25 November 2009

Independence Day: When a Cable Repairman Saved the World

Independence Day
is an often belittled summer blockbuster from 1996. A major complaint that was raised against it was that placing Americans at the forefront of the effort to repel an alien invasion come to exterminate all humanity was self-absorbed, even propagandistic on the part of the Hollywood. In reality, however, that merely speaks of the bias of its critics. Actually if Independence Day is propaganda it is not of the sort official US would ever commission. If anything the film, portrays official the official United States of America as utterly hapless, and instead assigns the credit for saving the humankind to a few named individuals.

The movie portrays two parallel efforts at repelling the aliens. There is the effort of the state, which is seen to be enormously costly in resources and in lives yet an utter failure all the same. And the improvised, individual effort that is cheap and based on self-sacrifice rather than the sacrifice of others, and ends in a resounding success. This is what makes the film not just an entertaining pop corn flick but, I dare say it, a libertarian classic.

To present the movie's tagline: "On July 2nd, they arrive. On July 3rd, they strike. On July 4th, we fight back," is all that needs to be said of its straightforward premise. When the aliens first arrive on July 2nd the state and the president at its helm are, despite all the resources at their disposal, clueless as to the intentions of the arrivals. It is instead up to the real hero of the movie, David Levinson, a satellite technician with a private cable TV company, to warn the government. Levinson guesses the intentions of the aliens after he discovers a signal in satellite transmissions and has his father drive him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in order to save his ex-wife, who is a spokesperson at the White House.

The warning provided by Levinson gives the government just enough time to escape on Air Force One as the aliens launch their devastating attack. In the meantime the air force is faring poorly and is decimated in a frontal attack on the alien crafts – giant levitating saucers. It is the case that the alien craft possess powerful energy shields that the ordinances the taxpayers were expropriated for can not penetrate.

Meanwhile back on the Air Force One there is a scuffle about how to proceed. Levinson's father makes a case they should fly to Area 51 and examine the Rosswell ship. Upon hearing this nearly everyone who is present initially gives a resigned look of bemusement, but it turns out this retiree knows more about the workings of the state than any of them. The secretary of defense comes forward to admit that the Area 51 does in fact host the Rosswell alien, but that this has been kept secret from the public and the president.

As Levinson and the president arrive at the Area 51 base it becomes immediately that the government kept an alien craft under lock and key for 50 years, but despite extensive efforts failed to learn anything about how to take advantage of this technology and merely impeded the access of anyone else who might have done better and thus better prepare Earth for its future encounter with the hostile aliens. The record of the nutty, lead scientist on the base is revealed to be horrendously feeble, but fortunately Levinson takes to the alien artifacts there as fish to water, causing the the lead scientist in military employ to exclaim begrudgingly that he is making them look bad.

In the following sequence the first cracks in military discipline begin to appear on the base above the underground Area 51 complex and reason begins to take over. Captain Steven Hiller, the Will Smith character, confronts a military guard and demands to take a helicopter in an unauthorized flight and go search for his girlfriend and other possible civilian survivals. After brief resistance the guard relents. We see that the state despite its obvious ability to help is sparing no thought for the civilians, but is at most, standing in the way of the individuals who are determined to do something immediately useful for the common people.

What is more, just after we have seen state resources being used to save and evacuate civilians in an unauthorized, rogue flight by Captain Hiller, we immediately thereafter witness state resources being used by the state itself in a way that ends the lives of other civilians, as the president decides to target the giant alien saucer over the city of Houston with nuclear weapons fully aware this will entail civilian deaths among his constituents. The plan fails as alien technology proves immune even to atomic weapons.

Having seen the nuke plan that he had argued against fail, the cable technician comes up with a plan of his own. He intends to infect the alien mothership with a virus in order to disable their shielding technology. Unlike the plan of the state Levinson's plan requires no civilians be incinerated. It does, however, require that he himself goes on a bold mission and takes his life in hand. Immediately the hawkish secretary of defense discovers a dovish streak within himself and finds reason to object vehemently to the plan proposed by the non-state individual, because... well because.

