The Emotion of History

Interview with Rob Cohen, Director of Stealth

by Cynthia Fuchs

We're at a crossroads in terms of how American policy will be affected by technology in war.

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Rob Cohen likes his job. He likes traveling, working with gizmos, and pushing at the limits of technology. He likes making action movies. A Harvard anthropology graduate, he got his start in the film industry reading scripts for International Famous Agency. As Motown’s Executive Vice President (while still in his early 20s), he produced The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Mahogany, and The Wiz (he also executive produced TV’s Vanishing Son in 1994).

After his directorial debut, A Small Circle of Friends (1980), Cohen moved on to the sorts of films for which he is best known, including the terrific Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the technically innovative Dragonheart, and that nutty Stallone-in-the-subway-tunnel adventure, Daylight. With the gargantuan successes of The Fast and the Furious and xXx, Cohen has brought his consistent thematic interests—the politics of masculinity, marginality, and militarism—to a worldwide audience.

Cohen’s new film, Stealth, again mixes high tech, wild action, thrilling heroism, and pretty bodies (Jamie Foxx, Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel), to create a great big ride of a movie. This time, the plot concerns the war on terror (or would that now be “the struggle against extremism”?) and the future of warfare.

PopMatters: General Westmoreland’s recent death reminds us that a war of attrition was so profoundly ineffective. Can this sort of technology be an answer for that problem, or, more likely, make more problems?

Rob Cohen: We’re at a crossroads in terms of how American policy will be affected by technology in war. Within our grasp now is a technology that can be guided one way or the other. The UCAV [Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle] program in the Navy is a very real thing. The Navy has announced that by 2011, they plan to replace 1/3 of the combat pilots with UCAVs. When I read the first draft of the script, in which a lot of the research had already been done by W.D. Richter, I got intrigued by this, because I had read a book by Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, when I took his course my first year at Amherst. We now see so clearly the industrial revolution, but they didn’t.

So what are we not seeing today that is in fact our greatest revolutionary idea. I felt this may be it, when the American military effort can take man off the front lines and put in the machine—what’s that going to do to war? We know what the short term gains are. It’s easier and cheaper to build a UCAV than to train a pilot. They can be deployed more inexpensively, and when they’re shot down, all that comes back are airplane parts. Like I wrote, “No weeping mothers on tv.” but what is the long-term cost, not only in terms of the movie’s fiction, the thing going haywire, but what will it be like when it’s easy to make war? That’s what the film tries to provoke. It seemed like the perfect post9/11 movie. This is the issue: how do you fight the war on terror? What are you willing to pay to do this?

PM: Stealth raises these questions, it seems, by way of resonant pop-cultural references, with HAL, sort of flanked by Mr. Right Stuff and the inventor of Skynet. The love story [between Jessica Biel and Josh Lucas’ characters] is what it is, but the film might also be a commentary on action movies per se. And the challenge is this: how can action movies do serious work?

RC: I think that’s the key, and what I’ve tied to do differently with my action movies. I don’t try to do a film with great set pieces. There are ideas behind each film, whether my critics like to hear that or not. In The Fast and the Furious, I got into an urban tribal culture, built around street racing, the religion of the automobile. But it was a way of looking at urban youth and what happens in the new American melting pot, as opposed to the days of Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.

I coupled that with an exploration of what really could be done, technically, in the action genre, my quest being to break down the fourth wall, to make you not just see the movie but experience the movie. So in Fast, the drag race is an experience of driving and speed. In XxX, the same thing, combining the appeal of the x-games and a punk James Bond, because both are archetypes of manhood or heroism. Bond and Connery were the perfect blend of actor and a subject. By casting Vin Diesel and shredding the past iconic qualities of Bond, reinventing them with a new kind of machismo, multiethnic and thuggish but clever, it was trying to remake this archetype. At the same time, I tried to expand technical possibilities of representation, snowboarding on an avalanche or base-jumping off a Corvette, I wanted you to feel that experience from the gut. Here we come to Stealth, in which the same two track approach is working. First, the idea, the technology of war. Second is an unprecedented level of photorealistic effects, pushing warp speed to the max.

PM: It sounds like there’s a tension here, in that this “experience” is coupled with potential emotional costs. Ben shoots into the Rangoon building with “zero” collateral damage, but a couple of scenes later, EDI obliterates a bunch of farmers. You’re asking for both at once.

