Monday, July 14, 2008

The Problem with Political Thrillers

There's a kind of suspense thriller that focuses on political problems and even protest. It is, of course, the political thriller. But from what I've read about political thrillers, most of them, especially the left-wing ones, share a commmon problem. It's inherent in the structure of the standard thriller:

There's only one hero.

Why is having just one hero (or a few at most) a problem? Well, political problems are collective problems. Thus, the ideal protagonist of a (left-wing) political thriller is the catalyst hero, a hero whose purpose is to call for other people to fight the Evil as to fight the Evil themself. This is Shira in Spanner. She may be effective enough at subverting the power system (e.g., the United State and its state-capitalist corporate raider controllers), but to destroy it she needs to get a critical mass of the people onto her side. So she must act as herald, bringing the "call to adventure" (in this case, revolution) to as many people as possible. She must be a catalyst.

Now, consider what happens when you make a lone hero the protagonist of your political thriller. At best, you get a preachy and didactic story like many I've read in books or watched in movies. Many other kinds of thrillers are susceptible to this problem. At worst, the author or director glorifies terrorism: e.g., on the right, D. W. Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation; on the left, Costa-Gavras' State of Siege. Sometimes your lone hero is doomed outright: Alan Pakula's The Parallax View. In Bad Company, I condense the entire plot of The Parallax View into a single chapter, the prologue: the evil Parallax Corporation is a forerunner of BadCo's even more evil Dictel Corporation, while the doomed investigative reporter in BadCo, Bob Van Zandt, follows in the bloody footsteps of TPV's Joe Frady (the Warren Beatty character). (Maybe I should do a subjective montage sequence as a homage to TPV...) Or the hero goes mad: The Conversation, the film Francis Ford Coppola directed between Godfathers.

Now, take Bad Company. Just as Joe Frady tried to take on the omnipotent Parallax Corporation and was destroyed, so was Bob Van Zandt destroyed by Dictel. His failure must be taken by his ex-girlfriend Charlie Thomas and her sister Desiree as an object lesson. (Another: Ramón "Rashid" Gabriel, who becomes Desi's dominating lover later in the story, takes the terrorist option, the way of Che Guevara, against Dictel and is also of course destroyed.) Fortunately, Bob has left clues to Dictel's intentions. But even though Charlie and Desi have direct family connections to Dictel (through their mother, Drusilla Becket), they know they are weak and cannot stand against the all-powerful military conglomerate, alone or together. They know the entire political and economic system is rigged in favor of Dictel and against anyone who would dare to oppose its hegemony. After suffering failure after failure, with the occasional small victory, they know that their only option is to turn the people against Dictel and, if necessary, the whole political system. Thus Desi piratecasts appeals to the people, calling for them to discover (or realize) the horrible truth and revolt; and Charlie, kidnapped and held hostage by Dictel's own chairman, Colonel Becket, finds she can exploit her tabloid celebrity image to gain sympathy for herself and turn the people against the Colonel and Dictel. As the only way to stop Dictel's "hostile takeover" of America is to convince the people to reject the company's dictatorship, violently if necessary, Charlie and Desi must be catalyst heroes. There is no other way — or rather, the way of the lone hero, the traditional thriller standard, must fail against a menace so massive and destructive.

So I'm breaking the venerable tradition of thrillers by destroying my lone heroes (Bob and Rashid) early and forcing my surviving heroes (Charlie, Desiree, Yasmin, and the rest) to not just team up with each other, but to bring the American people (those who aren't "patriots" taking part in the conspiracy, of course) into the fight on their side. The lone hero and the hero team of the traditional thriller just won't work if you want them to beat a collective villain as seemingly invincible as Dictel. Otherwise, you get the crushing down endings of The Parallax View and The Conversation. I intend to sting the evil corporation hard. So Rashid's quixotic battle must fail absolutely, and Bob must act as herald to the catalyst heroes who act as herald in turn.

Really, Bad Company revolves around what Ayn Rand called (in Atlas Shrugged) the sanction of the victim. An evil as powerful as Dictel can't possibly be defeated unless a critical mass of people under its domination cease to accept its tyranny and fight against it. It's this idea that underlies the change I'm making in the tradition of thriller heroes. Just one person withdrawing their sanction from some arbitrary authority is not enough, especially when that authority uses massive amounts of fraud and terror to coerce the sanction of millions of victims. The key phrase here is critical mass.

Also, the lone hero (or small hero team) in the political thriller raises another problem: substitutionism. According to socialist critics, this is the substitution of individual heroism for the mass action required by any genuinely democratic revolution. Terrorists are especially guilty of this sin; in BadCo, this means especially Rashid and "A". Substitutionism is also the fatal flaw in representative democracy (the name itself contains the fatal contradiction). Militant or other political action intended to substitute for mass action produces a dangerous passivity in the masses, tempting them to give away their sanction to people more likely than not to be villains aiming to dominate them. And what are dictatorship and monarchy but the ultimate manifestation of substitutionism? In modern America, the most powerful substitutionists are the neoconservatives, and mercenary corporations like Dictel are being established to force their substitutionist ideal upon an unwilling populace. For substitutionism is simply another name for elitism. And elite domination requires the sanction of its victims in order to dominate. When the victims withdraw their sanction — in other words, refuse to be substituted for — the masters' power collapses.

So that explains my departure from the thriller tradition. I have a near-invincible collective villain, and yet I don't want my heroes to lose. So, I'm forcing my surviving heroes to draft a much larger collective hero against that villain. And that's why I'm doing Bad Company as not just a political thriller, but as political horror.

And this concludes my political horror series.

Back to Spanner’s World...

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