Killing Osama bin Laden and David Mamet's Special Ops Drama, 'The Unit'

by Kit MacFarlane

19 May 2011

Dennis Haysbert as Jonas Blane in The Unit 

What Is Said and What is Heard

While going about her daily American duties as a military wife one day (here collecting a vintage jeep to be a raffle prize to help honor veterans), Tiffy (Abby Brammwell) stumbles over a shocking occurrence on her quiet military street: a peace rally!

Mamet’s conception of a peace rally seems to be straight out of some low budget ‘50s juvenile delinquent movie: a bunch of vague and shabbily-dressed tie-dye vagabonds and beatniks with cut-out peace signs stuck to planks, marching around in an adorably small circle. All that’s missing is a beat up old Scooby-Doo ‘Mystery Mobile’ style van. Oh, wait, there it is. I’m surprised Mamet didn’t have Tiffy alerted earlier by wafts of marijuana smoke and the echo of beat-poetry bongos.

The popular ‘entertainment’ media may fall back on its self-created status of real-world irrelevance, but nevertheless spins sense-making narratives out of real-world ideas and attitudes that potentially have a far greater, and generally uncontested, reach than any ‘formal’ engagement with the matters of the world.

Out of this half-hearted, presumably half-stoned, affair steps Don Draper himself, actor Jon Hamm, vaguely squinting at the real world around him as though barely able to recognise it through his haze of goofballs, wrinkled shirts and commie indoctrination.

“Are you out of your minds, what are you people doing?” he yells at some passing soldiers, like the drunk guy on the street yelling at nobody and everybody, before shaking his head softly: “Poor fools.”

The encounter closes with a close-up of Tiffy’s face, troubled but resolute, knowing she must act as she clutches a peace meeting flyer in her hand and peers at the cluster of ramshackle extras yelling ‘out now!’ at nobody in particular.

Jon Hamm in The Unit

Jon Hamm in the ‘Old Home Week’ episode of The Unit

Mamet’s crotchety portrayal of protesters will probably please plenty of The Unit‘s audience, but the show propagandising turns from hilarious to sad when Tiffy finally faces the poor misguided peacenik at his meeting. Pro-military reaffirmation here transitions into a pro-military wet dream, a feeble fantasy of the righteousness of one’s own position and the idiocy of all others: hardly worthy of a dramatist who once fed on the inherent tensions in language and power rather than on simplistic diatribe.

Arriving at the meeting, a woman on a mission, Tiffy takes her seat in the mostly-empty theatre. ‘What about Hitler?’ Tiffy interrupts some random peace chatter, firing the bug guns right away. ‘What about 9/11?’ she continues, dredging up more emotive images in place of actual, you know, argument.

“Who’s side are you on?” Comrade Hamm asks, clearly a little on the slow side.

“I’m on the American side,” says Tiffy, Mamet drawing the dividing line clearly and bluntly.

The liberal room shocked into silence by this Fox News style ‘wisdom’ (aka shouting slogans), Tiffy triumphantly steps to the front of the stage. “Now, I have a few more remarks…”

For a show so stridently pro-military and a creator so (recently) stridently right-wing, this is its moment of moments: a peace rally of ‘brain dead liberals’ (to use Mamet’s term) face-to-face with one good-hearted, all-American military-hero wife.

And when Tiffy takes the floor to deliver the definitive blow to these anti-military louts?

Mamet cuts.

The next thing we see is Hamm’s alternative universe Don Draper skulking out of the theatre, as though his hippy-haze had been suddenly blown away by a drone-bomber of American truth. But mere skulking is not enough for Mamet. “Ma’am, you won,” says Bizarro Draper, firmly announcing his defeat. “I’d say by any objective standards, you won the debate.”

Despite this concession, Tiffy gets right back to her slogans. And now, her enemy is intrigued: ‘go on’, he smiles, following up with an request to hear more of her insights at a later date. Tiffy, her work done now that the protesters have accepting their own irrelevance, merely strides off, righteous and victorious.

What’s particularly upsetting about this scene (especially for a writer so known for his idiosyncratic mastery of language) is not its role as pro-military propaganda (TV is full of propaganda, usually more subtle and insidious than this), but the fact that it evades its own central moment of argument. We hear the slogans on either side, but the moment Tiffy actually starts her address, Mamet immediately turns off the camera. It’s a further coddling of audience expectations: the implication is that Tiffy’s words were a kind of obvious revelation, simultaneously so obvious to us and so shocking to them, so true and so real, that the words could not and need not actually be expressed.

The fact that Tiffy won these beatniks over to our side is far less important than actually having a clear definition of what ‘our side’ actually is. We don’t have to argue: we know.

This odd, gaping abyss in place of rational argument is reminiscent of an intriguing skit that was apparently planned, but never actually done, for an appearance by the great Donald Pleasence on Saturday Night Live. Pleasence was to play a Nazi death camp commander on trial for atrocities. When disgusted inquisitors asked how such actions could be justified, Pleasence would lean in and whisper to them, his words unheard by the audience. The inquisitors would then stop, think for a moment, and then agree that the whispered rationalisation was in fact quite a good reason. That little problem settled, the death camp commander could walk free.

It’s easy to understand why the sketch was never produced for a mainstream audience, but the ‘joke’ here – that the mere words of an unheard whispered rationalisation would completely overturn our understanding of the world and its moral order – is essentially reproduced by Mamet as part of his (presumably) non-comedic dramatic structure. We see the fantasy inversion of principles, but we never witness the core that provoked it. Potentially funny (and upsetting) in the obviousness of its evasiveness in the Donald Pleasence sketch, the same evasion in Mamet’s drama is simply pandering, cowardly and smug.

Hamm’s flimsy protester returns later in the series as a lawyer in a volunteer legal service (Hamm is clearly too good an actor to let get away – he’s the only thing that saves Mad Man‘s least interesting character, Don ‘all things to all men’ Draper, from being a total bore) but it doesn’t take long for Mamet to stack the deck again and for do-gooder neuroses to peek through. “Don’t you have any pride?” Tiffy reprimands him in ‘Bait’ (28 November 2006) as he tries to get a cowardly AWOL soldier off charges. Later, he’s in a gathering that’s fired upon (for no reason other than dramatic convenience – nobody seems too fussed about it) and Mamet undercuts the potentially disruptive tough volunteer lawyer role by having him get all weepy because he’s not all manly like a real-man soldier would be (army-wife Tiffy, naturally, slaps him into shape again).

Through these kinds of narratives, The Unit simultaneously targets two enemies of global security: 1) terrorists who would disrupt the everyday world, 2) the everyday world. Just as in Tiffy’s missing speech in ‘Old Home Week’, military action never needs to be justified in actual, you know, words; we merely need to ‘know’ that it’s right.

Ultimately, the destruction of argument benefits neither side. Blind divisiveness sells well but means little; it fuels the notion that questioning the necessity of a (possible) assassination when capturing bin Laden alive may have been an option represents some kind of sympathy for bin Laden and lack of support for Western institutions. And yet, I doubt you’ll find many people questioning the legality of the process who have sympathy for bin Laden. Most agree that if Bin Laden could not be taken alive, then that’s that.

But if he could have been, but wasn’t, then that’s another story entirely. As international law specialist Benjamin Ferencz, who was a prosecutor during the Nuremburg trials, told the BBC : ‘Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime under military law as well as all other law’.

Rather, those questioning the military action may have less sympathy for bin Laden than for a judicial system whose influence has been eroded by cultural narratives of a military righteousness that is too important to be shared with the outside world, is hindered by regular democratic processes, and that never needs to justify its actions. At least, not in, you know, words.

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//Mixed media