MOVIE REVIEW- World affairs: Dumbing up and dumbing down

Special to THE HOOK

It's possible to make an intelligent film about world affairs without condescending to the lowest common denominator or going over the average person's head, but you wouldn't know it from two current examples.

Terror's Advocate, the Onscreen offering at UVA on Sunday, February 3, shouldn't be seen in an uninterrupted public screening unless you're fluent in French and familiar with the subject matter.  At the other extreme, Rambo is not for anyone with a noticeable degree of literacy or sensitivity.

Anyone can make his own story sound reasonable if he doesn't foam at the mouth when he tells it. Terror's Advocate director Barbet Schroeder tests that theory by turning the screen over to Jacques Vergès, a French attorney who has defended terrorists, torturers, and dictators the world over for more than four decades. Growing up with parents from Vietnam and Réunion Island, he became a staunch anti-colonialist who was quick to side with any people fighting against occupying regimes, starting with the Algerians who fought for independence from France in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

But Vergès doesn't tell his whole story.  Schroeder has assembled a number of his associates and former clients, plus politicians, journalists, and historians to fill in the gaps. Even Carlos "The Jackal," whom Vergès won't discuss, participates via a 2006 telephone interview; but Schroeder doesn't ask Vergès his views on 9/11 and al-Qaeda.  

Vergès explains his "rupture defense," which includes dissing the court and refusing to acknowledge charges of murder and terrorism against "freedom fighters." He even defended Klaus Barbie, "The Butcher of Lyon," by comparing Nazi war crimes to the torture the French inflicted on Algerian prisoners.

Asked if he would defend Hitler, Vergès says he replied, "I'd even defend Bush, but only if he agreed to plead guilty." How can you hate a guy like that?

Terror's Advocate offers a different perspective on recent history. Schroeder includes enough detail for a master's thesis, and therein lies a problem: too much information, most of it in French. No matter how good you are at mental multi-tasking, you'd better have a remote control handy when someone's speaking over a montage of French headlines, or you have to read detailed introductions of speakers along with translations of what they're saying.

If you're really well informed on global terrorism of the last half-century, you may be able to absorb the new facts and opinions and appreciate the skewed perspective. But if you're a typically underinformed American, you'll be totally overwhelmed.

To be underwhelmed, see Rambo, as over $18 million worth of ticket buyers did last weekend. If it could express an actual thought, the movie might explain the genocide in Burma as being "like Darfur, but with yellow people." All you need to know to follow the plot is: genocide bad, Rambo good.

Rambo, the fourth and most violent of the First Blood series, finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) semi-retired in northern Thailand. American missionaries– Sarah (Julie Benz) being the main attraction– hire his boat to go upriver to Burma to deliver medical supplies and prayer books to the mostly Christian Karen tribespeople who are being genocided in the country's 60-year civil war.

The Americans are imprisoned when their hosts are exterminated, and Rambo returns with half a dozen mercenaries in hopes of doing "a simple extraction" without engaging the hundred or so soldiers guarding the prisoners. Fat chance, and Rambo blows away well over a hundred himself. Others of the team have moments of glory, but he has an hour.

Rambo doesn't care about the rampant abuse of Asian women in the Burmese camp but fights to save Sarah from being raped and saves his fiercest scowl– you know the on – for an officer who apparently abuses a boy.

Rambo is an orgy of decapitation and dismemberment such as hasn't been (and shouldn't be) seen in an R-rated movie before. As the movie's director, Stallone focuses on three things: himself, violence, and himself committing violence. If those are your primary interests too, it's a match.

The housing and steroids industries have taken major hits lately, but as long as Stallone is on steroids, he'll be able to afford houses, thereby protecting the American economy.