Issue #15: And....Action! 🎬
The Old Guard + Heat
What is there to say about the lazy, hazy, crazy summer days? Well, frankly a lot of them are lacking in much that sets them apart from the other (genuinely: what day is it?).
And so we turned our attention to high-energy and action! Cate is on The Old Guard, and how even reincarnated deaths can still hit closer to home than you'd like. Zosha is covering Heat, and all the cop-criminal-cat-mouse brouhaha therein. Read on, hit us up with your thoughts, and keep watching movies!
Cate on The Old Guard
Written by: Greg Rucka
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Distributed by: Netflix
I think, by now, my feelings about state violence and its impacts are well-established. The concept of the nation-state needs reevaluating and too much harm has been done in the name of arbitrary borders to consider the experiment a success. In The Old Guard, however, the nation-state gives way to the found family, but the obligation to the state remains.
In Netflix’s latest blockbuster, Charlize Theron as Andy leads a group of immortal warriors who wander the earth, fighting in battles for causes they believe in, effectively guiding the course of history. After an old contact betrays them and their powers are revealed, they discover that a new member of their family has been awakened and they have to retrieve her in order to keep her and themselves safe.
Nile (Kiki Layne) is a US Marine working in Afghanistan. During an operation, her throat is slit, killing her, but she recovers without so much as a scar. In swoops Andy to whisk her away and take her to the Guard’s safe house in Paris.
While I really enjoyed The Old Guard I took issue with the characterization of Layne’s Nile. As the youngest member of the team and the audience surrogate, we learn about the group’s mythology through her questions and curiosities. But Nile is also used as a means to demonstrate the group’s immortality as she is killed over and over again. As the only other woman on the team and the only black member, it didn’t sit right with me that the brutalization of her body was effectively, a quirk of the plot.
It’s not that the other members of the team don’t die. In a bloody opening scene, we see them all brutally gunned down after they unintentionally walk into a trap. But after that point in the film, all of their deaths happen offscreen. We aren’t subjected to the repeated trauma of their dead bodies and we aren’t asked to process and recover from their loss in record time.
Nile dies several times over the course of the film, and at least twice it happens by Andy’s own hand. When she initially retrieves Nile from her military post, she does not introduce herself or explain her presence. Instead, she knocks her unconscious, kidnaps her, then shoots her in the head when she tries to escape. These are all things that are meant to establish the film’s world, but they also train the audience to see Nile’s life as disposable.
Early in the film, she asks Andy why she would kill her if they can still technically die. Her response is that Nile is “too new” and that her deaths would not yet be permanent. Her deaths are inconsequential because they are temporary. She isn’t mourned and nothing in the story stops to acknowledge her loss. This happens despite the film’s mournful introduction lamenting the pain and psychic toll it takes of the group to die over and over again.
What frustrated me with The Old Guard was the same thing that frustrates me with most action movies where black people are involved—Nile’s body was seen as a tool of the plot rather than an extension of a person and a character. When Andy is injured we’re meant to mourn her because her powers are waning and she is dying. We’re also given time—however momentary— to mourn the injuries of the rest of the team. But with Nile, the audience is repeatedly asked to smooth over the brutality done to her body and accept it as a necessary part of her involvement with this team.
It was doubly frustrating then to have Nile consider leaving the team to return to her family—a wise choice—only to turn right back around and cement her position with the team. While the Guard is not beholden to a specific state, they are still wedded to the idea of the nation, and the protection of those designations. As a marine, Nile was already deeply indoctrinated into the thinking that protecting the state was paramount. Andy’s extraction gave her the perfect escape. But instead of seizing that opportunity, the story throws her right back into another profoundly flawed institution.
Over the course of the film, we not only see Nile die, we see her bones break, her fingers contorted, her legs twisted. The film climaxes as she jumps out of a window to her (temporary) death. Now her deaths aren’t for the nation, they’re for this forced, found family. The movie takes for granted that Nile can take it because she is young and immortal in a way it does not expect for the other members of the team. It feeds into nasty stereotypes about the strength of black women and our ability to endure pain and punishment. Black women are still seen as invulnerable today, and it affects real things like our outcomes in healthcare. It’s not a small thing to reinforce the idea that black women’s pain is inconsequential and unworthy of notice.
The Old Guard accomplishes what it sets out to do—namely, to be a rousing adaptation of the comics it is based on—but the characterization of Nile leaves a lot to be desired. Although it was likely unintentional, the film found a way to make a black woman’s superpower the very reason we shouldn’t care about her, and that’s never going to be something that I’m okay with.
Zosha on Heat
Written and Directed by: Michael Mann
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Since the uprisings, there’s been renewed attention to something called “copaganda,” typically used to invoke fictionalized, positive TV depictions of police officers in action. It’s an umbrella term that something like Heat undoubtedly falls under, largely with little to no interrogation. The film is just littered with justifications for cops—and the LAPD at that—as protectors of the innocent and the law.