Levinson's plan gets the green light and soon a word is dispatched across the world telling surviving fighter squadrons of the upcoming counter-attack. It is here that we are treated to a beautiful scene on a runway in northern Iraq where British, Israeli and Iraqi pilots have all taken refuge. It is certainly nice to see elements of the RAF, presumably in the region from the units enforcing the 1991-2003 no-fly zone, doing something non-criminal for a change, even if just in a movie.

It is just as nice to see Iraqi pilots featuring in the same role as Western pilots without distinction. The movie premiered in 1996, five years after the first war on Iraq and seven years before the second. In the middle of an economic blockade and media satanization of that country, six years after the incubator lie. It is not an insignificant thing for the movie to without a second though portray Iraqi military personnel as human beings, fighting on the right side and providing refuge in their country no less. Sure it is a corny scene, but no less appealing because of it.

All too predictably this was also the section of the film that was most criticized. It left critics complaining that the movie features America leading the counter-attack and everyone else doing nothing until they hear from the Americans. Interestingly enough the loudest objections of this sort came precisely from countries such as Britain that are deepest in Washington's pocket and least likely to act without American approval.

Actually the counter-strike as portrayed in the movie could scarcely be said to have been spearheaded by America. Instead it is led by two individuals, piloting an alien aircraft, who happen to be Americans. A Jewish cable repairman from New York and an African-American marine aviator from Los Angeles who had earlier crashed his state plane. The only real reason they need permission of the state is a practical one the state is guarding the alien aircraft they require for their plan. The movie actually shows American military aviation, objectively the most potent in the world, just as unable to do anything about the aliens as the others and in no way elevates it about the rest.

Additionally, before the counter-strike commences television tells of military forces in hiding, and of the consequential shortage of pilots to partake in the attack. Independence Day may be a popcorn flick, but instead of placing the military on the pedestal as is customary in American culture, it instead dares envision a scenario where US pilot desert their jobs out of cowardice and refusal to sacrifice. It is left to civilians with piloting skills to come forth and fill the void left by military pilots in hiding. Among them is an elderly crop duster with a drinking problem, who was earlier shown to had been a much ridiculed conspiracy theorist, and will become important later.

The president Whitmore, who is a former military aviator, does the same proclaiming that as a pilot he belongs in the air. This was again criticized as flattery to American presidents but is anything but that. A greater condemnation could scarcely be imagined. Whitmore deservingly comes out as a hero in the end, but not in his role as the president.

As the president of the United State Whitmore proactively manages to do absolutely nothing with any beneficial results, but comes out as useless and possibly a war criminal. It is only when he acts to restrain the state that we see his good presidential moments. First of in calling off futher nuclear attacks after the first, despite opposition and later in dismissing the hardline, "sniveling weasel", of a defense secretary. But it is only as a pilot commanding an aircraft, not the machinery of the state, that he truly shines. The clear moral, intended or unintended, is that trained pilots bold enough to fly against giant extraterrestrial saucers are something that we may yet have a use for. But presidents on the other hand will always be useless.

During the first probing strike against the alien saucer in Nevada all but one plane expend their ammunition without bringing the enemy craft to the ground. The one remaining plane with missiles on board is flown by the troubled, but likable, crop duster, who then realizes that his weapons have malfunctioned and may not be fired. He decides to turn his whole plane into a missile and carry out a kamikaze attack against the aliens thus salvaging the strike mission. Again the self-sacrifice of one individual civilian flier save the day where the state can not.

In the end Levinson even gets one over the state in the competition for the affections of his ex-wife. The movie reveals early on that she left him in order to pursue a career in the corridors of power. But the final scene of the movie has the two leads, the cable repairman and the marine aviator being embraced by their love interests, presumably with the implication that the repairman's ex-wife is now reunited with him for good.

The message of the movie is clear: if one day genocidal and technologically superior aliens arrive we better have some brilliant cable guys and lovable crop dusters on standby to save the day. Because the state is likely to do little but get in the way of our efforts. It is one bold message for a summer popcorn flick, but then Independence Day is a boldly entertaining movie.

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