Homeland has been a huge hit, but its depiction of the war on terror is cartoonish. For something more powerful, try the Israeli versionby Tom Streithorst / May 4, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s hard to believe Claire Danes as a psychologically troubled CIA agent
The global war on terror is ending with neither a bang nor a whimper but just fading away, seemingly from lack of interest. Ten years ago, the news magazines all proclaimed 9/11 one of the most significant moments in world history. No one thinks that anymore. The financial crisis and the rise of the BRICs will play a larger role when future historians write of our era. The most important consequence of 9/11 was that it goaded America into two failed and useless wars in the Middle East. These days most of us recognise that more people die each year as a result of peanut allergies than from terrorist attacks.
Maybe Baudrillard was onto something when he wrote, 20 years ago, “The Gulf war did not take place.” His point was that the 1990s invasion closer to a spectacle played on TV screens than war in the traditional sense. At the time, this postmodernist notion seemed facile, ignoring the bombs actually dropped, the blood spilled, the lives destroyed. Now the French philosopher seems prescient. Looking back over the past decade the war on terror now feels, in some ways, like a made for TV movie. The big plane making a graceful turn into the tall white building, the night time sky over Baghdad lit up by coloured lights, the handsome president on the aircraft carrier in his flight suit, the Iraqi prisoner with a hood on his head. You can see it all, even though you were never there. This is not to make light of the real suffering of victims of terrorism across the world over the past 11 years, but it is hard to deny that for the rest of us, the war on terror felt more like reality television than genuine battle.
When Siegfried Sassoon wrote his poems, when Joseph Heller wrote Catch 22, when Homer wrote the Iliad, they had experienced war and so had a large proportion of their target audience. No more. A handful of Americans and Brits have spent lengthy and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan but 99 per cent of us know only what we see on television. And that, sadly, includes the creators of the hit television series Homeland, whose background does not lie in military service in the Middle East but instead as writers for the iconic “war on terror” television series, 24.
It shows. Episode one opens with Claire Danes yammering on a mobile phone while driving a car through a generic Arab city. A subtitle tells us we are in Baghdad. No, we are not. Baghdad is dirtier, less picturesque, and more to the point, any embassy official’s car in the Iraqi capital would be well armoured and driven by a beefy security guy, not by a blonde woman with her headscarf falling off. And, under no circumstances would she get out of her car, leave it in the middle of the road and walk, just because she was pissed off and stuck in traffic. The car would be immediately suspected of carrying a bomb, the area would be shut down and its driver taken into custody. Any CIA agent, even the dumbest and most reckless one, would know that.
The implausibility of Homeland goes deeper. Our hero, Carrie Mathison, is supposed to be a crack operative who happens to have psychological problems. We are told, over and over again by her bosses, by her co-workers, by her subordinates that Carrie is brilliant, but what we see is a petulant young woman whose personality issues would disqualify her from a position of authority at a hair salon. The CIA, remember, is a government bureaucracy, and they are intensely keen not to rock the boat. Although the notion that our national security is in the hands of men and women with bipolar disorder has a certain piquancy, I cannot imagine a woman with Carrie’s neuroses as anything but utterly marginalised in any bureaucracy, especially one with macho pretensions.
And yet the critical kudos for Homeland keeps coming. President Obama says he loves the show. The New Yorker, Guardian, and Telegraph all rave about it. In part, admiring Homeland is a way of dissing 24, a way of claiming that the culture has moved forward, that we no longer are willing to approve of torture as we sit staring at the tube, but I do understand why the show has become such a mega-hit. Perhaps it’s not important that Homeland doesn’t have a clue about terrorism, national security, Iraq or the CIA. TV drama is an intimate medium. Even when the presumed topic is murder, or terrorism, Danish politics, or the decline of a great American city, our interest really is in the interrelationships between the characters, in those heightened personal moments in which we can imagine ourselves.
The national security stuff in Homeland is silly but the personal dynamics can be gripping. The subplot concerning returned captive Nick Brody’s wife’s affair with his best friend, for instance, is permeated with unexpected moral ambiguity. For me by far the most powerful scene of the series features neither the one-note acting of Claire Danes nor her much better co-star Damien Lewis but rather Afton Williamson, a minor character who we see briefly and subsequently never reappears. Her husband, a marine sharpshooter presumed dead after his capture in Iraq eight years before has been turned. Living on the streets of Washington DC, masquerading as a homeless man, he is a sleeper agent in a nefarious terrorist plot. He is a trained, motivated, and lethal killer and the CIA has no idea how to find him. His only weakness: he still loves his wife.
Examining phone records, the CIA determines he’s been calling home, just to hear her voice on their answering machine. If she can keep him on the line, they can trace the call. They convince Williamson to work with them in order to stop this threat to national security.
The phone rings and she begins her monologue. Eight years of unspoken love go into this brilliantly written speech. We cut to the techie minions tracking his location. A SWAT team is seconds away. The terrorist/marine sharpshooter, who all this time had been quietly listening, whispers her name, “Helen.”
