Longform’s Picks of the Week

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Death in Singapore
Raymond Bonner and Christine Spolar • FT Magazine

An American engineer's mysterious death after working on a project involving a Chinese telecom giant.

Security and technology experts consulted by the FT reviewed the project plan and all noted its civilian and potential military applications. Robert York, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara - a world leader in GaN research and where Shane earned a doctorate in silicon devices - said it would be "unnerving but not surprising" if Huawei were to be trying to advance its GaN technology. The high-powered amplifier has civilian use but "could be used for a number of military applications: high-powered radar, electronic warfare including signal jamming and even potentially some weapons", Professor York added.

Shane, it turns out, had deep misgivings about the project he was working on and feared he was compromising US national security. His family wants to know whether that project sent him to his grave.


Lauren Collins • New Yorker

France, wealth, and the saga of tax exile Gérard Depardieu.

Nouns get all the good parts-potato, macaca, the Appalachian Trail-but this winter, in Paris, a jobbing three-syllable adjective set off a political scandal. Minable, meaning "pathetic" or "shabby," débuted on the breakfast show "Télématin" on December 12th. The host asked the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, what he thought of Gérard Depardieu's decision to establish residency in Néchin, a Belgian village of two thousand souls, and nearly as many beet fields, in order to escape a seventy-five-per-cent tax that the French government had promised to impose on income exceeding a million euros. The normally urbane Ayrault replied, "Je trouve ça assez minable."

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Royal Bodies
Hillary Mantel • London Review of Books

The author's controversial speech on the public perceptions and purposes of British royalty.

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn't have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren't they interesting? Aren't they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage.


The KGB Oscars
Simon Shuster • Foreign Policy

In Putin's Russia, it's the spies that are handing out the awards for the year's best films.

The Federal Security Service, the KGB successor known as the FSB, has been ascendant in Russian society ever since its former director, Vladimir Putin, became president in 2000. Since then, the agency has been obsessed with finding ways to bring Russian movies and TV under its patronage. As early as 2001, the agency began financing Russian whodunits and spy thrillers; in 2006, it handed out the first FSB Awards -- glass statuettes embossed with its sword-and-shield insignia -- to the filmmakers, actors, and novelists who had "most accurately" portrayed the warriors of the secret front. The galas had all the pomp of a Western awards ceremony, except they were held at the FSB's notorious headquarters on Lubyanka Square, inside the hulking mass of orange stone that many Russians still associate with the KGB's interrogation chambers. 

Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images

Warrior Petraeus
Thomas Powers • New York Review of Books

A review of the retired general's combat career.

It was the full spectrum of the game-the nature of modern people's war, as fought and lost by the Americans in Vietnam-that engaged Petraeus. Confronting that failure, of which the Army for years could barely bring itself to speak, has been the central work of Petraeus's life. It is the great theme of the best of the new books, Kaplan's The Insurgents, which relates the history of Army thinking about counterinsurgency. It is the reason Petraeus has attracted so much attention for so long, and it is what lends a somber note of broader loss to the recent end of Petraeus's public career, which came so abruptly last fall, for reasons so entirely irrelevant to any issue of substance, that one is almost embarrassed to cite the details.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Does Hollywood Have a Foreign Policy?

Tinseltown’s biggest films tend to be highly critical of American power, but also reinforce the idea that the rest of the world is a place best avoided.

Foreign-policy wonks enjoy movie stars and high fashion as much as everyone else, but this Sunday they may have extra incentive to tune in, thanks to two nominees very much in the center of pressing international political debates. It's not often that Hollywood films prompt official Senate inquiries, but the early scenes of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty, which strongly imply that torture was used to gain valuable intelligence that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, have reignited the debate over the "enhanced interrogation" practices of the George W. Bush era. Some insiders say the controversy over torture has scuttled the generally well-received movie's chances of taking home the big prize this year.

Meanwhile, Best Picture front-runner Argo, which presents a more uplifting -- if even more inaccurate - tale of American confrontation with radical Islam, has stirred controversy in Iran, the country where most of the action takes place. Last week, Ben Affleck's film was denounced as anti-Iranian and as an effort to drum up U.S. support for war against Iran at a government-supported conference on "Hollywoodism" in Tehran. According to the New York Times, the movie prompted one "specialist in anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic films" to suggest that "Hollywood is not a normal industry; it's a conspiracy by capitalism and Zionism."

It's hard to take film criticism too seriously from a country that has arrested or exiled its best-known filmmakers, but the bigger question posed is an interesting one. Does Hollywood have a discernible foreign-policy stance? Looking at the internationally themed films that the Academy has favored over the years, can one discern a clear ideology?

For many, the answer is obvious. Since the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood has been targeted for what conservative critics perceive as a hard-left, anti-American agenda. If there is such an agenda, it's hard to detect in Hollywood's most successful films, blockbusters like 2012's top-grossing film, The Avengers, in which usually American superheroes step in -- generally backed by U.S. military firepower -- to save the rest of the world from aliens, mutants, supervillains, or other threats. (Many have even read Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as a defense of executive power in the war on terrorism.)

