Sunday, February 4, 2018
AMERICAN MADE starring Tom Cruise Showcases the Limits of Free Will
*The views below are in relation to the movie, not to actual events. It goes without saying that any Hollywood claiming to be based on a true story takes considerable liberties for sake of entertainment or politics. Even though many of the events in the movie have been disputed, what does ring true is the depiction of a certain psychological strain of American Freedom.
Americans love to think of themselves as free. After all, America is called the Land of the Free. Even though many nations around the world claim to be free and democratic, the brand has really stuck to one nation, the United States. USA is the land of liberty, individuality, and the dream. Due to its great spaces and tremendous resources, enterprising individuals have been able to achieve more in America than elsewhere. Its relative meritocracy and Rule of Law also made America the favorite destination for those seeking freedom and fortune. And even those who live outside the US have looked to America as the market of choice. Whether it’s German or Japanese companies selling cars or Colombian cartels selling drugs, there has never been a richer market than America. It’s the first nation that people want to come to, the first nation that people want to sell to. And even though the US has faded in certain industries, it is still second to none in the production of high-tech, military-ware, food products, energy, media, drugs, and academia.
But sometimes, people can lose sight of things. Icarus, having wings, thought he would fly as high as wished. And "Sky is the limit" could be the motto of the character in AMERICAN MADE. He is a free-spirited pilot with brash adventurousness to dive into one risky business after another. Because of this reckless stuntman-like quality, he is seen as useful by many people. Indeed, it’s ironic that the CIA selects him as prime candidate for its mission. After all, the CIA knows he has a carefree and opportunistic streak, smuggling illegal contraband while working as a TWA pilot. He doesn’t play by the rules. But that is exactly why he’s an asset because it takes a man with knack for transgression who will thrive in dangerous operations that requires flights over territories controlled by Marxist guerrillas who readily shoot at what they suspect as spy planes.
One could say, the Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, is partly motivated by patriotism, but he isn’t particularly political. One might say he was pressured into taking the job since the CIA has the dirt on his smuggling of Cuban cigars. But it’s not like he committed a capital crime. No, what motivates him most is the thrill of adventure. He seems unfazed even when his plane is hit by guerrillas and feels exhilaration in carrying mission after mission. He’s more soldier of fun(and later of fortune) than patriot or true-believer.
His cowboy spirit makes him an All-American character, even something of a ‘hero’ at times, but is he really free when he doesn’t think about anything he’s doing? He does it with free-spiritedness but seems utterly lacking in curiosity as to the history and politics of Latin America. This begs the question. What does it mean to be free? If we let a dog outside, it runs around freely. So do horses. They feel free in spirit and enjoy the rush of feeling wild and alive. But are animals really free? Aren’t they following their instincts? Also, they are free only as long as their human masters let them run free.
When people act wild and free, are they any better or higher than animals? Aren’t they really acting on impulse? And this applies to Barry Seal. His freedom is closer to that of an animal than a thinking human. While it’s true that he, as an individual, chose to take on the role of sky pilot, his emotional involvement is like that of a dog or horse running wild. As for intellect, meaning, and morality, there is nothing. He’s like a child, an animal, an barbarian despite the fact that he gets to use all sorts of sophisticated machines and gadgets at the behest of the government.
But then, this question is relevant to modern life in general. Our electronic media get more sophisticated with advancements in technology, but most of what passes through the grids and airwaves is mindless childishness, barbarism, or savagery. Even a cowboy in the Classic Western was freer in the sense that he understood the moral choice between the good and the bad. But such considerations never enter into the mind of Barry Seals. Though vaguely instructed of the Cold War dichotomy between good ole USA and evil USSR(that is supposedly seeking beach-heads in Central America), Seal is purely in it for the adventure. As a gung-ho pilot, he feels alive and free, but there’s no meaning to his life. Freedom without meaning, purpose, and direction is like a cocaine high, a nihilism.
Indeed, consider the steady decline of White America since the 60s when freedom was severed from issues of moralism and set free to indulge in hedonism. We all love Rock music and the Beach Boys, but that kind of freedom centered on thrills and good-time turned white people into hares who just took things easy and for granted as long as they could have their fun, fun, fun. Meanwhile the demographic tortoise was closing in on them. They never asked what is really happening to their nation because the primary focus of their lives was the pursuit of happiness at the crassest level. So, while white Californians were surfing or acting the Valley Girl, real history was happening and masses of non-white immigrants were fundamentally altering the landscape demographically, politically, and culturally.