Everything changes. You see it in her face. She cannot betray the man she loves. “Oh baby I’ve done a horrible thing. They’re tracing this call. You’ve got to get out of here.“ Claire Danes rips the phone from her hand. The wife screams, “You hear me? Get out now.” Love and family trump patriotism and duty, for Williamson as it would for you and me.
Questions of loyalty are at the centre of Homeland. Who deserves our trust and love, to whom do we owe our duty? Family? Religion? Lovers? Colleagues? Nation? Other than in the football stands, loyalty is a lost virtue in the modern world. Watching the characters work out their conflicting moral obligations is one of Homeland’s chief attractions.
* * *
Homeland is based on an Israeli series, Hatufim. Both share the same plot and the same themes. Both tell the story of prisoners of war, captured and tortured by terrorists for years and then released. In each, a government official suspects that these heroes may have been “turned” by the enemy, that they may be plotting an attack on their homeland. In each the families of the prisoners have been shattered by their disappearance, but their return is also not easy. In each, the central question is the nature of loyalty.
I much prefer the Israeli show, even though its budget is smaller, its production values not as slick, its actors less drop dead gorgeous. Its advantage over the American show is that it is grounded in reality. The focus is on the two returning prisoners, the shattered Uri and the more stable Nimrod and their respective families. Yes, like the American show, there is early on the suggestion they have been turned, that one or both might participate in some terrorist outrage, but we spend less time in the bowels of the national security state and much more time sitting uncomfortably around the dinner table. I never believe CIA agents behave the way they do in Homeland; I am sure returning Israeli captives and their families behave the way they do in Hatufim.
Gideon Raff, the creator of Hatufim (and also an executive producer for Homeland) was an Israeli who had been living in LA for nine years when he came up with the idea for the show. In Israel captured soldiers are an obsession. Over the years, hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been seized by their enemies. In a small country, their abduction feels personal. Raff’s innovation was to begin the series where most would end it, on their release from captivity and their return home. Most would assume that at that point the story was over, that the freed soldiers would just live happily ever after. Raff realised their return would inevitably be fraught, both for the prisoners and for the people they love. Not only had they gone through unimaginable trauma but the world they expected to return to would have inevitably changed.
The acting is excellent, with superb performances from Nimrod, his teenage daughter and Uri’s fiancée. The best is Nimrod’s wife, the subtle Yael Abelcasssis. Early on we watch her before her mirror, nervously rehearsing how to say hello to the man she loves, not sure how to act after 17 years.
Although he has a much smaller role, it is worth looking at the Claire Danes counterpart in the Israeli series. Instead of a sexy and tempestuous ingénue, Haim is a middle aged bald man working for the Israeli Defence Force, a character both more believable and more sinister than the theatrical Danes. A psychiatrist, he tries to reassure our two POWs, telling them his task is to help ease their return to ordinary life. Actually, their needs and their suffering are immaterial to Haim. All he wants is to use them to acquire useful intelligence. Inconsistencies in their stories leads him to suspect they are covering something up and they could well be a danger to Israel. A psychiatrist, of course, is supposed to serve his patients, not lie and deceive them but it is easy to understand (and sympathise) with Haim’s motivations. His duty, as would be yours and mine in his position, is to his country, not to the returning prisoners.
The differences between the two shows, it seems to me, reflect the very different reality of the war on terror in Israel and America. During Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, I filmed Benjamin Netanyahu telling a US TV audience that Israel is fighting the west’s battle against the terrorists. In the eyes of Israel’s enemies, he said, “We are the little Satan, you are the Great Satan.” This has long been his position. On the night of September 11, 2001, asked by a New York Times reporter about the terrorist attack and its effect on Israel, he replied that the attack would ”strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we’ve experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive haemorrhaging of terror.”
This has long been the position of the Israeli right and their neoconservative allies in the US, but it happens not to be true. The war on terror provided a good living for some Americans (as a cameraman filming in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009 I was one of them) but it was never a genuine battle that we needed to fight. It did, however, serve a certain psychological purpose.
When I lived in Mississippi, in the early 1980s, I met two grown men who separately and seriously told me that should the Russians ever invade the Gulf Coast, they were prepared to hide in the hills and fight as guerrillas. I guess this image gave them a thrill but they seemed to have no idea that there was no likelihood of a successful Red Army amphibious attack on Biloxi. Perhaps they had seen too many movies. More likely, they needed some excitement in their peace-saturated lives. The war on terror played a similar role. It required almost no actual effort from most Americans but injected a little martial glamour into everyday life after the trauma of 9/11.
Homeland is cartoony, because in a way, so was the US war on terror. That is why the 2004 film Team America: World Police remains the best movie about that era. Hatufim is real because that battle in Israel, whether you sympathise with it or not is real.
The final episode of Homeland series 1 airs on Channel 4 on 6th May. Hatufim begins on 9th May, 9.00pm, Sky Arts 1.