TV

'Missing' Pits Ashley Judd Against Europe

Lesley Smith

Becca returns to her life of violence for this one last mission. It's one cliché of many here, including as well a cloying sanctification of a very American Motherhood.


Missing

Airtime: Thursdays 8pm, ET
Cast: Ashley Judd, Sean Bean, Nick Eversman, Cliff Curtis, Adriano Giannini, Lothaire Bluteau
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Director: Steve Shill
Air date: 2011-03-15
Website
Trailer
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When a network opts for a mid-evening series that's not sitcom, reality series or family-friendly crime show, it should be a moment for celebration. When the network backs that choice with a first-rate director (Steve Shill), a talented international cast, and a production budget whose generosity glints from almost every frame, the critical equivalent of dancing in the streets should be a foregone conclusion.

ABC's Missing premieres 15 March with just such a pedigree, as well as a bona fide screen star, Ashley Judd. But, despite pacy editing, superb action choreography, and location shooting across Europe, the whole turns out to be yet another re-run of that updated Western, 24, which pits an arrogant outlaw protagonist against friend and foe alike.

This time the hero is Judd's Becca Winstone, a suburban flower shop owner who actually dislikes Europe. Her husband Paul (a barely glimpsed Sean Bean) died there in a car bombing. Now, a few weeks after he arrived in Rome as a summer student, her son Michael (Nick Eversman) has disappeared. After a few cursory scenes as an apparently ordinary Mom-on-a-mission tracking down the location of her son’s last photo, her first, and very brutal, encounter with opposition triggers the revelation that she and her husband were once top CIA agents. She returns to her life of violence for this one last mission. It's one cliché of many here, part of the show's comic-book logic, which includes as well a cloying sanctification of a very American Motherhood.

The show quickly piles absurdity upon absurdity. After 12 years out of the business, Becca switches instantly into assassin mode, leaving a trail of dead and wounded bodies across Italy and France, where just a tiny hint of rustiness might have aided credibility. Apparently carrying no more than a pair of sunglasses and someone else’s gun, she looks chic and well-groomed in every scene, whether she has just dragged herself from the Seine after being shot, or roughed up a deadly Italian intelligence agent. Although she uses CCTV footage to track her son, Becca mysteriously evades the automatic 24/7 surveillance of the modern city, even while openly walking busy streets, entering foreign intelligence agency HQs or being arrested.

It’s just as well she’s untouchable, though, for the script rarely lets her, or anyone else in the show, reach a smart decision. When Becca learns that a private jet leaving Le Bourget, the busy business airport just outside Paris, may be taking her son out of the country, she hurtles headlong to the tarmac. She never thinks of asking her CIA liaison in Paris, Dax (Cliff Curtis reprising Joan Allen’s thankless one-step-behind role in the Bourne movies), to ask airport authorities to delay the plane’s departure, or to gain sight of the flight plan or to organize a welcome party at the flight’s destination. Instead, Dax and his assistant barrel out to Le Bourget in a attempt to stop the plane taking off by saying, “Don’t go” very loudly, in English.

As Becca even tries to run the plan down on foot, the show’s writers and producers clearly subscribe to the CIA’s alternative moniker, Clowns in Action. If this might go over in a feature film, where disbelief need only be suspended for two hours or so, here, in a series scheduled for 10 parts, the burden of credulity already seems a crushing weight.

At the center of this illogic, Winstone’s dueling personae -- crack agent and sacred soccer Mom -- illuminate a more general paucity of imagination in crafting contemporary women characters. She oscillates between behaving exactly like a man in drag and justifying her every heartless action with her sacrifice of her career as a CIA agent to nurture her son. Sadly, the series perpetuates in an extreme form the canard that women cannot balance avocation, in Becca’s case espionage and maternity.

For her, motherhood trumps everything -- law, morality, friendship, loyalty, the sanctity of others’ lives. She embodies so rampant a primal urge to protect her son that she’s willing to let anyone die so she can save her child. The loyal asset Hard Drive (Lothaire Bluteau) she’s protected for more than a decade? Throw him to the wolves. Former lover Giancarlo (Adriano Gainnini), who cherishes her with a tender nostalgia? Let him jeopardize his career and life, to boot.

That Becca Winstone becomes so quickly so annoying, with her wounded wails of “It's my son” whenever she is thwarted, testifies to Judd’s skill. But she can’t infuse intelligence into this act first, think (much) later caricature, who never reports the kidnapping of her son to the police, never alerts Interpol or America’s embassies abroad, and never makes a simple phone call when she can jump on a motorbike, rock a cool safety helmet, and roar down a suspiciously empty road.

All this action helps to create a thread of a paranoid US imperialism that runs through the series. That someone with Becca's apparently superb linguistic skills, more than once immersed in another culture as a professional intelligence agent, would behave as a private citizen with such disregard for national sovereignty and international law reflects what many Europeans see as America’s overweening sense of entitlement to do what it likes, when it likes, and where it likes.

In the first two episodes of Missing, she's able to run amok in the an Italy and France seemingly bereft of law enforcement, where CIA agents pack heat in public and have free rein to search and destroy. The series promises that each episode will occur in a different city, as if Europe were a quaint theme park, designed solely for Americans to prove, to themselves and the world, that only they can protect the innocent. Such a fable is downright dangerous as a primer for the lives we lead in a global society.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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