Because Seal is so hollow at the core, the arrow of his freedom is decided by the wills of others with a plan or agenda. So, he is turned into a tool of the CIA. But he easily becomes a tool of the drug cartel. When confronted with drug lords who want him to fly narcotics to the US, Seal decides to make the bargain. Now, one could argue he didn’t have much of a choice. CIA sent him to Latin America but didn’t give him much cover or protection. So, when surrounded by drug gangs, he is vulnerable and isn’t in a position to Just Say No. And yet, he doesn’t just agree to a single flight to make it to safety to the US. He decides to go whole hog as carrier for the drug cartel. And because he does it with such gusto, he fools himself into thinking he’s a cowboy in control of his destiny. If he’d really thought of his situation, he might have realized that he was not free in making the decision. The drug lords made it for him, and he had no choice. But because he is doing something exciting and daring, he once again feels free, and he mistakes that feel of freedom for real freedom when, in fact, he’s become a running dog of the drug cartel. If he was really honest with himself, he could have transported the first shipment of drugs and then gone to the CIA and informed them what really happened. But no. Just like he’d mindlessly taken on the CIA mission for thrills, he finds new thrills with being an aerial smuggler of drugs.
This becomes the pattern for the rest of his life. After being imprisoned in Colombia along with members of the drug gang(who soon gain freedom through bribes and/or threats), he is sprung out by the CIA because it has another mission for him, this time to transport arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. Again, he is more than willing since it’s better to fly around in a plane than be stuck in some seedy prison in Latin America. Again, his life is adventurous, and he feels free and independent.
But again, he had no choice in the matter. The only reason why he is free is because he agreed to the deal. He is to play a key role in supplying the Contras with arms so that they will overthrow the Sandinista government. The problem is reality on the ground is so at odds with the American grand strategy that is about as ridiculous as that of the Soviets. Both sides present themselves as being on the right side of history, the true torch-bearers of justice and liberty. But Soviet Union was then a stagnant empire running on empty in terms of ideas and goods. As for the US, it was more an empire of excess, vanity, and greed than virtue or ideals.
As for the Third World peoples caught between the great powers, they hadn’t a clue what was what and had no concern other than "gimme what’s mine". Indeed, it is hilarious to watch the US involve itself in so much ‘necessary evil’ of corruption to aid the supposedly idealistic and patriotic Contras made up of a rag-tag bunch of bumpkins and halfwits. In such context, idealism is for fools, and so, the cynical operators like Noriega, drug cartels, and deep state operatives in the US have the upper hand and play the game every which way they can. And if someone like Oliver North was a true believer in what he did, he was just a simple-minded idiot.
Anyway, Barry Seal is bounced around like a pinball. The sheer frenzy lends a sense of vibrancy and freedom, but there is no real agency. Seal is so without purpose or plan that he has no idea what to do with all the money he’s making from the drug trade. He just loves feeling like a rock star on tour, going from concert to concert, pumping up the volume to drown out everything but the thrill of the moment. Seal is addicted to the high life but has no real sense of life. His spirit is always up in the air and never grounded to anything like a soul. In a way, one could say he has the most infantile kind of globalist-mindset. He has no loyalty to anything even though, to his credit, he does stick with his family. But his home is just a rest-station for him to crash in before he’s back to his high-octane adventures again.
In some ways, he’s like the Henry Hill character in GOODFELLAS, the adaptive flunky who leans whichever the wind blows. But Seal is more of a cowboy with nerves of steel under fire. He also seems to relish living on the edge, like everyday is a gamble of life and death. And yet, despite his nerves and derring do, he’s never anything more than a ball kicked around by the real players because he lacks a moral compass and vision of humanity.
There are three ways to be truly free. One is to have real moral sense. A moralist, in favoring principles over the easy prize, may not gain great wealth or power. But he has the pride of righteousness. He can tell himself that he chose the path of virtue with his free will. Now, it may well be that ‘losers’ may use moralism as a crutch for their relative failure in life, like the Ed Harris character spouts off about the ‘working man’ every time something goes wrong in GLEN GARRY GLENROSS. (Of course, he cheats too when he sees the chance. His moralism is fake, an excuse.) A true moralist is someone who could have gotten something by bending the rules but didn't because his conscience told him not to. The main character of PRINCE OF THE CITY is a true moralist, albeit not a perfect one, but then, that’s precisely the point of that film.
