Friday, February 10, 2012

The Grey: America's Dying Economy & the Politicians' Den

When it's a frontier, or a wilderness or purely environmental setting, the "trappings" of culture and society have been removed only to show us what is really taking place in the "civilized world," and that is always something very uncivilized. Joe Carnahan's box office hit The Grey is quite good. You may remember that last week, I deduced that it would be about the oil drilling industry trying to survive against "the wolves of Washington," and I wasn't accurate about that; it's bigger than that, it's more inclusive to all Americans, and like Man On A Ledge, has a great message for what it is that we as Americans truly value and should be fighting for.
The Grey has one of those post-credit endings, and I didn't realize that, so left before the final scene that I didn't know was coming (still being sick I was heavily medicated); if you go and see it, don't make the mistake I made.
There are a number of approaches one can take to the film, including an all-time favorite of mine, game theory. As I watched The Grey, I was actually thinking of Moneyball and radical approaches each of the two films were taking in their discussion of the economy, what happened and how it impacted people (please see Moneyball & the Great American Economy) but one can also compare it to the "clean up team" that enters the company in the beginning of Margin Call and "kills" everyone who is no longer needed (please see Deconstructing Volatile Risk: Margin Call). What all three films do well is summarize the trauma and insecurity in the economy and what will have to be done to survive in the meltdown we've been left with.
Ottway (Liam Neeson) in his room during the last night of camp at the drilling factory. He's trying to write a letter to his deceased wife. He will hold onto his letter and take it out to read on the airplane, but decide to throw it away, crumbling it up and putting it in the back of the seat in front of him; before they leave the scene of the crash, he happens to find it and takes it with him. What does the letter mean? Hope. He knows he can't be with his wife again, but he has that hope that his love for her is stronger and greater than her death, and towards the end of the film, when it is Ottway and the alpha male wolf fighting for their survival, that love of his for her will strengthen him to enter that last fight.
The ambiguous character in the film is Ana, Ottway's wife. As you can tell from the trailer, he is with her only in his mind, through flashbacks; almost at the end, we realize that she was dying in a hospital, terminally ill. That's an important point, because she symbolizes America. Because of women's ability to give birth and fulfill a man's hopes and dreams, women--such as the Statue of Liberty--often represent the homeland, the motherland, the land that gave birth to the hero. That Ottway "lost her" but still loves her desperately, is the strength of his hope and our hope that--for those of us who feel our country has become alien to us and our leaders want to rule over us instead of be public servants accountable to the law and Constitution--we can get out country back.
So enter the wolves.
At the scene of the crash.Why does the man bleed to death on the plane after the crash? Ottway telling him, "You're dying," is like telling someone, "You're fired." But that's not enough, that's not all this sad and intimate scene means, as a group of men watch another man die, knowing there is nothing they can do for him. It's Ottway, however, that draws resources from his own experience and gives the dying man what he can, and what Ottway would want someone to say to him if he were the one dying. That's why Ottway is given the leadership role by the others, not because of knowledge of the wolves, or his courage, or survival skills, but because leadership is a quality that comes from within, and leaders have an endless amount of resources upon which they draw and as the man's life slips away from him, Ottway proves that he can sustain life for the group.
There just isn't any other way to understand the airplane crash that happens in the film: the plane busted up into at least two pieces, and a third piece completely missing, and the total ignorance and uselessness of the pilots, means that this crash is the Wall Street Crash of 2008. The suddenness with which it happened and the violence of the jostling and turmoil, the uprooting and disintegration of everything, along with the deaths of 117 people, is a graphic illustration of how the financial irresponsibility of some people impacted those who had no idea it was coming. (It's a film such as Margin Call that really equates getting laid off/fired with death, but it's The Grey that shows you how they die: painfully). It's at the scene of the crash that the wolves start encircling the surviving members of the drill team, and it's easy to understand that as a company that lost a lot in the "economic crash" and is still trying to hang onto what it can, but the scavengers are circling around.
For a lot of people, this crash is a good illustration of what has happened to their lives,  businesses, homes and security. The big question is, what is the point of keeping Ottway alive only to die in the wolves' den? Courage is like the ebbing of the tide: courage is easy to recognize when someone is charging a wolf, but it's more difficult to see when someone can't bear to go on living through another night, but they do so anyway, and that's when there is no tide, but when that tide comes back in, it's with the force of the tsunami and it will win whatever fight presents itself. Ottway's courage ebbs away from him the night before the crash so that, when everyone else's courage has ebbed away from them, he will be in control of himself, therefore, in control of the situation.
What is the conflict with the wolves?
We're in their territory.
The wolves are the politicians scavenging off the land and what's left, while the poor 7 man team surviving the wreck is the wounded work force in America still trying to compete despite the "hostile environment" in Washington and around the world (with other failing economies). Another way of understanding the wolves, though not much differently than mentioned above, is that the "pack of wolves" is actually a "PAC of wolves" or a political action committee, trying to get their representative elected to for their interest(s) regardless of anything else.But being in their territory establishes that the fight for companies to survive in the hostile wilderness of this prolonged recession has to be taken to the "den of wolves" in Washington.