Right off the jump, we are set up in a world that demands policing: The criminals are not just malicious types out to do crime, they’re hair-triggers—and, perhaps more importantly, smart. The smart criminal is a trope you’ll see a lot in cop films because it justifies every retaliation we see from the cop (and, by proxy, what we see from the next officer, and the one after that, and so on). The crew in Heat is methodical, mechanical in their criminality, careful to account for every last fiber. They’re not the type we want on the streets, ergo we demand a smart, brave man to step up with a badge and stop them.
So yes, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) needs to come at him with everything he can. That means being equally smart and brash, in turn; that means losing wife after wife because he can’t afford to leave his job. He and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) approach their jobs with the same laser-like professional focus: live with nothing you can’t drop when the time comes.
Theirs is the connection that drives the film. It’s not cat-and-mouse so much as it is a dick-measuring contest, or, more charitably, a drawn-out 10 paces. Heat methodically builds up each of their respective schemes, and we follow the two through planning, observation, and implementation of their war games (not to mention the reasoning of many of the characters that orbit around them). That wide scope is the double-edged sword of something like Heat, which withers as much as it spreads throughout its near-three-hour runtime. It can be thrilling to watch them both plot—Michael Mann’s dialogue is unencumbered by the usual gravity of a film, and instead feels almost lightly psychological, always granting careful insight into the speaker. But it can be just as frustrating to watch character after character be peeled off carelessly, byproducts of these two men’s toxic ambition.
Again: I get that’s the point of the movie! If we weren’t so accustomed to tropes of these things it might even be a bit surprising; we might not know that Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), as a Black man who joins the crew to escape a bad job, would be the first to die in the heist, or that almost every woman has a plotline that could be lifted out without much dustup. That every single romantic relationship (all hetero, in case you need to ask) is fractured seems telling: these men are married to their jobs, in a way they could never be with their partners.
But again, we see the copaganda fall into place: When Vincent has his final showdown with Neil, everything he does has a Machiavellian weight to it. He leaves his stepdaughter in the hospital post-suicide, leaves his wife for good, rushes to the scene of the crime. His advantage over someone like Neil is that he has the full force of the LAPD—not an understated thing in 1995—and could have dozens of uniformed officers to help him. But he doesn’t; catching Neil is something he has to do alone.
In the end, Mann wants us to think that this would all be worth it because it’s personal for these two. They get each other in a way that others just don’t. As Vincent holds Neil’s hand while he dies, it’s as if Mann wants us to see that all this was justified, or at least interrogate why we would think so. We see the symbiotic relationship between these two, both emboldened by the other’s existence, and we see the rationale for them giving it all up to be together on that airfield. The cop won, and he did it alone.
Does it matter that Heat is ostensibly rooted in the real-life story of a thief and a cop? I would say yes, just as much as it matters that it was a cop whom Mann called “a friend.” For everything there is to say about the mutual intimacy, the intractable rapport between two men on opposite sides of the law—well, I don’t find it terribly interesting. Heat is acutely interested in building a connection between Neil and Vincent, but also between the audience and the law. Vincent never acts reckless (he is, if anything, extremely lawful good), reinforcing just how we’re supposed to see something like the police. For every second it asks us how relative “right” feels when we’re invested in the characters, it’s also ensuring we recognize the necessity of a man like Lt. Vincent Hanna, of the LAPD’s might.
What something like the civil rights movements of this year, or CHOP, or the sustained protests against the LAPD this year (let alone, my lifetime!) is that the line between status quo and new world order is more porous than we’d expect. That goes for the world order of something like Heat too—ACAB, even the ones in a game of wits with cunning thieves.
¡Viva la Revolución!
It's always best to keep things simple, and explain how you too can take action this week:
Here is a spreadsheet of resources to help the First Nation people of Australia in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Here is a list of over one thousand black-owned Etsy shops for you to patronize should you so choose.
Here is a fund to help the transgender community in Beruit.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Cate: As usual, my interests are nothing if not laser-focused, so this week I'm reading about the relationship between motherhood and the nation-state over at The Cut. I'm also reading about the Pet to Threat phenomenon in this excerpt from Shayla Lawson's forthcoming book, and why the much-maligned "cancel culture" is a tech problem and not a people problem. There's also this great piece about the moral dimensions we add to good health. Finally, there's this piece about why cop shows have got to go.
Zosha: As someone with deeply complicated feelings about ol' RBG's legacy, I appreciated this piece on the "absurd and distressing" cult of personality behind her. Loved this piece on the simple truth of why we don't see fun procedurals on TV anymore (they're all antiheroes, a la sad Perry Mason. Very glad to have read this (pre-decision) piece on why Biden needs to actually let his VP be herself. Also if you're interested in the ins, outs, and machinations of the fashion industry (particularly under COVID) this NYT piece is a great read!
Somehow we have made it to the end of yet another week. In the next issue, we'll be talking streaming romcoms: Hulu's Palm Springs and Netflix's Desperados.
Hanging on by our teeth and still yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3