclops zombies which come against us in twos and threes, an aquatic dinosaur, etc. When facing creatures in bigger numbers, like the spriggans, we seem able to carve through them with speed. Area effect spells like fireball and entangle and obscuring mist are coming into play more often, and Wu Ya and Artemisia are regularly inflicting 20-40 hit points (and more) of damage per round. A large creature, like a chuul for example, will get swarmed in fairly short order by numerous opponents and will be facing a dozen attacks per round.

Wu Ya himself is now very hard to hit, and his stunning fist attack leaves opponents exposed to two rounds worth of attacks. We've been a bit liberal about this, I fear, letting him stun a summoned entity which I wasn't entirely sure was made of flesh and blood, and therefore stunnable in the first place, and we've decided that letting him stun a zombie was probably a bit out there too.

So, here we are, 8th level. An impressive feat. I'm not even going to try to tot up the hours of gameplay required to get here. We're levelling up every 3-4 sessions at the moment, which seems reasonable, but every time we do, the leap in power in Pathfinder is substantial. It is much more pronounced, I feel than AD&D or 3e or even, dare I say it, 4e. There is also an ongoing debate in our group about whether there is an element of power creep appearing in Pathfinder, now the APG is with us. We shall have to see how the witch progresses before a case can be made for this, although Artemsia has already picked up the rage power Lesser Spirit Totem from the APG.