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Brad Pitt and the Zombie Shark

How World War Z ruined the zombie apocalypse.

I had my concerns about the film version of World War Z from the first trailer. As the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and a fan of Max Brooks's spellbinding novel, I've got some flesh in the game, as it were. I hoped to see a film version that at least nodded to the geopolitical complexities of the novel, which suggested that zombies would potentially exacerbate pre-existing interstate conflicts -- and star/producer Brad Pitt did as well. The pre-release buzz on the film did not make me any more sanguine. So, by the time I sat down for the New York premiere of the film, I tried to throw away any unrealistic hopes or expectations that this was going to be the zombie Citizen Kane. Besides, trailers can deceive, bad buzz has preceded good films, and this is a friggin' summer popcorn flick. Surely, the equation must hold: Brad Pitt + $150 million > Fast and Furious 6. Right?

To judge World War Z fairly, one has to consider its myriad possible purposes. So let's go from hardest to easiest in grading this film:

As a faithful adaptation of Brooks's novel, director Marc Forster's film fails, and fails spectacularly. In looking over my notes after the lights came up, here are the parts of the plot that I was able to determine appeared in both the film and the book:

a)     There are zombies;

b)    They've gone global;

c)     Israel's security bureaucracies are competent.

That's it. Everything else has been changed. And I mean everything, including altering the zombies from slow, lumbering, George Romero-type Night of the Living Dead ghouls to fast, Danny Boyle-type 28 Days Later rage-filled monsters. One of the pleasures of Brooks's novel was his believable take on how countries like North Korea and Israel would respond to a global zombie pandemic. The film version of these national reactions, on the other hand, is literally incredible.

Now, to be fair, Brooks's novel was a Studs Terkel-like oral history with at least a dozen different tales interwoven together. Without a protagonist, it would have been an extremely difficult movie adaptation if done faithfully -- and I doubt anyone would pay multiplex prices to see 32 Short Films about the Comparative Politics of Zombies. So it's completely unfair to judge this film based solely on this criteria.

However, even if you're looking to see a zombie flick where you don't have to think much, the movie is a bit brain-dead. The zombie genre has its own conventions, and World War Z follows some of them. Ten minutes in, for example, society has pretty much broken down. The decision to make the zombies manic sprinters does lead to some decent panicked mob scenes in Philadelphia and Jerusalem, and will make any viewer a bit more squeamish about plane travel.

The thing is, zombie movies have to be at least a little bit interested in, you know, the living dead -- and World War Z is deeply uninterested in its MacGuffin. The film fails to offer a consistent logic of how the undead infection spreads. No major character turns into a flesh-eating ghoul. Indeed, these zombies don't seem all that interested in eating people. Mostly, they cock their heads violently, emit odd noises, and try to break through glass windows. In other words, they act and sound like angry birds -- and not the fun, addictive kind either. 

Of course, what's really interesting about zombie films is how humans react to the living dead. Usually, the misanthropic answer is "not well." Early on, World War Z has a looting scene that touches on these issues, with people brandishing guns to secure supplies and attacking other humans -- but that passes quickly. After that, practically every character with a speaking part acts in a noble, forthright, and earnest manner. There's very little in the way of humans displaying greed, malevolence, or stupidity in World War Z, which is what makes the zombie genre so misanthropic. Liberal internationalists who value the United Nations or World Health Organization (WHO) will find the movie uplifting -- especially when you see the U.N. and U.S. flags flying next to each other in the "U.N. Atlantic Fleet," according to the film. Unfortunately, such a heavy dose of do-gooding leeches the narrative of any compelling conflict. As the film progressed, the only drama I felt was whether Mireille Enos could get through a scene without pursing her lips in a disapproving manner.

As a film about the apocalypse, World War Z does find something of a groove. Indeed, the film has far more in common with 2012 than Night of the Living Dead. Government authority disappears in most of the places World War Z visits, except for military bases and WHO installations. Lines like, "What do you mean, we lost Boston?!" and "Mother Nature is a serial killer" litter the script. Watching the undead overrun a major city or a passenger plane has its voyeuristic charms.  

