II: The Science of Interstellar

II: The Science of Interstellar

by

Howard Adelman

As far as I can recall, there is no mention in Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar, of the science of ions of interstellar origin as documented by the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer on the spacecraft Ulysses. One wonders why since the connection with the thrust of the movie as a modern day Odyssey is so obvious. Further, the Ulysses spacecraft was designed to study interstellar space, specifically, the poles of the sun and the interstellar space above and below the two poles. Further, the spacecraft, Ulysses, with its two stage rocket and its smaller thrust engine, could easily have been the model for the space craft that rendezvoused with the spaceship, Endurance.

Instead, the shuttle used in Interstellar to reach the Endurance appeared to rely on chemical rockets rather than alternative forms of thrust that would be needed to propel a spaceship into outer space, possibly a laser-powered ion propulsion system or, at least, a nuclear powered spacecraft or even fusion propelled spacecraft. Alternatives could have relied on beamed lasers mounted on asteroids and laser reflectors, or a plethora of small spinning microsails. However, Interstellar is not about traveling between suns or from our solar system to the nearest one, Alpha Centauri, a triple system closer than any other star. It is about traveling to another galaxy altogether through a wormhole.

The reason is that even by using these alternative forms of energy propulsion to travel between solar systems, it would still take far too long even if such systems could be perfected in the next two centuries. The probable speed would be from 1/13th the speed of light to 1/5th the speed of light. Even if the latter were achieved, it would still take forty years to reach Alpha Centauri, and that solar system does not seem to have any planets that could support life. Working in any of these directions would take far too long if Earth were dying as a habitable planet and, in any case, even when such systems were developed, would take decades, even a century, to get to and back from that other solar system to report on whether there was a habitable planet.
However, if one envisioned traveling to a planet within this solar system to move proximate to a wormhole, if one were to be located there, this offers an option far more feasible and closer to technology currently available and under development. What appears as a disconnect between the old fashioned mode of thrust portrayed in the film and more credible alternative systems for interstellar travel, is, in fact, more credible than the far-out thought experiments for interstellar travel. Further, a movie viewer would not have recognized these innovative propulsion systems as characteristic of interstellar travel. Ironically, travel to another galaxy seems to be more scientifically plausible than interstellar travel. I presume that is why Chris Nolan opted for the portrayal of old-fashioned chemically-propelled thrust rockets which accord more with viewer expectations as well as with scientific evidence. The problem is the verisimilitude of traveling to a wormhole, going through it and still being able to explore another solar system in a different galaxy to find livable planets.

Is this important to the movie? It is the scientific crux on which the plausibility of the whole film depends. If verisimilitude and plausibility are goals, then far out solutions, such as traveling the immensely greater distances between galaxies rather than the relatively short distances between nearby solar systems, is the better option. The stated aim of the movie is to be as true to scientific actuality or possibility as movie makers can manage. Where there are deviances, as when Amie Brand in her argument with Cooper over which planet they should travel to next, offers a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the viewer who has some familiarity with the science does not know whether she is making a scientific mistake (unlikely, since she is so advanced as a scientist) or whether she is just being emotional at the time because she wants to find her lover, or, most plausibly, she is just bullshitting Cooper who is an astronaut and pilot and not an astrophysicist. Thorne, the famous astrophysicist who first co-conceived the movie and served as a consultant and executive producer for the film, claimed that the science in the film was either established fact, an educated guess or speculation, but in either of the latter options, never impossible.

But that is not how one experiences the opening pre-story of the film that Jonathan Nolan developed in his script of a world in which blight has attacked one crop after another so that corn remains the only cereal crop left and we soon learn that it too will soon be ravaged by blight. The population on earth has been devastated. Human civilization has gone in reverse mode and almost everyone is a farmer or services agriculture. America is the 1930’s dust bowl ten times over with the landscape ravaged by huge dust storms. This is the dystopia with which the film begins, not the current wave of environmental disasters caused by humans, but one wrought by nature itself.

Kip Thorne wrote that, while such a scenario was highly unlikely, it was not impossible. At least that is what he and fellow scientists at Caltech with whom he consulted concluded – including an expert on plants in general, a top cell biologist, a microbe expert and a fourth Nobel-Prize-winning biologist. However, what is highly unlikely is not verisimilitude or even plausibility. And to entice us if the movie is to be an exercise in science fiction and not science fantasy, “highly unlikely” is an unacceptable criterion. So the movie starts on a wrong note and then leads us into the world of astrophysics. Instead of establishing a really possible if not probable foundation, we are led into a strange world that, for most movie goers, seems far closer to fantasy than it should or could have been.

Why is the opening dystopia implausible even though not entirely impossible? Well it is not presented as an all-out dystopia, uncomfortable perhaps, but baseball continues. Education deformed by dogma prevails, but there is still education. But it is a form of education in a country that has lost its way, a society in defensive mode, a society that has lost sight of aspiration in favour of mere survival. The last is the least plausible. Having studied and written about genocide – in Rwanda and the Holocaust – in societies far worse than the extreme dust bowl of the opening scenes, even these societies, where genocide is widespread, evince more hope. Further, the calamity is set in America, the land of hopes and dreams, where a Jewish son of immigrants from Eastern Europe could write America’s most famous and best-loved song about imagining somewhere over the rainbow way up high, a place where skies remain blue, where the clouds are far behind and dreams that you dream of really do come true.

Certainly pathogens can mutate, certainly monocrop agriculture is more fragile and more prone to attack at the same time as scientifically produced seeds have developed inner systems for protecting against pests and lethal microbes. The mutant microbe IS part of our everyday fears. The melting ice cap could release an ancient pathogen that could overcome all current defence mechanisms. These, and many other scientific scenarios, are possible, if highly improbable. What is not probable or even plausible is the passive surrender to a virulent natural disaster. Nothing we know about America, as self-destructive as it has become, prepares us for such a presumption. The problem is not in the natural science but in the political science, the sociology and the psychology. And the movie offers no preparation or plausible account for that shift.

Nothing wrong with that if the movie is a true dystopia. But the movie leads us into recovering our scientific dreams that have continued to take place in secret. Cooper, through the “magic” of the moved books and the magnetic arrangements of the sand from the dust storm, is offered the message of where, surprisingly within a relatively short driving distance, a secret NASA operation continues to build manned spacecraft for flights to outer space. A scenario of blight feeding on the enormous supply of nitrogen in our air and wiping out all crops, a blight in which microbes are both 100% lethal AND transferable to all vegetation, is not plausible given what we know of biological science. Such a scenario is theoretically possible, but Kip Thorne agrees is highly unlikely. So why start with such an opening if the movie intends to restore our faith in science?
I protest too much. After all, this is science fiction. But Interstellar is supposed to be science fiction that is as close to fact or at least to possible fact as possible in exploring the cosmos. It is not science fiction that strays off into the fantasies of a disaster movie. Instead of setting the audience up for truly believing in the possibility of the exploration of outer space taking place via travel through a wormhole, the opening pre-story undermines that goal. This is quite aside from the contradictory messages received from that fifth dimension that tells Cooper he should stay but, at the same time, gives him the clues that will enable him to resume his career as an astronaut.

Professor Elliot Myerowitz offered some plausible scenarios for a nature-caused die off – enormous algae blooms as a result of ultraviolet light getting to earth through the ozone hole; a recurrence of the cyanobacteria that produces oxygen rather than carbon dioxide and once managed to kill almost everything on earth. He also offered the suggestion of a microbe that attacks the chloroplasts in plants that, on the one hand, produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow and, on the other hand, releases via photosynthesis the oxygen from carbon dioxide which humans need to breathe. So a scenario of excess production of CO2 is much more plausible than nitrogen (already 80%) increasing at the expense of oxygen. Further, it is a scenario that is part of our daily fears, for CO2 need only increase to 2% in our atmosphere to radically change how we can live.

But this is science fiction. Who cares whether the science is credible! When it comes to science, moviegoers are credulous. But credibility, plausibility and verisimilitude are not only important to Kip Thorne who conceived the movie, but to the absorption of the audience in the dramatic action. I have no idea why a more realistic political and biological foundation was not provided for the film. What we observe is very entrancing, but it does not lead us to expect a realistic – or as realistic as possible – excursion into outer space. For science fantasy is an escape genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, prepares us for enlarging our aspirations, the central message of the film. A world where aspiration and vegetative life have been exhausted may serve as a great counter to a restored faith in science, but if it leads us to believe that science is sheer fantasy, then that purpose has been undermined. And my very small survey of viewers of the film is that they saw the movie as science fantasy which they equated with science fiction. In other words, instead of strengthening the human belief in science, the movie undermines it. And there are so many more plausible scenarios that could have pressured humans to seek a new home on another planet.

