“Sicario”–Coming to a Neighborhood Near You–and It’s Grisly

The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film “Sicario” informs us that the Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and drive straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but clean-up duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war—not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), currently in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins—a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.

“Sicario,” directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.

Marooned on Mars–Where Science is a Verb

The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection “The Martian Chronicles” is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

“The Martian” is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; “The 33” (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, “Cast Away” (2000) in the Pacific; the “Apollo 13” (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (“Gravity,” 2013); or even Macaulay Culkin, left “Home Alone” (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. It was risky though; the closed door was providing my stability, and if I opened the door I might be pulled off my precarious perch. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like “The Martian” is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away” (honestly—five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film “All is Lost,” where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. We like Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape–the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed–is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. “The Martian” is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist—nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.

“The Martian,” directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.

Discover the NEW American Dream!

Much has been written recently about the death of the American Dream. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008, followed by a worrisome three-year recession, a struggling job market, and the rising cost of college tuition have caused many to wonder: Is the American Dream still viable? Can it be restored? Should it be laid to rest?

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 when he wrote, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone…. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (The Epic of America).

For over a century the American Dream was characterized as having a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, 2.5 children in the house, a faithful dog in the yard—and a chicken in every pot. The twin equalizers of democracy and laissez faire promised social mobility, financial security, judicial equality, and prosperity through hard work. Next door to that house in the suburbs lived the Joneses, and keeping up with them was part of the dream too. Bolstering the dream was “an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation” (Ari Shapiro, NPR).

Today’s dreamer, however, keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all. {{That’s so ingenious! The dog on the bed! I love it! THANKS!}} Bicycles stand next to the hybrid or electric car in the garage, and the house is controlled remotely by smart phones. The chicken in that pot must be free-range, antibiotic-free, and served with locally grown vegetables.

Unlike the Joneses next door, the new dreamers are less materialistic and more likely to be getting rid of stuff {{chiefly books! TOO TRUE.}} than accumulating it. Bigger is no longer considered better, and tiny houses are the latest fad. The new dreamers eschew self-interest and care about connectedness and global awareness. Buzz words like “sustainability” “social responsibility” and “green” drive their dream. They want to live in downtown urban areas and prefer apartments or multi-family dwellings where they can share amenities and reduce their carbon footprint. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, says, “this generation is more interested in the amenities of the city itself: great public spaces, walkability, diverse people and activities with which they can participate” (http://time.com/72281/american-housing/).

But even this smaller, more earth-friendly dream seems remote to many. The new dreamer no longer believes that hard work: necessarily pays off and worries that, for the first time in our history, the next generation will not be better off than its parents. In fact, according to columnist Adam Levin, being debt-free is a key factor in the new American Dream. According to his study, only 18.2% of Americans today see homeownership as part of the American dream, while 27.9% cite having enough money to retire at 65 as their goal and 23% of young people today simply dream of being debt-free. This is not surprising, when the average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Contrary to media pundits and government analysts who push the idea that consumer spending drives the economy; any move toward saving and fiscal responsibility is good for the economy, and thus good for the American Dream. In fact, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently acknowledged the distortion of focusing so much on consumer spending and recently began issuing GO (gross output) statistics that include the production sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, welfare and unemployment are dragging down the American dream. Not only is welfare expensive in terms of how much transfer payments cost, but also in how much is lost from the lack of productivity from those who aren’t working and contributing to the economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made progress toward ending lifelong welfare, but today, 35.4% of Americans are living on welfare of some sort, according to the Census Bureau. This nightmare has to be changed if the dream is to stay alive.

Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was encouraged as a way to stabilize and improve communities, because people who own their homes are more likely to stay put, take care of their property, get involved in local politics, and remain employed. Millennials, however, avoid home ownership for those very reasons. They don’t want to “stay put” but value spontaneity, mobility, and the freedom to accept unexpected opportunities without having to worry about selling a house. Home ownership has, in fact, been declining since 2004. In a survey conducted last year, only 61% said they would buy a house if they had to move (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2015). In the words of Thoreau, “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them” (Walden).

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s generation is lazy, however. Most work hard, but they work, or want to work, at doing things they love. Many are turning from corporate America to entrepreneurial America and rely more on developing a horizontal social network than on climbing a vertical corporate ladder. And, while it is fashionable to hate capitalism, many are capitalists by default, creating businesses and often working from home. The new American sells advertising to support blogspots and engages in crowd-funding campaigns to raise capital for projects.

In short, the New American Dream is more about finding happiness and sustaining the planet than about achieving financial prosperity—although we are happy to accept prosperity if it finds its way to our door. Personal satisfaction is more important than keeping up with the Joneses, and making time for oneself—to work out at the gym, go to a concert, read a book, post a blog, or create a work of art—is more important than putting in overtime at the office.

Is the American Dream alive? It is, but it’s changed. And it isn’t just for Americans ant more. What’s your dream? And how are you making it come true?

Discover the New American Dream at FreedomFest this year, July 8-11, at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas, where 2,000 attendees and 250 speakers gather each year to discuss new ideas in science and technology, history and politics, health and well-being, art and literature, economics and finance. Go to freedomfest.com for further information.

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