Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Movie of the Day: Three Days of the Condor

The news in entertainment this week was the death Monday of Hollywood director and actor Sydney Pollack. Pollack made a number of movies with a political subtext or background, filled with moral ambiguity and subtle enough to pass as "pure entertainment."

"Three Days of the Condor," a 1975 thriller, was among them. Turner Classic Movies showed it this morning in the wee hours, which may account for why I am beginning my day so late.

Robert Redford as "Turner" plays a low-level CIA analyst who works out of a Manhattan townhouse disguising itself as the "American Literary Historical Society" (ALHS). He and his six coworkers analyze publications in search of intelligence—a small-scale version of our current "National Open Source Enterprise." Redford thinks he's hit upon a conspiracy, but his boss tells him that CIA headquarters assures him there's nothing to it.

While Turner is out picking up lunch for his coworkers, they're all murdered execution style and the fun begins.

It turns out that the conspiracy is by a group within the CIA itself. Redford, code-named "Condor," eventually tracks down the man behind the killings, a Mr. Atwood of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and confronts him—

Turner (Redford): What do you do for a living? .... What do you do exactly?

Atwood: Deputy Director of Operations.

Turner: What section?

Atwood: Middle East.

Turner: What are you working on? What are you doing? What's the secret worth murdering everybody at the ALHS house?

Atwood: There's no secret.

Turner: Wicks showed you my report.
It was your network I turned up. Doing what? What does Operations care about a bunch of goddamn books? A book in Dutch. A book out of Venezuela. Mystery stories in Arabic.

Wait. [light beginning to dawn] What the hell is so important about...?

Oil fields! Oil! That's it, isn't it? This whole damn thing was about oil!

In the final moments of the movie we learn what Robert Redford's travails are about. This exchange occurs between our hero and an upper-level member of the Company (CIA)—

Turner (Robert Redford): Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?

Higgins (Cliff Robertson): Are you crazy?

Turner: Am I?

Higgins: Look, Turner…

Turner: Do we have plans?

Higgins: No. Absolutely not. We have games. That's all. We play games: What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a régime? That's what we're paid to do."

Turner: Go on. So Atwood just took the game too seriously. He was really going to do it, wasn't he?

Higgins: It was a renegade operation. Atwood knew 54-12 would never authorize it. There was no way, not with the heat on the Company.

Turner: What if there hadn't been any heat? Supposing I hadn't stumbled on a plan? Say nobody had?

Higgins: Different ball game. The fact is there was nothing wrong with the plan. Oh, the plan was alright. The plan would have worked.

Turner: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth.

Higgins: No. It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In 10 or 15 years - food, Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?

Turner : Ask them.

Higgins: Not now - then.

Ask them when they're running out? Ask them when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold? Ask them when their engines stop? Ask them when people who've never known hunger start going hungry?

Do you want to know something? They won't want us to ask them. They'll just want us to get it for them.1

After Higgins suggests that the CIA will eventually "get him." Turner tells Higgins that he's already given the story to the New York Times and confidently begins to walk away—

Higgins: Hey, Turner. How do you know they'll print it? You can take a walk, but how far if they don't print it?

Turner: They'll print it.

Higgins: How do you know?

The film was based on a book by James Grady published in 1974. One can only wonder at the prescience of the novel and the movie, which remained relatively faithful to the plot.

Of course like Orwell's 1984 the dates were wrong, both being premature by some 20 to 30 years. And the conspiracy to attack a Middle Eastern country was fomented within the White House rather than by the CIA—though the "Company" was certainly involved in certain aspects of the conspiracy. But the economic basis for the war plan, the initial support of the American public and the suggestion of collusion by the media are all there.

The novel and film teach us something else—that you don't have to be an "expert" to see where we're heading. Hats off to author James Grady and director Sydney Pollack.

[The transcripts are based on transcriptions found here and here.]



1In '05, at a time when public opinion was turning against the war in Iraq, I wrote

Americans do not like wars in which we appear to be losing. They do, on the other hand, thoroughly approve of wars where we appear to be winning. So if you convert this war from a "losing" proposition to a "winning" proposition, you'll see the poll numbers climb in support of the war....

It will be interesting to see—in a ghoulish sort of way—if the rise in oil prices will be used by the government to highlight our "vital interests" in Iraq in an attempt to convince the public of the necessity of remaining in the country despite current perception that we're losing. My guess is that, yes, members of the government will begin to speak more overtly of America's interest in Iraqi oil.

Whether the public takes the bait will depend in part on the depth of the recession and the government's success in convincing the public that "victory" in Iraq will somehow be curative of our misery. [back]

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