The problem is that, as an apocalyptic end-of-the-world fable, World War Z needs to get in line -- the world is drowning in end-of-the-planet films right now. This year alone, there's already been Warm Bodies, Oblivion, and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still on the horizon this summer. Fortunately for World War Z, some of those recent films have been so poorly reviewed that it can only look good by comparison. And apparently Brad Pitt > Tom Cruise + Will Smith. However, with the release of This Is The End and the forthcoming The World's End, it's becoming clear that apocalypse films have become so over-the-top that they've become ripe for satire.

Finally, as a popcorn summer flick designed to appeal to a global audience, we arrive to a realm where World War Z will probably find its greatest success. It stars Brad Pitt as the world's most family-friendly ex-U.N. employee ever -- not that we learn anything about the U.N. The film hopscotches the globe to film mayhem happening in tax-friendly places exotic locales. There's a lot of big, dumb action sequences that teenage boys of any country can appreciate. And the ending sets up the possibility of a sequel, though for the life of me it would make no logical sense.

Also, the filmmakers also have changed key plot details from the book to avoid offending large markets -- except perhaps devout Jews and Muslims, who unintentionally create some mayhem in the film's middle act. In the novel World War Z, Max Brooks, inspired by the outbreak of the SARS virus, had zombies originate in the People's Republic of China. In the film, it's not quite clear -- vague references are made to Taiwan, South Korea, and India -- but the zombies definitely did not originate from China. A climactic action sequence in Russia was shot and then deleted, though that may have been for artistic rather than market-based reasons. To be honest, the plot of Fast and Furious 6 makes more sense.

If World War Z does well, however, everyone in the business of writing about the living dead does well. So I'll be rooting for it to succeed. Still, once the lights come back on, I expect those people who attend ZomBcons or Comic-Cons will get up and mutter to themselves, "It used to be about the zombies, man."

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National Security

Death by Cuts to a Thousand

Obama's plan to reduce nuclear weapons does too little and will take too long.

In a powerful speech in Prague fewer than 100 days after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama warned that "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He argued that the United States has a "moral responsibility" to prevent nuclear weapons use and proliferation, and took action on a step-by-step plan to move closer to "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Within weeks, Obama and his team rolled up their sleeves and got to work, and a great deal was accomplished over the next two years. They negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and won Senate approval of the pact, helped secure an action plan to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, accelerated global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, completed a top-to-bottom review of the U.S. nuclear weapons posture, and took steps to re-engage Iran in negotiations on its nuclear program and build international pressure on North Korea to meet its nonproliferation commitments.

But since early 2011, the administration's nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation effort has lost energy and focus. Talks with Russia on deeper nuclear cuts have not begun and the implementation of the 2010 U.S. nuclear posture review was delayed. The president's pledge to "immediately and aggressively" pursue Senate approval of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was not met, off-and-on talks with Iran on its nuclear program did not produce tangible results, and North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons pursuits.

On Wednesday in Berlin, Obama returned to the themes of his 2009 Prague address and sought to jumpstart progress on his second-term nuclear risk reduction agenda. The president declared that "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be." 

"Complacency is not in the character of great nations," Obama noted.

Indeed, doing nothing in the face of grave nuclear weapons threats is not an option. Since Kennedy, every U.S. president has taken steps to slow the nuclear arms race and reduce nuclear stockpiles.

Obama's centerpiece announcement was that he -- along with the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and State Department -- had completed a review of nuclear weapons employment guidance and determined that the United States can reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons it deploys by "up to one-third" -- from 1,550 under New START to 1,000-1,100.

While his remarks are overdue and welcome, the pace and scope of his proposals for further nuclear reductions are incremental at best and changes in the U.S. nuclear war plan are less than meets the eye.

The "one-third" cuts outlined by the president are a good start, but 1,000-1,100 is only 200-300 warheads fewer than the United States was prepared to agree to during the New START negotiations four years ago -- if Russia had not insisted on setting a ceiling of 1,550.

Clearly, 1,000 deployed strategic warheads is still more than enough nuclear firepower to deter any current or potential nuclear adversary. Other than Russia, China is the only potential nuclear-armed adversary capable of striking the United States and it has 75 single-warhead strategic missiles.

Former military officials, policymakers, and experts agree that a deployed strategic arsenal of 1,000 nuclear weapons is more than sufficient to guarantee the security of the United States and its allies against nuclear attack. In April 2012, Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, suggested moving toward a nuclear force of 450 strategic weapons by 2022.