When we get to the science of leaving earth and reaching another galaxy, the scenarios, however unfamiliar, are scientifically much more plausible. Tau Ceti, the nearest sun with a possible planetary system with a possible earth-like planet is 11.9 light years away. (Proxima Centauri, the nearest sun, is only 4.24 light years away, but it does not have planets conducive to supporting life.) So if spaceships could travel at the speed of light, that planet could be reached in just under a dozen years. But space travel at the speed of light is just implausible in science. So the problem is not just the distance of alternative solar systems, but the difficulty in getting there within a reasonable time. Voyageur 1 has been traveling for 37 years and is only 18 light hours – not 18 light years – from Earth. As Thorne has written, this is like traveling to downtown Manhattan from midtown when your destination is Perth, Australia.

Hence wormholes. Traveling to the moon, the only space body to which humans have traveled, is fact. Traveling to Mars is within range of achievement. Traveling to Saturn, though much more difficult, is feasible. An advanced version of Voyager I, using gravitational slingshots as Voyager I did around Saturn and Jupiter to give the spaceship a boost, make such travel possible. If we can get to Saturn, and if there is a wormhole near Saturn, travel to another galaxy becomes plausible. Not yet feasible, but scientifically plausible.
The movie set in what is no longer Oklahoma or the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz, which blames nature rather than humans for the extinction of life on earth – in contrast with Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction – has universal appeal because the message is acceptable to both tree huggers as well as the anti-environmentalists who believe that environmental science is a religious cult. But if the effort was intended to seduce the anti-environmentalists into at least accepting the validity and superiority of science as an awesome enterprise through the beauty and fascination of the power of science as well as a love of nature’s magnificence, the film lacks coherence, which is as important to the credibility of science as Thorne’s preoccupation with a correspondence theory of truth.

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in the dystopian pre-story poetically laments that, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Unfortunately, the opening pre-story does not help restore that faith in science. Aim higher, break barriers to ignorance, reach for the stars, explore, pioneer and persevere. Most of all, as Dr. Brand intones repeatedly like a sledgehammer that sucks the music out of Dylan Thomas’ great poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” For although wise men know that death – personal or of the Earth itself – is inevitable, humans cannot and should not lie down before the awesome inevitability.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That is why this movie is deeply religious, not in terms of organized religion, but in terms of its spiritual message. Jesus did not go raging into that good night. He accepted his crucifixion with equanimity. But he refused to passively accept the death of others whom he raised from the dead, such as the young girl who supposedly died in Luke 8:49. Jesus insisted that she was only sleeping. While everyone around was wailing and weeping, Jesus woke her up. So Jesus spoke with a forked tongue, a tongue which offered two opposite lessons at the same time – total acceptance of his own demise while quietly raising others from the dead.

Dr. Brand, who we learn in the movie has spoken with a forked tongue in a very different sense, as both a liar and a man who believes that radical alternative choices have to be made when two roads diverge in a wood. He is given those precious lines of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle as his motto to pass onto future generations. But the Welsh poet’s message to his own father is a rant against acceptance of death by the other, whereas Thomas was a fatalist alcoholic when it came to his own death. So which are we to believe, the forked tongue of Dr. Brand in which science has to operate via the use of Plato’s noble lie or Cooper’s raging efforts to live up to the vow he made his young daughter?

Cooper could have recited lines from another famous poet, an American one, to counter that of Dr. Brand, the last verse of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Next Blog:
Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel
Speed, Distance, Navigation, Communication, Long Duration, Propulsion and Time Dilation

Interstellar – the Drama

Interstellar: I – The Drama

by

Howard Adelman

Nancy and I along with our son and daughter-in-law, Daniel and Jessica, went to see a film that I thought was called Intergalactica, but soon discovered was called Interstellar. My mind, and often my mouth and even my fingers, for some reason, known or unknown, often does that – transposes one word or phrase for another. One example – always guaranteed to split the sides of my wife, Nancy, and my two young children – is the substitution of the name of candies called “Jolly Ranchers” with the name “Jolly Rangers”. When I first typed the substitution, I even reversed the names, writing that I substituted the correct name, “Jolly Rangers”, for the name “Jolly Ranchers”. I only caught the error in editing. Jolly Ranchers were favourite candies of Daniel and Gabriel when they were young. I always seemed to call that candy by the wrong name. The mental reason for that substitution is unknown to me until this day.

As another example, I almost always say “loan” when I mean “borrow”. I know the right term in my mind, but there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth. Almost everyone does this a few times because of a memory synapse error, but for some of us, it is a chronic condition. For others, the condition is acute. The phonological system involved in speech output in the language-dominant hemisphere is impaired. It is one major reason why I almost never read a talk. For almost inevitably one word or phrase will be substituted by another, in spite of the script before my eyes, to produce an unintended joke and unwelcomed laughter. When this occurs in a seemingly extemporaneous speech, it is barely noticed.

I do not know the physiological explanation for my condition, but I think I have a rational explanation for why I called the film Interstellar by the name “Intergalactica”. The name “Interstellar” never made sense to my rational and scientific mind, so my brain independently performed a transposition. After all, interstellar means travel between stars. From the little I had heard about the movie, the space travel was from the planet earth in one solar system to another life sustaining planet in another galaxy. The movie was about travel between galaxies using a wormhole in the space/time continuum. In any case, why would humans seeking an alternate livable planet want to travel from one sun to another? Perhaps to a planet in a very different solar system. But everyone knows, or do we, that this is impossible – even in science fiction. Intergalactic travel, believe it or not, is a far more realistic scenario which the imagination of the movie makers literally bend to their advantage.

The more I reflected on the movie to write about what I was thinking, the clearer it was to me that I could never write about it in one or even two blogs. I wanted to write about the science in the film as I started to do above. But the film was so packed with science – from the biological to fundamental physics – that it would take a blog or two just to unpack the scientific dimensions of the movie. Put another way, truer to that science, science was but one dimension of the film and it alone had multi-dimensions.

Secondly, there was the visual and auditory aesthetics of the movie. I had never seen or heard a movie anything like it before – and I am not just referring to the soundtrack that sometimes made it impossible to decipher the dialogue, especially the dialogue about science. Was that deliberate? Usually I can re-run the movie in my own head when I write about it the next morning. I found that impossible with Interstellar. It was so rich in visual and auditory terms. And those are the dimensions of a movie I often recall least of all. I am not a person who can easily recall what a person looks like or sounds like, or can richly describe a scene where we have just been. Somehow, I can usually do it with movies. However, with this one, I plan to return and see the movie a second time just to concentrate on that dimension. Since we leave in three days for our southern trip en route next week from Seattle to Marin County in California, that second viewing will probably have to wait until we return to Victoria in mid-March. Hopefully, the movie will be playing at some IMAX somewhere.

The dimension that I – and usually most others – can most easily grasp is the dramatic and thematic one. That dimension alone was very rich – though sometimes corny and cloying. Although basically a classic love story, that aspect of the movie also had many dimensions. I could not help but think of E.M. Forster’s great novel, Passage to India, even as I was watching the movie. In a late chapter in the novel, Professor Godbole is at a festival celebrating the midnight birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. The celebration is not a national feast or even a multicultural one, but an effort to allow everyone to feel at one with the universe. Godbole is thinking about his obsession with the English lady, Mrs. Moore, his memory of a wasp sitting on a rock and the rock itself. He fails. The movie Interstellar is imbued with the same Hindu vision of merging mankind to be at one with the whole universe while also revealing what separates humans.

Love is the means to get there. But what kind of love? Godbole thinks it might be a man’s love for a woman. But he is unsuccessful. So is the effort of Dr. Amie Brand, played brilliantly as usual by Anne Hathaway, who is determined to reunite with the great love of her life, an astronaut, Dr. Wolf Edmunds, who, in the Lazarus mission ten years earlier, was one of twelve scientists who set off to find an alternative planet where the survivors of Earth could resettle. Is it the love of mankind for future generations? This is what drives the chief scientist, Amie Brand’s father played by Michael Caine, so much so that he tells the great noble lie called Plan A that dominates the film. Humans had already demonstrated a great disregard for future generations and had allowed the planet Earth to move pell mell towards its own destruction in the dystopian bleak opening and pre-story to the movie’s major scientific narrative. Can one scientist’s determination to save future generations overcome these propensities?

