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Human, all too human

January 23, 2013

I was watching the Hollywood Reporter’s 2012 round-table interview with screenwriters the other day. It may not have had a single woman on it, but it did include Michael Haneke, Judd Apatow, Argo writer Chris Terrio, Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal, Promised Land writer John Krasinski and Life of Pi writer David McGee.

During this interview Mark Boal rather bafflingly point-blank refused to say whether the character of Osama Bin Laden actually features in Zero Dark Thirty. I haven’t seen the film, but considering it’s a film about OBL’s capture, one would think he surely would have to appear at some point? Anyway, what I found most interesting was that this led to discussion about portraying evil people – terrorist, dictators and the like – at the risk of ‘humanising them’, with the interviewer asking whether figures like Osama Bin Laden or Hitler should be humanised and in humanising is there a danger of evoking audience sympathy.

Michael Haneke, sitting in his dark chair apart from the Americans, launched a rather surprising critique on Oliver Hirschbiegal’s portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, claiming it was impossible to create ‘melodrama’ from such a character and saying he would never make a film about the Nazi dictator.

Twilight… humanising vampires.

Shouldn’t evil characters be humanised though? I thought it was rather simplistic to say that humanising a character invokes sympathy for them. Surely film audiences are intelligent enough to deal with the fact that a monster of a man like Osama Bin Laden is actually still a man? Or is it that they don’t want to see this? Or Hollywood thinks they don’t want to see this? They are happy enough to humanise vampires, yet not bad people who exist in the real world?

I personally feel that humanising someone considered to be bad makes them all the more evil. Take for example, Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland. Would this character be half as terrifying if he was a two-dimensional ‘bad guy’? It’s the fact that he is charming and charismatic, yet also a complete psychopath that makes him so fascinating, and indeed, on that occasion, Hollywood rewarded Whittaker with an Oscar. No-one would surely claim that by humanising Amin we were being asked to sympathise with him? Being human is a complicated business, it’s not just about being nice.

One of the best things I saw on TV here in England last year was Appropriate Adult, a two part drama about serial killer Fred West (played by Dominic West,

Dominic West as Fred West in ‘Appropriate Adult’

no relation) and his relationship with his allocated ‘appropriate adult’ (someone who has to sit in police interviews etc with a suspect who is deemed to be mentally unfit to deal with proceedings alone). Fred West committed some of the most heinous murders in recent British history, yet the drama portrayed how his ‘appropriate adult’, Janet Leach, became so manipulated by him that she was driven to attempting suicide. Knowing what West had done, it was often uncomfortable to watch because Dominic West portrayed him with such beguiling humanity, but it was an exceedingly powerful piece of drama.

It’s an insult to us as viewers to suggest that we shouldn’t be shown such things in case with begin to sympathise with evil characters. Like, is watching a humanised portrayal of Osama Bin Laden going to make us all run off and join the Taliban?

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticised for being a bit of a gung-ho US military film and I don’t see how it cannot be if it portrays Bin Laden and his cronies as simplistically evil. It’s not about sympathising with such people, it’s about understanding them. Isn’t there a saying about knowing your enemy?

Likewise Hitler – why is it wrong for a film-maker to seek to understand who this person was and why he did what he did? I love Michael Haneke but I found his criticism of Downfall rather odd.

But perhaps it’s me, I just like the bad guys. I have just been watching Oliver

Edgar Ramirez in ‘Carlos’

Assayas’ brilliant ‘Carlos‘ trilogy – a five and half hour biopic of Carlos The Jackal and I’ve got to say Edgar Ramirez looks hot as hell in a leather jacket with a machine gun.

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