Shoot the Imperialist Bastards
I was hoping that Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life would at least satisfy my curiosity on one point. Even if the plot floundered, I hoped that the much-touted real-life chemistry between stars Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan would be palpable on the screen. If nothing else, we’d get the satisfaction of witnessing what all the fuss and gossips were about or, better, what Meg saw in Russell and why she (of all people!) was carried away. I tried—I really tried before Proof of Life started, to convince myself that I was not going to mention the Ryan/Crowe thing in my review. I wasn’t even going to think about it, unless the plot proved so weak that I was forced to fall back on the one mildly interesting thing the film had going for it.
The plot is that weak. The inspiration behind Proof of Life is a 1998 Vanity Fair article by William Prochnau, “Adventures in the Ransom Trade,” about the apparently booming Kidnap and Ransom (K&R) industry: High-powered business execs are kidnapped around the world in exchange for cash, and in some cases, according to the film’s website, for new roads or schools in underdeveloped areas. It’s too bad that Proof of Life ignored this second, more intriguing scenario, but it’s also understandable, given the film’s overdetermined vilification of the kidnappers.
Alice (Ryan) and Peter Bowman (David Morse) have come to Tecala, a fictitious South American country, because he’s working for QualCom, an oil company putting a pipeline through the rain forest. Peter’s fellow employees are portrayed negatively. Like absentee landlords, the U.S.-based oil execs care nothing for the local population and next to nothing for their own employees. They consume resources at alarming rates. They pacify local people with humanitarian pet projects. Profit is, as always, the bottom line. Peter’s job, however, is different, at least in his own mind—he is buildingdam that will save an indigenous Indian population from incessant flooding. One coworker tells him that he’s “humanitarian window dressing” to counter QualCom’s bad PR for destroying natural resources. Though Peter and Alice have been all over the world working on humanitarian projects, this time, according to Peter, she’s refused to learn the local language or to get involved in any projects of her own: in other words, there is tension in the marriage. The morning after a particularly ridiculous spat, Peter is stopped at a roadblock when ELT (Liberation Army of Tecala) guerrillas emerge from the jungle wearing camouflage uniforms, face paint, and various bits of foliage stuck in their hats: they kidnap Peter and several others. Peter pleads with his captors, claiming he is not “with” the oil company but working to save the local people, casting himself in the role of selfless benefactor, but to no avail, of course.
Enter Russell Crowe as Terry Thorne, professional cool-loner-guy, who not only jets around the world negotiating freedom for hapless folks like Peter, but even puts himself in the line of fire, risking life and limb to rescue captives. Terry visits Alice and Peter’s sister Janis (Pamela Reed), and explains the rules of the game: they must get comfortable with the fact that for the captors, this is strictly business. Then, just when Alice and Janis start to hope, Terry’s employer—an insurance company—calls him back. Of course he doesn’t stay away—the movie needs him. With Terry on the scene, negotiations ensue and break down, rescue plans are hatched and something resembling love grows between Terry and Alice. Since I am currently exerting great effort to avoid those three magic words, “Blah, Blah, Blah,” let me turn to where I think Proof of Life missed the opportunity to challenge its audience by addressing a real, relevant social and political issue.
With QualCom heading into bankrupcy, another oil company named Octanol buys them out, thereby saving the oil pipeline project (read: thereby ensuring further decimation of the rain forest). A group of Tecalan protestors gathers at a ribbon cutting ceremony of Octanol’s new local headquarters. The camera pans across the protest scene focusing briefly on a placard in Spanish but conveniently translated to English in subtitle: “Shoot the Imperialist Bastards.” This sudden interjection is startling, set against a backdrop of relative fluff. It’s as if Proof of Life is gesturing towards a criticism of modern day U.S. imperialism but can’t quite articulate it.
And so Proof of Life takes the easy route, painting this serious issue with broad brush strokes and not addressing the cultural subjugation and erasure that are part of the imperialist agenda. And perhaps the reason for this oversight is because the film so eagerly participates in that erasure. This is a movie about white people—a small handful of whites set adrift in a sea of savage, criminal Latinos. I wondered at first why Hackford and company bothered with a fictitious country for their setting, but it became increasingly clear that they needed a particular space in which a demonized culture could be created, exploited, and manipulated in order to provide sharp, easily identifiable contrast to their white counterparts. The best (if that’s even the right word to use), example of a “positive” Latina character is the housemaid Maria (Vicky Hernandez), but her loyalty to Alice outweighs her loyalty to her own mother. One woman in the ELT is compassionate toward Peter but still a part of “them,” so she is ultimately unredeemable. At worst, Peter’s captors are misogynistic Latino thugs, incessantly doing drugs, shooting their machine guns at nothing, drinking, dancing, playing soccer, and referring to their hostage as “gringo.”
The film’s fetishism of foreign-ness is not limited to South America, however. In a bewildering scene, Alice tells Terry of the miscarriage she had 8 months ago in Africa: “My baby is buried in Africa,” she says, so sadly. When she refers to this event earlier in the film, when fighting with Peter, she’s less poetic: “I am not getting pregnant in a third world country again!” Such references to “Africa” make it a symbol, invoked in a way that denies its actual diversity. More to the point, Africa becomes a place where whites are victimized, much like Tecala, from which the “imperialist bastards” (the whites) are forced to flee and the indigenous culture left intact. The flip side of course is that, in the film, Tecala’s local culture has no existence outside its connection to the whites so that “intact” ends up meaning unchanged and static, only reinforcing its status as plot device, moral foil, or “third world country.”
While I won’t say that this negative representation is deliberate, it is certainly offensive, and frankly, the filmmakers should know better. So, why didn’t they know better? How does a film like this get made? While multi-culturalism is often presented as the order of the day, I think it’s fair to say that there has, in the last few years, been a simultaneous surge of nationalism in the U.S., particularly in response to foreign aggression that targets Americans. This nationalism often appeals to a fear and loathing of what is not “us.” Perhaps Proof of Life grew out of such anxieties. Whatever its origins, however, the film is now being sold as a star vehicle. And it will do reasonably well as that, because it features Ryan and Crowe (bolstered, of course, by the attending gossip). As always, plot and politics take a backseat to box office. I suppose that by now, we should be comfortable with the fact that this is strictly business.