Behind that destructive force is another – the love of a human for himself – a personal survival instinct. This is what drives Matt Damon playing the part of the fallen angel, Dr. Mann, whose determination to live overcomes his responsibilities as a scientist. Mann is man’s worst enemy. However, in this interplay, of self-love and species love, of inter-personal love of a man for a woman, there is a fourth form of love that supersedes them all. It is the love of a parent for a child and of a child for a parent. In the movie, it is the love of Cooper, himself an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey, not for both of his two children, but for his daughter Murph. Murph as a child is played by Mckenzie Foy, as an adult by Jessica Chastain and as an old woman on her death bed, by Ellen Burstyn. Cooper’s connection to his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet as a 15-year-old boy and Casey Affleck as a grown adult) is just blown sideways, or, rather backwards, because Tom grows up to be a stick-in-the-dust farmer just as his grandfather, Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), was.

The competing forms of love constitute the dramatic centre of the film .However, only a parent’s love for a child, more specifically, a father’s love for his daughter and its reciprocal response, allows humans to escape the gravitational pull of earth and become the embodiment of infinite love that allows the survival and re-birth on another planet of the human species. Godbole’s affection for Mrs. Moore and his attempt to merge the rock and the wasp and Mrs. Moore in a singular unity could not accomplish that task. Nor could Professor’s Brand’s effort. But Cooper and Murph could and did in this Hollywood romance. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” But not any love. Only the love between a father and a daughter is successful.
And what a reversal of the biblical precept (Numbers 30:16) that gives a father command over the vows a young daughter might make. In Interstellar, the relationship is reversed. Murph is the superego who holds her father to account for his vow to return. Murph is Antigone, anti-gone, who becomes the guardian of the faith and stands up to the principle and teacher who would betray science and the cultural heritage of learning and exploration of humans.

As suggested in reference to Dr. Mann, the movie is as much a religious film as it is an exercise in science fiction. Hence the Lazarus name of the previous mission echoing Jesus’ restoration to life of Lazarus four days after he purportedly died. In that mission, twelve apostles, no, astronauts, are sent forth to find an alternative livable planet. Three found possible prospects. In addition to Dr. Mann and Dr. Edmunds, there was Dr. Miller on the first of the planets that was thought to offer a possible viable alternative to Earth. She too died. However, there is no raising any of them from the dead. Cooper and his crew prove not to be miracle workers and the ghostly suggestions of books thrown off their shelves in Murphy’s bedroom when she is still a young girl will also prove to be more metaphysical than mystical. So why if the movie is a blend of the heart and the scientific rational brain, are there so many religious references?

Well it is a tale of faith versus cynicism. It is a story of good versus evil, the latter emerging in many forms, from political historical re-writing of the truth of the Apollo mission into a tale of political shenanigans to Dr. Mann’s behaviour in enticing Cooper’s crew to land on his planet. It is a tale of resurrection of a different sort, if not from the dead, from a cryogenic hypersleep as two of the astronauts aboard Cooper’s space ship, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), do. It is a tale of awe for the absolutely divine magnificence of the enormous universe in which we live. However, instead of, “And God said… and then there was…” we find what was and try to discover and articulate it. Thought, reflection and words follow and do not precede the cosmos. But more than anything, this is a tale of both human vision and human responsibility, both often celebrated in religion, but also both just as often repressed by organized religion.

Then, as Megan Garber’s article in The Atlantic on the movie put it, there is also a Chosen One – Murphy – a chosen people – those brought to the new promised land. If religious, the movie is more Jewish than Christian even though Murph saves the world when she is thirty-three years old. For the people must go on an exodus given the widespread failure of crops and famine in the land. However, one cannot make too much of this for there is no real persecution, though the space voyageurs do not go forth into the Land of Oz “somewhere over the rainbow”. As much as the movie is religious, it is religion caught up within the network of science. To the extent that religion is not reverent of science, to the extent that it is a matter of blind faith in the lessons taught by authority, the film is stridently anti-religious while always remaining ethical. In that sense, it has the same ironic references to religion as Passage to India that I mentioned above. The sense in which it is most religious and also most akin to science is that both involve faith in an eventual salvation, faith in benevolence, faith in a world that is overwhelmingly unknown and, to some extent, unknowable.
The clues can be found in the text book assigned to Murph by her school that now denies that humans ever landed on the moon. For institutionalized thinking has become dogmatic and is at war with both curiousity and wonder in favour of order and good behaviour. Conformity is at war with exploring the impossible to make it possible by dogmatically preferring certainty over speculation, especially that of science fiction. The message of the movie is as simplistic as any religious message: dare to aim higher; break barriers and reach for the stars, replace self-protection and survivalism with exploration, risk and perseverance. Our greatest tales are of journeys to discover the unknown based on faith in the promise of the future.

Our rich cultural history provides the clues to regaining that lost art of speculation, wonder and pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward. The titles of the books on Murph’s shelves in her room and of the books that are thrust by some unknown force onto the floor. I was looking because I thought that surely Passage to India or Homer’s Odyssey would be among them. But I did not spot either. Instead, the books I spotted, with a few exceptions, seemed more mundane than profound with no subtlety whatsoever in the connections with the movie. I actually cheated here since I could only recall a few, so I looked on line at close-ups of the bookshelves that play such a prominent part in the film.

The mundane books included Stephen King’s The Stand about a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by plague, James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere, Curtis and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders: an Atomic Tale and Elizabeth Wolff’s Out of the Blue in which the title says it all, in the latter case referring to both chance and to the source of truth in the sky. There is also a biography of Charles Lindbergh, a Scrabble dictionary and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. These books were clues that subtlety would not be a great strength in this movie. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, an updated version of the Moses story set in New York, seems to have some connection with the movie, but I would have to read Helprin’s book to figure it out.

However, Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab chasing a huge white whale, is also among Murph’s books. The novel begins, “Call me Ishmael.” Is Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, the narrator, Ishmael, while Cooper is Ahab searching to find, not a spirit whale, but a habitable planet where the human spirit as well as body can survive and thrive? It is hard to say. For the film is syncretic, mixing and not always matching multiple sources and influences. I was sure one of the most important was Odysseus’ (in Latin, Ulysses) travels in the Odyssey and his ten-year effort to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. In a small way, perhaps. But there were too few parallels. In Interstellar, there are twelve ships that were driven off course just as in the Lazarus mission ten years before Cooper set off. Are the people on Earth the infamous lethargic lotus-eaters? Certainly multiple winds that Odysseus had in the leather bag given by Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, permeate the story.

However, there are no cannibals though the voyageurs are torn between Dr. Mann’s and Dr. Edmund’s planets, the Interstellar tale is actually far less fantastical than the narrative of the Scylla and the Charybdis. For this film is about science fiction, not science fantasy. Odysseus never meets the spirit of his own mother, but rather the real flesh and blood presence of his own daughter. He was the spirit. She was the real thing. It is Cooper’s daughter not Cooper himself whom the new colony of humans is named after. After all, the movie is about father-daughter love as an expression of quantum entanglement, the interaction of two particles that behave as one even though they may be light years apart. We no longer live in the mechanical industrial age but in a networked communicative age; this movie is surely an expression of my children’s and grandchildren’s era rather than my own.

Next Blog: The Science of Interstellar

Egypt

Egypt

by

Howard Adelman

Israel’s main concern with regard to Egypt has been the border between Gaza and Egypt that has been used as a corridor for arms flowing into Gaza. Israel is also very sensitive to the security of its border with the Sinai, both for military reasons, given the use of Sinai by terrorist groups to attack both Israel and Egypt, as well as Sinai serving as the main transit route for refugees from Africa seeking a haven in Israel. Israel seems disinterested in the military overthrow of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government by the current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Sisi), who was then head of the Egyptian armed forces, the subsequent repression of that Brotherhood, and, more generally, the widespread denial of human rights within Egypt.

Before we turn to the Egyptian border and terrorism issues, it is helpful if we sketch some examples of media repression within Egypt. Popular singer, Hamza Namira, who became famous three years ago because of his songs celebrating the hope and freedom of the 2011 Arab Spring, has been banned from radio and television because of his “critical” songs. Those songs cannot be broadcast by others. Khaled Abol Naga, a famous Egyptian actor, has been accused of treason because of his outspoken opinions; his job options have dried up. Within one week, two top TV talk hosts were dismissed from their positions –Wael Ibrashi from the TV Dream Channel after Ibrashi criticized some ministers in the Sisi government, in particular the Education Minister for the poor state of Egyptian schools (see later), and Mahmoud Saad of Al-Nahar TV simply because one of his guests referred of Egypt’s “defeat” in the 1967 war. These were two privately-owned stations. The government already tightly controls Egyptian-owned media.