The second way of freedom is to be a committed immoralist. In a way, the drug lords in AMERICAN MADE are freer than Barry Seal. They are not in it just for the fun and thrill of it. They are not boys who wanna play with toys. They are committed to creating an empire of greed. They are awful disgusting people, but they do have a purpose in life, however wicked it may be. They will kill and even die for this ‘dream’ of theirs. They don’t care if their dope turns countless lives into living nightmares. They have a plan and will do anything to see it through all the way. They are filthy gangsters, but they’ve freely chose to commit themselves to some purpose in life.
The third way of freedom is to be an amoralist-realist, like the character of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO. Henry Kissinger and Zhou En-lai were amoralist-realists. They were not lacking in moral sense, but they knew that if they stuck to moral principles, they’d either fail to move up the rungs of power or end up purged and persecuted. So, they decided to betray what many of us would consider basic moral principles. They accepted the world for what it is and the game of power as deadly competition rife with ugliness and corruption. And yet, the world is what it is, and those who decide to play the game simply can’t keep their hands clean.
But even as their means are often sordid, they do have a vision that isn't void of moral design. They think in terms of means-to-an-end, not means-as-the-end. In contrast, the immoralists like the drug cartel just revel in vileness because that is the final summation of what they’re about. Granted, there is a grey area between immoralists and amoralist-realists. Everyone who works in government, especially in the intelligence services, see themselves as amoralist-realists who accept the need to play dirty to win the war for the good guys. It’s like George Smiley is not above using dirty tricks in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and SMILEY’S PEOPLE to prevail over the enemy. But his side did it because the other did it too. It was just the nature of the game. It’s like even a 'good war' cannot be won without killing innocent civilians and being tarnished with some degree of atrocities and war crimes. But then, nothing can be done if moral perfection is the only option.
Anyway, even though people in government like to tell themselves that they do bad things for the higher vision of the ultimate good, there’s too much evidence that a lot of people in government, especially the deep state, are really sociopaths and egotistical lunatics who are addicted to power and control. They may not get ultra-rich doing what they do, but power is their drug and their main motivation. The ‘new cold war’ with Russia endorsed by the deep state cannot be understood in any other way. Also, even though they pose as well-educated elites committed to the ideology of ‘human rights’ and ‘progress’, the real animating principle is the exclusive vanity of insider privilege and the pissing contest of egos. More than any idea, value, or principle, what matters to them most if that they are on the inside unlike most people who are on the outside. Status and the cult of secret knowledge that make them feel so special is what they’re really about. And just to stay on the inside, they will change their tune and serve a new agenda if doing so keeps them on the inside and climbing the ranks. And this is why they need to keep playing the game by creating more enemies all over the world. They need bounties to collect so as to burnish their credentials. It’s a club of trophy hunters who target entire nations just so that the members can feel big about themselves. Bagging a lion or elephant is bad enough. But these deep state elites try to bag entire nations as trophies. Or they try to keep vassal states like tigers or bears in a zoo. They want control for control’s sake.
Anyway, even though AMERICAN MADE is not a great movie, it is enthralling from beginning to end, and it does make us think about the illusion of free will. It shows how a man can feel so free living so freely despite completely being at the mercy of much greater powers. It’s like a skilled surfer can ride the waves but is powerless to change the course of those waves. All he can do is coast on them and try to remain standing. Life is like that for most of humanity, so what is the problem with Barry Seal? It’s that his skills as a surfer — he is really talented in slipping through the Charybdis and Scylla of the powers arrayed around him — fools him into thinking he has agency and control beyond his penchant for squeezing out of tight spots with the help of luck. Also, he’s so sure that he’s indispensable to all sides that he fails to see how he is equally dispensable, again to all sides, as well. The US government and drug cartels value him for his willingness to play it loose to get things done. All sides see him as an asset but also a handicap. The only way he can stay in the game is to please all sides. A tightrope walker may feel free up high in the air, but how much freedom does he really have? His only choice is to walk along the narrowness of the rope. One wrong step, and down he goes.