RC: I’m greedy. Each one of those events is quite complex, in that when the Rangoon bomb is perfectly calculated at a dead vertical descent, to enable penetration, all that was also a way of EDI learning that heroism is not doing what your senior officer tells you to do. Heroism is making your own decision, controversial though it might be, and pulling it off. Well, that’s EDI’s first lesson about humanity. But it wouldn’t be real to say that these things are always zero collateral damage. I wanted to show in the Tajikistan sequence, in the post-Soviet republics, with all the nuclear weapons that have been black marketed, that you could easily have Lebanese arms merchants selling you old Russian SCUD warheads through Pakistan, and that’s just the world we live in now. And there could be a little rogue nuclear state; in this case, it’s warlords. It’s a little implausible, the point is that when EDI does the same thing that Ben did beat for beat—disobeys his commanding officer, takes matters into his own hands, feels he’s going to pull off the mission. But EDI creates a dirty bomb situation, because they don’t have the full facts of the hidden enclave of humanity in that canyon. And those innocents suffer the radiation. I think it’s important to show both, the need to be proactive and the people all over the world—in Iraq and Afghanistan—who suffer the side effects of these conflicts of the giants.

PM: The simple and political dichotomy sets terrorists all about causing collateral damage, and the West all about preventing it. But practice falls in between.

RC: That’s what I think the point is. First, it seems a hydra to me, I don’t even see the theory of how you defeat terrorism. You cut one down and his three sons become worse than the father. It’s a very unproductive path. Take a page from Ireland: bring in micro-technology and change the economic landscape of Ireland and suddenly, nobody wants to throw bombs. If people have homes, and their kids are going to school, they have some access to health facilities, and the future looks better, nobody wants to be a terrorist. What’s the percentage? I do believe that America’s primary goal is to extract and eliminate every terrorist and not hurt anyone who’s not a terrorist, whereas the terrorists clearly want to make their point. Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers lays out the whole road map: and now the paratroopers come in and torture, and even when you find the head of the cell, there are many others to fill in.

PM: I saw a story last week about Spain’s seemingly counterintuitive response to the train bombings, reaching out to Muslims with the “alliance of civilizations” plan, in order to undermine radicalization.

RC: Well, Spain is the one country in Europe with a very important Muslim past, which makes it different than anyplace else in Europe, and certainly the U.S, which has no Muslim anything in its culture. I don’t know if it’s a survival mechanism, like, “This is our watering hole,” and there’s not enough water, so “You’re horrible, we’re people, you’re animals, it’s our water.” Whether that’s built into our psychology, this need to hate, this incredible, persistent aspect of human life, to hate anyone who isn’t us. It’s probably the thing that gets me most despondent about humanity. Jesus, Allah, Buddha: they might all have been the messenger, they might all have been the same person. If you were an alien from another planet and came down here, you couldn’t tell one human from another. So the irony is, the first time I started to study chimps, they were all the same. And after six weeks of studying, I knew each one by its personality. Why is it we are so ready to segregate and target people who are not like us?

PM: I wonder if this has to do with the human capacity to tell stories and preserve memory, to create histories and legacies.

RC: Well, history is a heavy cross to bear. And it’s like a mirror tunnel. Once things start, they just bounce back and forth. The protestant kills the catholic, the catholic kills the protestant, the English kill the Hebrews, the Hebrews kill the English. And then the rest is, “My uncle was killed by those Jews,” or, “What was your uncle doing in Palestine?” When you look at the actual place of Israel and Palestine, it’s so small. It looms so large in the imagination. The Jews and the Arabs have been killing each other 50 years. There’s probably no family who hasn’t lost someone to this effort, whether it’s terrorism, suicide bombers, or military forces. Everybody’s got right on their side. It’s the emotion of history that’s so dangerous, that no one can take a break and say, “Okay, the slate’s wiped clean.” Humans don’t seem to have that capacity.

I try to put these ideas in Stealth, but some critics don’t like films that are loud and aggressive, and aren’t about drinking wine. They’re lost about what is going on in culture today. But pop culture is the most important force. And ironically, I don’t think this is too grandiose, pop culture is one of the hopes of the world. When Japanese kids influence American kids, and American kids influence South African kids, when a surfer can become a hero everywhere there’s water, whether he’s Australian, or Balinese, or Hawaiian, when Russian kids want to wear Levis and everyone has an iPod, there’s a bond that people feel. I know the Muslim culture is highly resistant to these ideas, but in all my travels, in China, Taiwan, India, Europe, and South America, the commonality becomes real. Everquest and Vice City, Fast and the Furious: I go into the smallest village in Bali, where I have a home, and they’ve seen Fast and the Furious. One of those cars costs more than most Balinese will make in an entire lifetime of growing rice. And yet, they all know it and use it in their daily conversation, as a sign of something. So you know that pop culture is a positive force, it’s a connective force. The action film is one of the pillars of the pop culture structure and I’m very proud to be part of that pillar.

PM: There remain issues of access and who profits. Still, young people process information quickly, and keep a history of pop culture through repeated references.

RC: They’ll get it. They’ll get that Joe Morton used to represent the machine and Sam Shepard used to represent the person, and the switch. They’ll get all that I pile into these films, so many references and homages, whether it’s to Howl or whatever. It’s like the footnotes in scholarly papers. These were the building blocks of the ideas.

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