More recently, the attacks on private media outlets have become more comprehensive. Owners of both private and public media were recently summoned to a “self-criticism” meeting. The seventeen heads were forced to sign a statement that the outlets they ran would not criticize the army, police or the judiciary lest ‘these governmental institutions be discredited in the eyes of the public’. In reality, the freedom to publish applied to any article or statement that may be deemed to be offering ‘support to terrorism’ and, therefore, ‘provocative’ in the eyes of the government. Khaled al-Balshi, a prominent left-wing Egyptian journalist, who had steadfastly opposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and who founded the Front to Defend Journalists and the Rights of Citizens, suggested that the actions of the Sisi government have been far more repressive that those of its predecessor. Under this regime, six journalists have been killed, and eleven remain in prison.
Internationally, the most notorious has been the arrest eleven months ago and subsequent conviction and jailing of three journalists reporting for English al-Jazeera. Unlike the latter’s English language media reports, the Egypt-focused channel of al-Jazeera, Mubashir Misr, is viewed by many Egyptians as well as the government as favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, though this was likely because the Egyptian bureau was pro-democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has been blamed for inciting anti-government protests. Thousands of their members have been rounded up and imprisoned. The government concern with security has been used to prosecute both the Muslim Brotherhood as well as pro-democracy activists and even the three journalists who worked for English al-Jazeera. In reading their dispatches, they come across as neutral professional foreign correspondents.

Which is what they are. Egyptian-Canadian Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, formerly a CNN and New York Times foreign correspondent, Australian Peter Greste, formerly a foreign correspondent of BBC and Reuters, and Egyptian producer, Baher Mohamed, the youngest of the three and only employed seven months before he was arrested, were accused of spreading false news (defamation) and supporting and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood. The two foreign Canadian and Australian journalists were sentenced to seven years each, though Sisi may be on the verge of pardoning them. Bader received an extra three year sentence for weapons possession and, as an Egyptian whose father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood though the son apparently was not, seems unlikely to be pardoned in spite of the apparent trumped-up nature of the charges against all three.
His treatment poses the greatest chill on Egyptian journalism, though he might eventually be released if the Saudi Arabia’s effort in mediating the dispute between Qatar and Egypt develops favourably. The arrests of the three journalists from English al-Jazeera in Egypt seem to have had as much to do with Qatar’s ownership of al-Jazeera as with media repression. Though Qatar denies it, the country has been widely accused of funding terrorists. Though Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, in addition to its financial support for Hamas in Gaza, Qatar is supposedly the largest private source of donations both to the Islamic State as well as other al-Qaeda affiliates. But on 27 September, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar declared that, “What is happening in Iraq and Syria is extremism and such organizations are partly financed from abroad, but Qatar has never supported and will never support terrorist organizations”. This statement was made in spite of well-known Qatar financial support for al-Qaeda in Mali and Chechnya. The statement was also made in spite of Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, a fiery antisemitic Muslim leading scholar in the Muslim Brotherhood with a pro-terrorist as well as fundamentalist Islamic message, given free reign in Doha.

Whatever its support for terrorism, Qatar openly supports the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly labeled the overthrow of the Morsi regime on 3 July 2013 a military coup. The Brotherhood leadership was given sanctuary in Qatar where it retains an outlet to the media. Egypt removed its ambassador from Doha. Qatar is a tiny state with only 278,000 citizens, though it is host to 1.5 million resident foreigners. However, Qatar is also very wealthy with an enormous sovereign wealth fund and holds the third largest natural gas reserves. Qatar is the sole remaining source of international support for the Brotherhood. A rapprochement between Qatar and Egypt would be a mortal blow to the Muslim Brotherhood. The arrest in Qatar of on 20 November of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Ali Beshr may be a first public indicator that a reconciliation between Qatar and Egypt is in process. A rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar facilitated through Saudi mediation could lead to limiting the ability of the Brotherhood to communicate to its supporters and, for Israel, cutting off a very important source of terrorist funding for Hamas. Qatar could then serve to mediate between the Sisi government and the latter’s efforts to tame the Brotherhood and Israel’s efforts to tame Hamas.

Egypt has also been reluctant to repay a $3 billion dollar loan owed to Qatar and this may also be a factor in the Egyptian-Qatar deteriorating relationship even more significant than the imprisonment of the three journalists. That debt is the remaining part of an $8 billion dollar aid loan made to Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s government when Morsi was still president after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rejected a $4.8 billion dollar loan when the government refused to form a broader-based government. The latter development would have released a further $12 billion in bilateral aid. In some sense, Qatar’s release of pressure on the Morsi regime because of its loan could be blamed for allowing President Morsi to form a narrow-based government. A broad-based government might have side-tracked the military coup. If so, the Sisi government should, ironically, be grateful to Qatar.

For internationals, the major concern has not been the anti-democracy agenda of the Sisi government, but the security of Egypt and how that security is being ensured by the government. Many countries, especially Turkey, have been very critical of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, but those same countries seem to have been indifferent to the Egyptian repression of human rights as well as its blockade on the thirteen mile border with Gaza. Recently, Egypt doubled the size of its corridor along the Gaza border from a 500 metre no-man’s land to one 1,000 metres wide once military officials discovered that some of the tunnels were almost 800 metres long. Immediately after the last Israeli-Gaza war, Egypt claimed it had discovered a myriad of tunnels. Like the ones from Gaza into Israel, these tunnels went into the Egyptian town of Rafah and were used to smuggle both civilian goods and armaments into Gaza, and, possibly more important to Egypt, to smuggle arms and terrorists back into Egypt. Unlike Israel which built its buffer on Gazan land, Egypt constructed its buffer on Egyptian land and confiscated over a thousand Egyptian houses in the urban areas along the Gaza border.

I suggested above that a main reason for Egypt destroying the tunnels was to prevent terrorists and munitions getting back into Egypt to practice guerilla war against the new military dictatorship. A week ago, jihadists released a video of their attack in Sinai that took place in the previous month in which jihadists killed 31soldiers in the terrorist attack against the Karam-al-Kawadis military base on 24 October. Two days before the release of the video of that terrorist attack – which showed a tank running from the battle and soldiers surrendering without firing a shot after a truck loaded with two tons of explosives penetrated the military perimeter of the base and blew up – jihadists killed another 5 soldiers and police after the terrorists set up roadblocks and scoured cars so they could drag out and execute soldiers and police officers. What chutzpa! Setting up roadblocks within a military zone! At the same time, eight seamen had been captured and killed when presumed jihadists in a flotilla of small boats attacked a naval vessel.

The Muslim Brotherhood and even Hamas were now child’s play compared to the audacity, boldness and discipline of Egypt’s most militant jihadists, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Hamas has been explicit in disassociating itself from both Islamic State and the Egyptian Ansar Beit al-Maqdis terrorist group lest its relationship with Egypt be destroyed altogether as if its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood were not enough. Hamas openly condemned ISIS tactics and use of religion to support terrorism.

Three weeks ago, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared its allegiance and affiliation with Islamic State, presumably in an effort to further enhance its recruitment and fund raising as well as exclusivity for possession of the jihadist and terrorist brand. According to government spokesmen, the real reason was because the Egyptian military had effectively targeted its munitions supplies and had cut off the source of reinforcements. After all, the Egyptian military was ranked thirteenth in the world. Nevertheless, the militant jihadists already had a terrifying record of killing hundreds of soldiers and police officers from the Sinai to the Western desert, often using the same signature as Islamic State – beheading their captives. Like Islamic State, there was a high likelihood that they would now turn to targeting civilians in an effort to destroy Egypt’s lucrative tourist industry.

The competition against the Islamic State for the Islamist brand is being initiated by the Sufis who were incensed by the 14 October car-bombing of the Sufi Ahmad Al-Badawi mosque and shrine of Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi, founder of the Badawiyyah Sufi order. Would the politicization of the Sufi order, a powerful force within Egypt, provide short term support for Sisi but undermine that support in the long run?