Even that many warheads can pose a grave and unnecessary threat. An analysis conducted in 2002 by Physicians for Social Responsibility showed that a Russian attack with only 300 thermonuclear warheads hitting U.S. urban areas would kill 77 million Americans in the first half hour from blast effects and firestorms, to say nothing of the subsequent radioactive fallout. A U.S. attack of similar size would have the same devastating impact on Russia.

Joseph Stalin may have been willing to sacrifice tens of millions of innocent Russians in a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, but even President Putin would not.

Unfortunately, Obama's formula gives Putin the ability to stall further reductions in unnecessary and expensive U.S. (and Russian) strategic nuclear weapons. Despite the March 2012 cancellation of U.S. plans to station more-advanced missile interceptors in Europe, which Russia had cited as a potential threat to its strategic missile forces, Russian leaders appear reluctant to move forward. Even if they do, this negotiation, which may involve not just deployed but non-deployed and tactical warheads, will be more complex and time consuming than New START.

U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty. As the secretary of state's International Security Advisory Board, which includes Bill Perry and Brent Scowcroft, noted in its November 2012 report, the two presidents could achieve similar and more rapid results through parallel, reciprocal reductions of strategic warheads. Reductions to 1,000 weapons or below could be achieved within the next five years and could be verified under the mechanisms established by the 2010 New START treaty -- and they would not require the lengthy and difficult process of winning Senate approval for a new treaty.

By acting now, Obama could also begin to scale back unaffordable, overly ambitious Pentagon plans for building a new generation of strategic subs, bombers, and missiles, which could cost $180 billion over the next decade, and rebuilding five types of nuclear warheads at a cost of more than $61 billion over the next two decades.

A 2013 assessment by the Arms Control Association identifies $39 billion in taxpayer savings over the next 10 years if the United States right-sizes its nuclear force to 1,000 or fewer strategic deployed nuclear warheads.

Before another round of nuclear reductions, Congress needs to be consulted, but it should not be allowed to become a roadblock to a more cost-effective and appropriately sized nuclear force. On Capitol Hill, probably half of the senators support further reductions and reduced spending on nuclear weapons. In fact, a subgroup of 23 senators wrote the president in March urging him to pursue deeper cuts.

But a few senators are reluctant to pursue further reductions, particularly the members of the self-described "ICBM Caucus," who fear a loss of jobs and federal largess in their states, which host the country's land-based nuclear missiles. Republican members of the group ignore the fact that the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs agree with Obama that the United States has more nuclear weapons than is necessary for reasonable deterrence requirements. In a statement released June 19, they made the wild accusation that the White House is taking "unnecessary strategic risks" with "a shortsighted policy that was decided without input from Congress."

Congress clearly needs some help understanding why the Pentagon and Joints Chiefs agree that U.S. nuclear posture should be guided by emerging 21st century threats, not old Cold War thinking. The president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and others must follow-up the Berlin speech to make their case with the Senate -- and with Putin.

In Berlin, Obama also pledged to "work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe."

While useful, this call to action on tactical nuclear arms control is a reiteration of a two-year-old formula that shows little promise of success without stronger U.S. leadership and creativity. For the past year, NATO has been unable to reach agreement on new proposals for transparency and confidence-building involving the U.S. tactical bombs that are stationed in five NATO countries, while Russia remains reluctant to discuss limits on its far larger stockpile of tactical nukes until all U.S. weapons are withdrawn from Europe. 

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there is no military rationale for Russia to maintain some 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, half of which are on obsolete naval and air defense systems. Nor is there any military requirement for the United States to keep 180 air-delivered nuclear bombs in Europe, which could cost $8 billion or more to refurbish. Rather than give in to NATO bureaucratic inertia, Obama should call Russia's bluff and announce he is prepared to withdraw the remaining U.S. tactical bombs within five years and put pressure on Russia to take reciprocal action.

A world free of nuclear weapons will not be accomplished quickly or easily. Obama's call for further reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal is an important first step, but a modest one. To overcome the obstacles and accelerate the pace of progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons during his time in office, President Obama and his team will need to devote far greater energy, creativity, and determination than we've seen over the past two years.

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