I enjoyed Ross Douthat’s column this week in which he contemplates the inadequacies of Hollywood’s response to the Iraq war. (Hey – at least Hollywood has responded: has the British film industry? There haven’t been too many British stories told, as opposed to Britishers telling American stories. Which is a little different.)
The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare. You had a nation reeling from a terrorist attack and hungry for a response that would be righteous, bold and comprehensive. You had an inexperienced president trying to tackle a problem that his predecessors (one of them his own father) had left to fester since the first gulf war. You had a cause — the removal of a brutal dictator, and the spread of democracy to the Arab world — that inspired a swath of the liberal intelligentsia to play George Orwell and embrace the case for war. You had a casus belli — those weapons of mass destruction — that even many of the invasion’s opponents believed to be a real danger to world peace. And you had Saddam Hussein himself, the dictator in his labyrinth, apparently convinced that pretending to have W.M.D. was the best way to keep his grip on power.
But this opening act, and all the tragedies that followed, still awaits an artist capable of wrestling with its complexities. In “Green Zone,” everything is much simpler. “We” were lied to. “They” did the lying. The “we” is the audience, Matt Damon’s stoic soldier and the perpetually innocent American public. The “they” is the neoconservatives, embodied by a weaselly Greg Kinnear (playing some combination of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith) and capable of any enormity in the pursuit of their objectives.
There’s a good deal to this. But it’s also the case, as Daniel Larison argues, that this artistic shortcoming is hardly the worst of the Iraqi adventure. Those responsible for it have not, as far as those oppossed to the conflict are concerned, suffered much for their mistakes. None, for instance, are in a Nixonian state of disgrace. Not even Dick Cheney has been visited by Nemesis.
But perhaps the problem isn’t confined to contemporary artists. Perhaps Shakespeare and the rules of tragedy should take some of the blame too. Othello and Macbeth, for instance, deserve their fate. It’s hard to muster too much sympathy for their plight given the stupidity with which they act and, in the latter’s case especially, the fact that they get exactly what they deserve. That obeys the rules but may also limit the impact any tragedy – in the theatrical sense of the term – can have. Perhaps that’s why melodrama will often be more popular. As Ross suggests, Hollywood (in particular) has chosen sensation over pathos every time. (This has been true even when the so-called drama, such as Lions for Lambs has actually been cripplingly dry and worthy.)
Doubtless this is why one could also argue that if there’s a tragic figure to come from all this in the west then it’s Tony Blair, not George W Bush for whom expectations were rarely high enough for him ever to be accused of throwing away any pearl, let alone one richer than all his tribe. Blair, however, was different and, as Andrew Rawnsley’s excellent new book makes clear, Blair’s own decisions (driven, for sure, by his convictions but always seperable from them had the so chosen) that led to his downfall. Here at any rate was a politician of real, even rare, talent who made a series of well-intentioned blunders that would destroy him. (Domestically at least: Blair’s second act is almost entirely a series of overseas scenes.)
Then again, there’s still a Shakespearian figure in Downing Street even if he’s not as charming or persuasive a figure as his predecessor, former friend and long-term rival. For years, after all, everyone at court assumed that Gordon Brown would lead the Labour party. Not the least of those so persuaded was Gordon Brown himself and so, for that matter, was his friend Tony Blair. Gordon and his giant brain would surely lead the country. But then, suddenly, the King dies and Gordon, wracked with grief his friends assure us (not always plausibly), hesitates.
Suddenly it is his old chum Tony who is best-placed to become leader. He switly, even ruthlessly, does so but not without giving Gordon the impression that he will stand down in favour of his old firend and brilliant colleague at some point in the future. Was a deal done? Who knows but Gordon came away believing that there was an agreeement.
And so it began. Gordon – the man most acknowlege has a better grasp of detail and history and the essence of the court party than Blair – feels wronged and, little by little, his relationship with Blair is poisoned to the point when, paranoid and out of his mnd with jealousy, Brown begins to plot and conspire against his own Prime Minister. Nothing is so petty that it cannot be argued about, no set of figures so trivial they aren’t worth hiding from the PM.
Publicly, of course, all this is denied and everyone drinks and feats as the country lives through a boom that seems to have put an end to the years of "boom and bust". We’re all speculators now. In private the government is falling apart as Chancellor and Prime Minister are barely on speaking terms. Blair gives Gordon fresh understandings about his departure date – or so Brown believes – only to welsh on the deal again and again.
Consumed with rage Brown is driven to the very brink of madness. Perhaps, some courtiers whisper, beyond it. Outwardly, however, all seems well. The court party still wins elections doesn’t it? And, look, Blair is mired in the sands of Mesopotamia. Tony’s difficulty is Gordon’s opportunity.
At long last a life’s ambition is realised as Brown becomes Prime Minister. And yet, Gordon has barely had time to enjoy his political honeymoon before the wheels begin to come off. A series of political misjudgments is followed by the Great Crash that ruins his reputation for financial genius. Everything that was once a strength – in terms of character, policy, judgement and so on – now becomes a debilitating weakness. Rapidly it becomes clear that he’s not cut out for the job and soon he’s not just hated, he’s almost pitied too.
So, yes, there’s a lot you could do with this tale of rivalry, ambition, friendship, betrayal and the lust for power. And in a sense we have had this story told. Not by the great novelists of the age (for whom these events may be too close anyway) but, in this instance, by Rawnsley and the other chroniclers offering a half-way house between the newspapers and the verdicts of historians.
These political dramas – or psycho-dramas, really – are written in that curious sub-thriller style that’s become the hallmark of those journalists who pretend to take us "inside the room"; they’re fun without being taxing and obey the conventions of their kind as surely as any other piece of genre writing. That doesn’t make them bad by any means – and Rawnsley is a better writer than, say, Bob Woodward – but it may crowd out space for "real fiction" to be written about these real events. Especially so soon. We "know" Blair and Brown and Bush and Saddam already and do not, perhaps, want to have them recast in literature.
This too may be why it’s actually easer to write contemporary political fiction if you set your work in Roman or Tudor or Stewart times. There’s a distance that helps (not least in terms of avoiding too much pastiche). It’s not, I think, a surprise that Robert Harris’s Roman novels, being that much more fully imagined, are much more successful than his Blair book "The Ghost" that, really, is simply silly.
Anyway, if all political lives do end in failure (of one sort or another) then perhaps they really are all quietly tragic. But for tragedy to really work one should preferably like and admire a character before appreciating that their downfall is, while awful to witness, both necessary and just even, perhaps especially, we ourselves are implicated in it. That’s a pretty tough bar to clear. Which may be why, as Ross says, few people really want to take it on. Easier, certainly, to plump for cyncicism and conspiracy.