The sense of desperation of ordinary Egyptians in the face of such fiery militants, on the one hand, and the determined repression of the new military regime, on the other hand, is indicated by the lack of any significant protest in creating the 1,000 metre wide border corridor with Gaza and the displacement of over a thousand families in Rafah. The military might boast from time to time that ten militants had been killed here, that a munitions warehouse had been discovered and blown up there, but in spite of the heavy censorship of the press, the threat of the militants grew by leaps and bounds compared to fears of the military authorities, especially when the military had boasted a year earlier that the jihadists were on the verge of extinction in the face of the military campaign against them. Empty boasts stood beside repeated audacious military actions to embarrass the military government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was finally elected to office in May of this year.

If civilian fears grew along with the decline in faith in the military government for providing security, what happened in the American Congress that was responsible for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Egyptian regime? The January 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Law had set aside $1.3 billion for Egyptian military aid, but only 44% of that sum had been released pending certain benchmark achievements in the military regime’s move to “restore” democracy. With a new Republican majority in both houses, concerns over human rights and democratic progress were unlikely to stand in the way of such limitations on allocations if remarks last week by the Chair of the State and Operations Panel, Kay Granger, a Republican Congressional representative from Texas, are any indication. Since the administration failed to label the overthrow of the democratically-elected Morsi regime as a coup, the handwriting of the decline of those stalwarts in support of democracy in Egypt has been apparent.

American fears that Sisi was not up to the task of destroying the militants, as well as a fear that the military aid would fall into the hands of the jihadists, made even Republicans hesitate. Nevertheless, Americans, and the Israelis as well, seem to have no other option than supporting the Sisi regime since both had by and large sacrificed their commitment to democracy and human rights in Egypt for their security concerns. The question now was whether the Obama administration orders, which had held up delivery of Apache helicopters, F-6 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks and Harpoon missiles, would remain in place or would be surrendered in exchange for Congressional approval on an issue more central to the administration’s agenda.
Egypt, of course, has a myriad of other problems that undermine faith in a government even as determined and repressive as the Sisi regime, such as maintenance of its infrastructure even as its schools continue to deteriorate at risk to both teachers and students. Last month, Youssef Mohamed, a primary school student at Ammar ibn Yasir public school in rural El-Matareya region (markaz) in the northeastern Dakahlia Governorate on Lake Manzala, died when a window fell out of its frame and the broken pane of glass severed the student’s throat. The student might have survived if his teacher had been in the room at the time and if that teacher had taken prompt action – which he did not do even when he was disturbed from having a snack – or if several hospitals had not refused to admit the badly-injured student given his precarious state and their refusal to assume responsibility. A week later, almost exactly a month ago, seven-year-old Youssef Soltan Zaki died when the iron school gate fell off its rusty hinges onto him at the Zaghyrat public primary school in the Matrouh Governorate 500 kilometres from Cairo. At the end of October, a high school student, Peter Magdy, was skewered by a fence stake at Ahmed Bahgat Secondary School in Giza.

These sample incidents – which do not include the numerous students killed in bus accidents (18 students dead on 5 November on the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road) – were not only tragic, but seemed symbolic in a country where the government had assumed all authority and there was a widespread fear of individuals standing out and assuming responsibility lest they be held accountable in a system that was not subject to the rule of law designed to protect the people. If individuals act and something untoward occurs, they are held responsible. If they fail to act, they are held responsible. And if they are in lower positions of authority, they are sacrificed to save the skin of the government that fails to supply to funds to maintain the schools. Thus, the principals at the affected schools were suspended and brought to police headquarters for questioning.

If the government continually appears incompetent to manage its infrastructure let alone handle militants who directly assault the military, the government’s ability even to protect government buildings seems to be in question. Sisi’s government felt compelled last month to enact a special law against civilians who “assault” government facilities and to refer all those charged to military rather than civilian courts for judgment. Though the instigation for such a law seemed not to be just about protests but actual physical violence against public property – a roadside bomb near the Foreign Ministry offices in Cairo, an explosion in downtown Cairo near a subway station and another at Cairo University – the real impetus to the militarization of the rule of law seems to have arisen not so much from a spate of such incidents as from the panic that set into the government when the 31 soldiers mentioned above were killed last month.

And what about developing new infrastructure? Development projects in the Sinai – primarily the twenty-five-year-old Al-Salam Canal project to irrigate and recover 620,000 acres in Sinai for the benefit of Sinai tribes and resettlement of three million Egyptians in a well-planned new city and a number of towns with both an industrial area and surrounding agricultural land properly serviced by roads, electricity, schools and hospitals – were based on the principle that economic development is the primary way to combat the jihadi militants rather than relying primarily of the military. This priority seems to have been postponed for the ostensible reason that the water for the reclamation of the land was polluted by the heavy amount of untreated sewage that has been flowing into the Suez Canal. Decades since the plan was originally conceived, progress has been further delayed and construction related to the development has been abandoned. Priority has evidently been given to building water treatment plants.

Priority has also been given to shifting the economy to one governed by the School of Chicago economic principles opposed to the myriad of government subsidies. However, the abandonment of those subsides may make the overall economy function better – it could hardly function much worse – but the result will inevitably be at the cost of those at the bottom of the Egyptian economy and for the benefit of those at the top. Further, key military figures are certain to become rich in this shift. Thus, corruption will replace subsidies in undermining the efficiency of the economy.

Egypt inadvertently and only implicitly has become Israel’s most important unacknowledged ally in the Middle East but, in the long run, may prove simply to be Israel’s most dangerous Achilles’ heel.

IRAN: Three Days Before the Nuclear Negotiations Deadline

IRAN: Three Days Before the Nuclear Negotiations Deadline

by

Howard Adelman

This blog is intended to clarify what to look for if a deal is signed on Monday and if no deal is in place, explain where the remaining gaps are and what the continuing discussions will be about.

The Israeli Intelligence Service (Mossad – HaMossad leModiʿin uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim) yesterday indicated that there will be no deal signed by the 24 November deadline, though Mossad also let it be known that a deal is much closer to a conclusion than it was in July, the original deadline. Britain has been promoting an extension rumoured to be until March. France has been promoting a harder line in the talks. Obama via John Kerry is in Vienna for the last minute negotiations letting it be known that there is a 50% chance of the talks being concluded. Neither the US nor Iran are willing to consider an extension at this time, though there remain significant gaps between Iran and the P5+1 (UN Permanent Members of the Security Council + Germany). Marzieh Afkham, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, went out of his way two days ago to scotch all rumours that Iran is considering an extension to the talks. But whether a comprehensive (unlikely) or a framework agreement is concluded, there will, of necessity, be continuing talks which will be both substantive and about implementation.

What is the problem? There is no one problem. There are many. Some of them impact on other countries than Iran. For example, if Iran signed a deal on Monday, Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s share of oil exports would be threatened as Iran sought, according to Iranian Oil Minister, Bijan Zanganeh, to double its exports as soon as the sanctions regime is lifted. Russia as part of the P5 has no incentive to quickly conclude a deal.
The interim agreement signed by all parties provided for the release of Iran’s locked up funds. This week alone, India announced the release of US$400 million of frozen oil money largely by Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd. and Essar Oil. A few other sanctions provisions were lifted. On the one hand, this eased the pressure on Iran. On the other hand, until the controls on oil exports and on financial dealings with Iran’s Central Bank are lifted, Iran remains under considerable pressure.

One central debate was whether the agreement would or would not include the military plans for delivering nuclear weapons, that is, the nuclear weapon delivery systems that are integral of the nuclear enrichment program. Thus, the first and foremost issue in the deal with Iran is over what can be negotiated. Iran interpreted the agreement as applying only to its nuclear enrichment program and Iran’s capabilities for making a nuclear weapon, but none of its other military initiatives. So leading spokesmen in the Iranian government have accused the US of wanting everything under a nuclear deal. For example, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has said all along that negotiations are about the nuclear program and nothing else, at the same time as he defended a nuclear deal with the P5+1 as long as it is consistent with Iranian values.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes in order to reduce Iran’s dependence on oil. Iranian conservatives have argued that the USA is not simply interested in a nuclear deal but has two other major goals – first, hegemony in the region for which the US wants intelligence on the Iranian military, and, second, an overthrow of the Iranian values in place since the Revolution, using a human rights agenda to accomplish that end. Iran’s objectives, on the other hand, are far more modest and, as they argue, consistent – the removal of the sanctions. They presumably mean “all” the sanctions, though Iran has not indicated whether the removal can be staged over time or exactly how they are to be removed. Ali Shakhani, Supreme National Security Council Secretary, insisted that the negotiations have no point unless they are about total removal of the sanctions, a point reiterated by Ibrahim Aghamohammadi, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.