But it's fair to say that the kind of prestige films that get nominated for Oscars tend to come from one side of the political spectrum. From Vietnam-era dramas like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to the growing number of Iraq movies like Green Zone and 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, the most celebrated movies have tended to take a critical look at America's wars, often questioning the motives of senior officials and examining the psychological effects on the men who fight them. From Jack Nicholson's sneering colonel in A Few Good Men to the cynical incompetence of the officers in Three Kings, the military tends not to get too positive a portrayal when the movie is about an actual war, rather than an alien invasion. (World War II movies are a possible exception, but even films like Saving Private Ryan are more about how the war affected individuals than military achievement.)

Not that the civilians fare much better. Whether they're colluding with the communists (The Manchurian Candidate), whacking their own people (The Parallax View), concocting a war to cover up a president's improprieties (Wag the Dog) or standing idly and incompetently by in the midst of a genocide (The Killing Fields), Hollywood has taken a dim view of U.S. policymakers and diplomats. (Steven Soderbergh's virus thriller Contagion, entirely ignored by the Academy, is a notable exception.) They get off easy compared to global corporations, invariably the villains in films like Syriana and The Constant Gardener.

This skepticism has carried over into the depictions of terrorism in post-9/11 films. Steven Spielberg's Munich, for instance, certainly can't be accused of sympathy for jihadists, but took a tone of ambivalence about the ethics of counterterrorism that led critics like the New Republic's Leon Weiseltier to accuse it of "the sin of equivalence" between the Israeli spies and the Palestinian terrorists they were hunting. Questions of accuracy and the torture debate aside, Zero Dark Thirty probably belongs in the same category: a movie with no hesitation about the evil of terrorism that also asks what a society loses by bending its own moral code to prevent it.

But just because Hollywood tends to be ambivalent about U.S. power in the world doesn't mean that foreigners get a sympathetic portrayal. The overwhelming message of Hollywood movies that touch on U.S. foreign policy is that the world is a scary place that's probably best avoided.

Take Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Dawn, a movie whose broad theme is the hubris of American power as seen through the 1993 battle of Mogadishu. But as the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell noted in his review, "the lack of characterization converts the Somalis into a pack of snarling dark-skinned beasts, gleefully pulling the Americans from their downed aircraft and stripping them. Intended or not, it reeks of glumly staged racism." A similar charge was leveled at the Deer Hunter's depiction of the Vietnamese in the film's famous Russian Roulette scene, and the portrayal of Mexicans in Soderbergh's anti-drug war movie Traffic was not much better. A host of well meaning films about Africa in recent years, from Blood Diamond to Hotel Rwanda to The Last King of Scotland, are generally sure to note U.S. or Western culpability in the horrific events taking place, but don't really do much to dispel the notion of a continent plagued by dictators and warlords, a land beyond all hope.

The 2007 nominee Babel, though intended as a meditation on globalization, also reinforces the "better-stay-home" message: In one of the film's intersecting plotlines, an American woman vacationing in Morocco is shot by a goat herder testing out his new rifle and prevented from receiving medical care by the lack of communications technologies and political disputes. Meanwhile back home, her young children are taken across the border by their Mexican nanny and -- through a series of politically charged events -- wind up being left alone in the Sonora desert.

Even Oliver Stone, Hollywood's most famously left-wing director and -- at least until the emergence of Bigelow -- the one who engaged most consistently with international themes, hasn't exactly championed the people of the developing world in his films, despite his friendship with the likes of Hugo Chávez. From the sadistic and venal depiction of Turks in his screenplay for Midnight Express, to the menacing Viet Cong in Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July, to this year's Savages, in which nearly every Mexican character is an over-the-top, well, savage, Stone's negative attitude toward American power is matched only by his seeming conviction that foreigners are dark and dangerous.

Argo is the latest film motivated by the sort of liberal isolationism that tends to guide Hollywood when it aims its cameras overseas. The movie's take on U.S foreign policy is more negative than its Iranian critics give it credit for. I'd be willing to bet that the film's animated introduction, which provides the history of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran's democratically elected government, was the first time many American moviegoers had ever heard about the event, a major factor in Iranian resentment of the United States to this day. Some might see the film as glorifying the CIA, but like Zero Dark Thirty and the hit TV series Homeland, its hero is not the agency itself but a driven, rebellious agent who seems to spend more time battling bureaucracy than bad guys. On the other hand, with the exception of a loyal maid at the Canadian ambassador's house who helps protect the hiding American hostages in the film, Iranians are shown either as fanatical, if dim-witted officials or as an undifferentiated mass of beards and hijabs.

Argo is a much safer movie than Zero Dark Thirty, vaguely political without containing anything that any Americans will find offensive -- a kind of foreign-policy Crash. And unlike China, which has enough clout in Hollywood to get a feature film re-edited before its release -- Iran isn't exactly a major market for Tinseltown's wares.

One big question going forward is whether Hollywood's increasing reliance on international audiences will affect the kinds of stories that get told. The Academy has shown itself to be more open to films with Indian protagonists like Slumdog Millionaire and The Life of Pi in recent years. Perhaps it will soon be ready for a movie about America's place in the world where the rest of the planet gets a speaking role.

Keith Bernstein – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.