Each person in this scene is going to die because, as great stories know, they are each all ready dead. John Diaz (Frank Grillo) is the guy everyone wants to die first because of his selfish sarcasm; when he fatally wounds his knee, falling down the tree to try saving Talget when the wolves are getting him, after Diaz had punched Talget in the nose earlier while Diaz challenged Ottway's leadership, Diaz has overcome his selfishness. After his long and excruciating walk, Diaz isn't surrendering to inevitability and giving up, he's not dismissing the value of his life by insisting that he doesn't have anything worth going back to, this is his best moment. The treacherous obstacles he has overcome to get this far, are the treacherous obstacles within himself he has overcome to get deeper inside his soul, his own genuine self, and that's why, it's at that scene that we find out his first name, and he introduces himself to Hendrick and Ottway. We never learn Ottways first name because we never learn everything about him: some people are just too big for life, and there is so much within him, that all of his resources won't be realized.
This is pretty easy so far, nothing difficult about this interpretation, but what the film does, in the opposite direction of, Moneyball for example, is to show, by process of elimination and priority, what virtues are not going to lead the war on Washington and guarantee our survival. Moneyball showed how to take seemingly worthless skills and make them valuable; The Grey shows us how there is really only one virtue right now that will get this country through these tough times: courage. Ottway is shown in several different instances, the shades of courage he possesses and why that helps him to be stronger than other members of the team. It's the alpha males that have the last battle, only because Ottway has the well of grace within him to realize he can still make a difference, he can still win his fight. Why does he use the alcohol bottles? Taping them to his fingers, his hands as a symbol of his strength, so the empty bottles show that he is "sober," he's not drunk on despair or anger (he's not using "Dutch courage").
Why does Hernandez die? When he's on his watch and playing the video game, he wishes that his son was there; that's a very insincere attitude towards his progeny, and that reveals the "dead spot" in his soul; because Hernandez is basically "pissing on" the importance of his family, he is attacked by the wolf when he's urinating. Why does Flannery die? Flannery falls behind in the line, and that relates to us that Flannery "is behind" in everything going on: i.e., Ottway has to tell Flannery when they are sitting by each other on the plane that he doesn't want to talk to anyone, Flannery couldn't figure that out on his own. Why does Burke die? He can't breathe at the high altitude and freezes to death. Burke can't "rise" (altitude) to the challenges presenting themselves to the men. Whereas it brings out the best in men like Ottway (and even Sherlock Holmes in A Game of Shadows) the distance to which Burke has to reach up to survive is too much for him. Why does Talget die? The zipper hanging onto the tether symbolizes Talget "hanging onto" things in general, even when it "breaks away from him (the tether between the trees snapping). Just like his little girl who comes to "take him" as he dies, he holds onto things instead of letting things go when he needs to. Why does Hendrick die? Hendrick is the most caring of the men, it's not effeminate in him, but he's so caring that it impedes his will (that's why his foot is stuck, the feet symbolize our will) because he is not hard enough (the rocks) but because he is caring he was the one who could make the leap of faith necessary to get to the trees across the river.
Does God answer Ottway's prayer? Yes.
Ottway asks God to do something, and what God does is give OttwayOttway had been tracking the wolves and trying to find it! What's the big deal with that? That's not what Ottway prayed for, he wanted to find shelter or a cabin, but God gave him an answer bigger than his prayer.
Just as the alpha male in the wolf pack is having his leadership challenged in the dark woods, so Diaz challenges Ottway's leadership. The omega wolf coming for Diaz attacks him in the back, because that is basically how Diaz has treated Ottway, undermining him the entire time although Ottway has saved his life. The attack leaves a scar on Diaz that we don't see until he sets down at the end of his road and insists on Ottway going on without him.
When Ottway is at his weakest, he is brought into the moment and place of greatest strength for the alpha wolf. Symbolically, we can only see this as American businesses who have survived the hardships and trials of what this dying economy has thrown at them, and despite all the tests, they have survived, and that gives them the strength to challenge the politicians in their own den, in Washington itself, and to overcome them in their strength when we are at our lowest, and that means this year's election (I could go a bit more into who the alpha wolf male symbolizes, but I won't beat a dead wolf into the ground). Despite the apparent show of strength in his den, the alpha wolf is taken out by the lone human, and it could be argued that the remaining wolves in the pack who finish off Ottway are members of the (now dead) alpha wolf's press team.
We've all ready discussed why he tapes the bottles to his hand, but what about the knife? Someone may say, it's obvious to tape a knife to your hand when you are going to attack a wolf at a full run, but the symbolic importance is that Diaz had attacked Ottway with that knife and Ottway self with more than just a knife,ken has armed himself with more than just a knife,k but also with the trophy of his own alpha status that he earned when he overcame Diaz's challenge and the trials of survival, including successfully defending himself from the wolves and getting into their den.
When the film opens, it's with shots of the factory: it's a job, and no one there wants to be there, at the "end of the world," and it's called that because, in the beginning of this country, America was the "end of the world," and it was for work and the chance of self-improvement that people learned how to survive in this hostile environment. Before Ottway takes on the alpha male, what does he do? He goes through the wallets of all the men unfit for mankind, and what does he find? Not the money or the credit cards, but photographs of families, fathers with their children and loved ones. That's what is most valued by Americans and that's what's at risk in the test of survival with the economy today: the American way of life. The Grey does an excellent job of using noise and silence, and that presence of noise always lets us know that there is something we are not hearing but should be, something we should be listening to but can't hear, and that's probably a warning about the state of the country right now; we need to get past the noise and really hear what is going on.
No one wants a showdown with our nation's leaders, no one wants to have to enter the den of wolves, but the lack of leadership where there should be leadership in abundance has made it necessary. We should prepare ourselves to see a flurry of films like The Grey in the coming months.