However, none of the close observers of the negotiations expect a deal that will provide for immediate removal of all the sanctions, if only because the sanctions endorsed by the US Congress in 2011 embraced many additional issues on top of the nuclear program – abuse of human rights being a major one. However, the sanctions on Iranian oil exports and on financial transactions with the Central Bank have had a crippling effect on the Iranian economy. One possibility is to separate the UN sanctions regime from the much larger American sanctions regime, and then further separate sanctions against the Central Bank from the sanctions on oil exports. But this is a possibility that Iran has been unequivocal in declaring as unacceptable. Removal of all sanctions or no deal. However, is a deal possible if it removes all sanctions over time and dependent on performance? Iranian spokesmen insist not, and very certainly not if the conditions include anything else in addition to the nuclear enrichment program.

Behind all the grandstanding and effectively using the media to negotiate outside the meeting room in Vienna, Iran has a credibility problem. Though it has followed through on the vast majority of agreements included in the interim Iran/P5+1 Plan of Action, Iran still falls short in specific areas. This allows critics of the negotiations to insist that Iran is cheating. For example, for the first time Iran recently began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) into the IR5 centrifuge at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz leading the P5+1 to charge Iran with violating its commitment to freeze its centrifuge activities at Natanz. When the US raised the issue with Iran. Iran responded by pledging to halt feeding the centrifuge while, at the same time, denying that feeding the centrifuge was a violation of the interim agreement. Whether or not total cessation of feeding the centrifuge may or may not have taken place deliberately, the effort was a clandestine one. Why did Iran not report on its resumption to the IAEA? Further, whether or not the freeze included the Natanz centrifuges, the resumption of this activity seemed to be in clear violation of the principle of a freeze on uranium enrichment.

Another possible source of difference between the two sides may be over the nature of a verifiable procurement channel so that Iran could continue its nuclear role but not its nuclear weapons ambitions. I had thought this problem had been resolved through the use of Russia. I think this is true with respect to nuclear materials. But there remain serious obstacles concerning equipment. For the agreement to work, Iran must be allowed to import items relevant to its peaceful use of nuclear energy, but not goods or equipment related to a nuclear weapons program. Since it is very difficult to monitor such a corridor, particularly since so much of the monitored material will be dual-use, one of the most difficult objectives in the agreement will be to create a monitoring architecture that can do the best possible job to prevent arousing the suspicions of the P5+1 or, on the other end, making the Iranians resentful that the monitoring system is interfering with Iran’s sovereign rights. One option may be to arrive at a second agreement three days hence and require the monitoring architecture – including control, licensing, approval, intelligence, inspection, detection, verification, investigation, disruption and penalty mechanisms – to be thrashed out by a subsequent deadline. Alternatively, the agreement could be signed with a ban on importing dual- use materials until a period of further confidence-building had passed, a more likely scenario, for without the monitoring architecture, the agreement is worthless.

The above is particularly important since Iran has all along been determined to isolate its military technological developments from its nuclear enrichment program and President Hassan Rouhani has openly boasted about Iran’s intentions and record in breaching sanctions in this area. Given this record and that pledge, how does the international community prevent an increasingly illicit, secret and sophisticated sanctions-busting regime from impacting on Iranian trade in illegal dual-use imports for the nuclear industry, not so much for the uranium imports, which will be in excess supply for many years to come in Iran, but other raw materials, replacement equipment and spare parts for illegal dual-use imports for the nuclear weapons industry – such as vacuum pumps, pressure traducers, lasers and frequency converters?

This clearly implies that all sanctions cannot be lifted, but the well-developed UN and western sanctions regime should continue to enforce import controls in this area. This is a particularly important item in a potential agreement since, as nations enter into lucrative trading arrangements with Iran in a post-agreement era, there will inevitably be a growing temptation to be more and more forgiving and to look aside or ease up on attention to bans as these economic relations develop. This is particularly important since China, as one of the P5, already has a reputation for weak export controls. How then will the agreement provide for minimizing and managing procurement risks in the monitoring architecture? How long will the monitoring regime have to be in place?

By Tuesday, we will be in a better position to know.

Iran

IRAN

by

Howard Adelman

I try to review the situation in the Middle East once a year so that I can update myself more systematically than through passive reading. Anyone else is invited both to read and respond to what I write. Admittedly, my perspective looks at the countries of the Middle East from an Israeli perspective, which in itself causes some distortion. But any perspective does.

I begin with Iran because the possible threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power is, by far, Israel’s foremost foreign policy concern. Further, the division between the United States and Israel over the West Bank and East Jerusalem pales in significance compared to the differences the two allies have over negotiations with Iran. As everyone knows, Israel has been very critical of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. The deadline for a deal is only a week away (24 November) and part of the guesswork is whether that deadline will be extended once again.

However, that deadline has become more significant and more pressing since the recent midterm Republican sweep in the US congressional elections. On the one hand, there are those who urge Obama to get the deal signed before it can be vetoed by the Senate. Already Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez are threatening to target Iran’s oil industry with new sanctions unless the agreement includes ironclad conditions that will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Iran remaining a threshold nuclear power, even if the period for achieving the production of a bomb is extended to a year, is insufficient for these strong opponents of the Iran negotiations. At the same time, there are others who urge Obama to demonstrate clearly that he intends to work closely with Congress using the Iran portfolio as an example.

Obama’s problem is that many members of both Houses, including many democrats, believe that this administration has already given away the store and is willing to allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear power, and with far too short a timeline. The Obama administration has insisted that Iran’s timeline for making a nuclear bomb will be at least one year. Critics who claim to know the terms of the deal in the making insist that it is only six months. This is certainly the view of the Israeli government and even of members of the Knesset from the Labour opposition. The two extremes – a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities versus a hands off approach to Iran’s nuclear program – are both off the table for the present. What is at stake is the degree of conciliation the US is willing to concede to Iran. Further, the deal appears to depend on Congress passing legislation to lift the sanctions or whether the Iranians are willing to accept a Presidential executive order to “suspend” the sanctions in stages, which seems the best that the White House can deliver at this time.

The Iranian government has its own pressures. On the one hand, the new government clearly wants the economic sanctions lifted. On the other hand, demands for a total stop to their nuclear enrichment program crosses a red line that they refuse to pass. Last month, and without telling his allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, President Obama sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggesting re-establishing diplomatic relations as well as cooperating on combating the extremist Sunni jihadists in ISIS. A week ago, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, confirmed that Obama had indeed sent not only this letter, but several others in the past, and that the Supreme Leader has responded to Obama’s overtures.

Many suspect that Khamenei is angling for another extension of the talks, partly in the belief that Obama has become a lame-duck president and partly because he believes he has already won on two key principles: 1) ensuring the right of Iran to enrich uranium and 2) preventing any inspections of the military aspects of its nuclear program. Some in America in favour of the negotiations also support an extension since they believe that falling oil prices, the threat of even more sanctions and new instances of sabotage of the nuclear program will together eventually bring Iran to its knees.
Though the contents of either Obama’s overtures or the Iranian response were not revealed, Shamkhani did assert that the American public positions were inconsistent with what the Americans said in private while the Iranian public and private positions were perfectly congruent, that a red line for Iran excluded visits of the International Atomic Energy Commission to military as distinct from nuclear sites, that the key regulations of any agreement should only be in conformity with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He reiterated Iran’s frequent charge that American foreign policy was created and controlled by Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi, the top Iranian official tasked with the day-to-day negotiations, openly declared that the Supreme Leader was fully in support of the negotiations that had taken place. Since the nuclear issue was under the Supreme Leader’s control, it was unlikely that the negotiations could have proceeded at all without his approval.

While the formal leader of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has kept a lid on any leaks, last Friday’s prayer leader, Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani, took the same position as that of the White House, insisting that no deal is better than a deal forced upon Iran by American aggression. Further, Fars News editor Seyed Yasser Jabraeili in Tehran, often used as a spokesperson for the Supreme Leader, indicated that the terms of the nuclear part of the deal had been agreed and only the timing of lifting of sanctions remained. Jabraeili also indicated that Iran was wary of Obama’s ability to bypass Congress and conclude the deal through executive order since the Iranians were well aware that Congressional approval was required to lift the sanctions.

The issue seemed to be whether the Iranians would be satisfied with just a “suspension” of sanctions and not their authorized removal by Congress. A permanent rollback of the nuclear enrichment program only for a temporary relief from sanctions was certainly unacceptable, at least to the conservatives in Iran. However, the latest sign that the more radical Iranians are still under siege and in retreat was the confirmation by the Iranian Supreme Court of the disbarment for five years of the former all-powerful Tehran prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who was held responsible for the torture and death while in prison of three dissidents in 2009.

With the tremendous recent growth of ISIS and with increasing clandestine cooperation between the US and Iran on this portfolio, the Iranian government is being pulled in two very opposite directions – towards a deal with the Americans propelled by the latter issue, and for the potential of reversing their tentative steps towards moderation given the resurrection of the status of the Republican Guard in government eyes as the martyrdom of their young child soldiers fighting and dying in the struggle with the radical Jihadist ISIS sect fills the pages of Iranian newspapers.

How then do you square the circle? If one side insists on absolute guarantees that Iran will not and cannot become a nuclear power while the other side insists on retaining its enrichment program in some form as a matter both of national pride and a key strategic concern so that the program can be rekindled in a relatively short time to enable Iran to build nuclear weapons, then the only possible deal approaches the goal of minimizing the prospect of Iran quickly moving to become a nuclear power without absolute guarantees while inducing Iran to move closer to the West by significantly removing the harsh sting of the sanctions. This is the crux of the debate – not absolutes, though there are also absolutists on both sides of the issue.

White House scuttlebutt has suggested that rapprochement with Iran is to the Obama’s last two years in office what Obamacare was in his first two years. However, given Congressional control over the purse strings, in particular, over the lifting of sanctions, the White House will have to be quite ingenious in structuring the deal to avoid a rejection of any Iranian deal by Congress. The very idea of congressional avoidance enhances fears by Senators, particularly Republicans, that Obama will sell Israel down the Potomac and make a mushy deal with the mullahs of Iran. For in Obamaspeak, America will extend a hand if its Middle Eastern enemies unclench their fists. For Obama’s opponents, the signs have been clear for years by significant omissions on the Iranian file – the structure of the nuclear negotiations to exclude delivery systems and the failure to link the negotiations with issues of domestic civil rights.

The White House hand was strengthened by two developments in Israel: 1) the failure to conclude a deal with Abbas when Kerry was mediating, and 2) Netanyahu’s risk adversity and the failure to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities 2-3 years ago when such a military attack had some chance of success, though many inside the military-intelligence services in Israel were skeptical. Of course, Obama’s extremist opponents insist that this is what Obama intended all along – to sell out Israel for a deal with Iran which effectively leaves Iran with de facto control over Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and, most importantly, Iraq, as well as the ability to acquire a bomb 6 months to a year after the sanctions are lifted. That means that the nuclear negotiations are not a single track effort. They have significant repercussions for the region including the stabilization of Iraq, the advancement of peace in Syria, strengthened support for Afghanistan in transition, and, dearest of all to Israel, keeping the Lebanese border with Israel quiet.

This is not helped with the Europeans being in total disarray. France, under a socialist president, has taken a hard line on negotiations with Iran while the rest of Europe are biting at the bit to resume economic relations on a significant level with Iran. Russia, which at this time does not need new completion for the sale of its oil, is cynically working to extend the negotiations and delay any early lifting of sanctions. Amidst all this squabbling, Obama is accused of being in league with the devil if he is not Satan himself, for embracing a long term adversary, undercutting long term allies, Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and abandoning any hope for those suffering persecution from the mullahs, such as women and the Baha’is.

Even if one avoids this satanic caricature, even supporters of Obama agree that, given the stalemate on the Palestinian-Israeli front, Obama still has two full years to establish his legacy in foreign policy by doing an end run around Israel and concluding a deal with Iran. And there’s the bind! For if the deal is too generous to Iran, there will be an uproar in America and not just in Congress. If the deal is too severe, there is no possibility Iran will sign on. So what are the signs that a deal is possible or impossible, and what are the implications if such a formula can be devised? And what can Israel do to ensure that such a deal is not concluded, or, if concluded, it will truly serve Israel’s interest by de facto ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is dead?

I suggest that there is nothing Israel can do to ensure that a deal can be made which ensures that Iran will not and cannot build a bomb. For the only issue in the negotiations is the time it would take for Iran to restart its enrichment program to produce a high enough grade of nuclear material to make a small number of nuclear bombs. However, Israel can be a spoiler. First, it can do so by exposing the hypocrisy of Obama’s supporters on this issue domestically in America and in the continent of Europe. For Netanyahu is clearly correct when he denounced the Europeans for giving Iran a pass when it sent a boatload of long-range missiles to Gaza on the Klos-C which, fortunately, the Israeli navy intercepted.

The most instructive indicators have not been the postures that either Netanyahu or Obama have adopted, but the actual behaviour and words of the respective parties in the negotiations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has almost completed its decommissioning of 20% enriched uranium, but still possesses enough necessary to build one bomb. On the other hand, critics have charged that the Iranian nuclear program has been recently enriching its uranium to 8% instead of the benchmark 5% established in the de-enrichment program.

The most authoritative source on the progress of the negotiations has been ISIS (not the radical Sunni Jihadist group but the Institute for Science and International Security) and its 7 November analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard report. (http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/ISIS_Analysis_IAEA_Report_7Nov2014-Final.pdf) ISIS concluded that:
1. There has been no progress on controlling or limiting Iran’s ability to militarily deliver weapons; there has only been progress on limitations on the nuclear enrichment program itself (this explains why White House leaks have suggested that the agreement with Iran will only deal with controlling the nuclear enrichment program);
2. Activities at Parchin have undermined the ability of the IAEA to conduct inspections;
3. The Iranians have not fed its new much more advanced IR-5 centrifuges with UF6;
4. Iran has increased its stock of 3.5% LEU at a significant rate, but the rate of production of this low enriched uranium has not increased from 2012 and 2013 levels and, most significantly, Iran has kept its agreement with the P5+1 to cease production of 19.75% enriched uranium;
5. The number of 90IR centrifuge cascades have remained constant;
6. Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed to halt installation of any additional centrifuges and to forgo enrichment in any of its new advanced carbon fiber-based centrifuges (IR-2m), though it would continue the normal rate of such installations; thus far, none of these have been fed with natural uranium hexafluoride;
7. By 19 October, 4,118 kg of uranium hexafluoride had been reduced to 3% enrichment;
8. A further 4,174 kg. of natural UF6 has been used to produce 553 UO2;
9. 1,506 kg. of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 have been included in the conversion process;
10. Numbers 7&8 rates are lower than 2013 or 2012 rates of conversion;
11. Though Iran significantly reduced its 20% LEU oxide needed to produce weapons grade uranium, and 25% of the LEU oxide (17.1 kg) has been decommissioned, enough stocks remain to produce one nuclear weapon;
12. More significantly, 39 kg. of the near 20% LEU is already available to the Tehran Research Reactor 17%, or another 18kg of that 20% LEU has been irradiated.

In summary, there can be no expectations that Iran will limit its developments of the military hardware to deliver nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Iran, with minor exceptions, has been true to its word that it would comply with IAEA guidelines. However, even as it has conformed to serious reductions in both its stockpiles of 19.75% enriched fuel and the number and capacity of its centrifuges in operation, Iran still retains enough fuel to make one nuclear weapon and the capacity to gear up to full production of the required uranium in a matter of a year and perhaps even six months.

I suspect now that there may be a deal, that Obama will only suspend sanctions and not formally reverse them, that Iran will continue its military developments independent of international oversight, and that, although Iran will have significantly reduced its ability to make nuclear weapons, it will remain a threshold nuclear power, but one where the time taken to become one will have been extended by as much as an additional nine months and the continuing presence of IAEA inspectors will further limit Iran accelerating such a program.

Hardliners, and even some open to negotiations with Iran, will denounce such a deal. Those who believe in strengthening the moderate camp in Iran and encouraging Iranian engagement with the West will defend such a deal while remaining aware that it has significant risks.

Curmugeons: St. Vincent and Olive Kitteridge

Curmudgeons: St. Vincent and Olive Kitteridge
by
Howard Adelman
Why are curmudgeons so enjoyable in movies? Bill Murray is a perfect example of one in the current movie, St. Vincent. He plays the lead role of Vincent McKenna, an ex-Vietnam Vet who has become a heavy drinker, gambler and whoremonger. Is it because he reveals himself to be a reasonably loveable person after initially presenting himself as an irascible and objectionable grumpy old man? Though Bill Murray never rises to the level of a saint, which is how Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), the boy next door in the movie, portrays him in the end, Vince does have a loving side which he mostly tries to disguise and hide.

In one review, Vincent McKenna was depicted as a misogynist. But an ill-tempered and cantankerous old man, who is clearly a curmudgeon, is not a misogynist. For a misogynist hates, dislikes and mistreats women. A curmudgeon is rude to everyone, or almost everyone indiscriminately. Further, there are also female curmudgeons; misogynists are by definition always males. Meryl Streep played a curmudgeon in August: Osage County. [See my blog – 13 January 2013] She was a real virago, full of belligerence and venom, spewing profanity at every opportunity. So was Olive Kitteridge in the four part TV series on HBO early this month adapted from Elizabeth.Strout’s thirteen short stories included in her almost-novel of that same name that won the 2009 Pulitzer Fiction Prize.

Contrasting a curmudgeon with a misogynist offers an excellent way to bring out the characteristics of the former, especially given the recent charges of harassment by two Parliamentarians in Ottawa and the far more serious scandal of Jian Ghomeshi, recently fired from the CBC. A curmudgeon always humiliates his or herself by their behaviour. In contrast, a misogynist belittles women and not just humanity in general. A misogynist need not be a cynic; a curmudgeon almost always adopts such a posture. A misogynist, always a male, upholds his masculinity by controlling, dominating and even beating women; he seems to need to humiliate women – mostly in private. A curmudgeon always seems to humiliate him or herself in public by their despicable behaviour. Curmudgeons lash out at the world while they really hate themselves most of all.

Misogynists are competitive and need to win their battles, especially when women are involved. A curmudgeon battles the wicked forces within which most of the time are the winners. Curmudgeons may insult others in a display of ruthless honesty, but they are hardest of all on themselves. Misogynists always blame the other, specifically women, for their own failures and shortcomings. While curmudgeons often express themselves in excessive profanity, and are usually rough, loud and abrasive, misogynists are often charmers who ridicule more than they insult, wallowing in derogatory more than profane commentary. Curmudgeons feel terrible about who they are and how they behave, but a misogynist suffers not an iota of guilt and will, to the end, profess his innocence over any claims that he mistreats women – often claiming, as Jian Ghomeshi did, that the women consented to or accepted such mistreatment and, in any case, deserved it.

A curmudgeon never justifies himself; a misogynist always does citing authority after authority in defence of the justification of his behaviour. A curmudgeon is a ruthless if insensitive truth-teller, indifferent to the pain those truths may cause others. A misogynist will deny, engage in equivocation, twist meanings and situations, and revel in gross distortions masquerading as Truth. If a curmudgeon is seen as the most despicable person around, a misogynist is often mistaken for a great and talented man, even a saintly knight. A curmudgeon will always do his or her best to hide, disguise and deny any charm they possess. A curmudgeon is often cold to intimacy, though not necessarily to sex as Bill Murray demonstrated. A misogynist is preoccupied with sex for sex is the highest expression of control and domination of the other. Whereas a curmudgeon appears certain of his opinions and acts in a cocky and self-centered way, a few scratches of the surface reveals that he or she is anything but and that the whole performance that seems built into their character, is really a mask. In a misogynist, the charm is the mask while hatred is the real expression of his character. A curmudgeon is not Janus-faced – he performs as disreputable as possible at all times, whereas a misogynist is a two-faced charmer in his public persona and a beast in his private lair. A curmudgeon is a miser in giving AND receiving. A misogynist appears generous in his giving but always expects more in return. For, in the end, the misogynist is a self-centered insensitive deep down lout while a curmudgeon is a lout only on the surface.

Olive Kitteridge, another curmudgeon played brilliantly by Frances McDormand of Fargo fame, uses her harsh and direct manner to throw darts at the follies and foibles of the residents in her small New England town. But, like Bill Murray’s character, Vince, her harsh outer coat hides a warm heart beneath. Olive and Vince share another trait – they are both hurting and the deep pain needs a release. Ironically, Bill Murray also appears in the Olive Kitteridge mini-series as another truth-teller without the bitterness. He is a widower with whom Olive shares a friendship after her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) of twenty-five years, a sweet-hearted pharmacist as the perfect foil for Olive, is in hospital with a serious stroke.

However, a sentimental and sweet partner is insufficient as a foil, for that person only provides sharp relief for the harsh cantankerous surface qualities of the main protagonist and his/her deep bitterness at the bad deal they got from life. Curmudgeons need a youthful foil as well to reveal the contrast between that disappointment and the hope of the next generation. In Olive Kitteridge, John Gallagher, Jr. plays that role as Christopher, Olive and Henry’s son who will not allow the big error in choosing the wrong wife the first time around to turn him onto a path of bitterness, but instead finds comfort and promise in a second choice, a woman with two children who counters the barbs of his mother with love and caring. In St. Vincent, Oliver, who misses his father whom his mother has just divorced because of his philandering, is mentored to fight the bullies at his school by Vince. If Vince is the older guide, Oliver plays the youthful one to the apparent misanthrope and bawdy Vince by uncovering the hidden courage, the deep and passionate love and commitment of the otherwise apparently cantankerous old curmudgeon.

There may be many sources for the deep pain of different curmudgeons – whether a love lost to disease or to alcohol and suicide – but it is this sense of loss and pain with which we identify and learn to see and understand the humanity and passion beneath the obstreperous exterior. If the acerbic wit provides the humour and comic relief, it is the tragedy beneath that draws out our increasing sympathy. But why does a sense of loss and mistreatment not turn Oliver’s mother, Maggie, played with terrific restraint and enormous determination by Melissa McCarthy, into a bitter woman? Henry, too, gave up his fantasies of a future without a bitter and acerbic partner for the young and adoring Denise Thibodeau (Zoe Kazan) who worked for him in his pharmacy. Further, Henry had the additional guilt of matching up Denise with his initially shy delivery boy, Jerry McCarthy (Jesse Plemons) who becomes her husband and, more importantly, an outrageous misogynist. The only answer I can provide is that the genre requires a long-suffering repressive stoic as relief for the long suffering expressive one. The curmudgeon is really a romantic who in his/her mind celebrates the best this earth has to offer while her ears and eyes witness falsity, corruption and suffering and his/her mouth denounces that which she sees and hears as betraying his/her utopian vision.

That is why August: Osage County cannot, in the end, be a classic curmudgeon film. It is a terrific film with two absolutely brilliant performances. Meryl Streep may play the mother, Violet Fordham, as a harridan, but her long-suffering others are her own daughters, particularly Barbara Fordham played by Julie Roberts in a superb recreation of a bitter and unforgiving daughter. She makes her alcoholic and drug-addicted mother’s deep-seated bitterness look like a wading pool. Further, the very same cynicism and rage that keeps the momentum of the drama so shrill, the battle between mother and daughter, is what makes the movie ultimately weary and a bit repetitive even with the dark shadow hanging over the whole dark troubled tale. Instead of compassionate relief, the profanity just increases in frequency and in the decibel count and there is no resolution to the rage. This is a serious film without the redemption of a curmudgeon comedy.

This explains why we love well-executed curmudgeon movies. Some may be superficial comedies performed exceptionally well as in St. Vincent. Others may reach for depth demanding much subtler skills such as Olive Ketteridge. However, they always have both comic and compassionate relief to the bitter stream of invective and sharp barbs.

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler

by

Howard Adelman

John Wick and Nightcrawler are both action thrillers with a great deal of violence. But they are very different movies. Chad Stahelski, a former stunt assistant director and the novice movie director of John Wick, has positioned his revenge movie somewhere between Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (I never saw Vol. 2) and David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence. As in the latter comic book novel on which the film is based, John Wick is mostly a flashback to just before the current phase of violence until its culmination. Unlike A History of Violence, where the hero instigated his fallout with the mob, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his role as a mob hit man on good terms with the New York-based Russian crime family because he had met the love of his life and had performed the almost impossible assignment for the Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), of eliminating the latter’s mob rivals. That stunning performance (not shown) earned John his exit ticket from the criminal underworld.

The revenge and his re-entry into murder and mayhem are propelled initially because of a total coincidence – Josef Tarasov (Afie Allen), the spoiled son of his former employer, develops the hots for the 1969 vintage Mustang convertible that John drives when Josef sees it parked at a coffee shop. In a home invasion that night, Josef and his bodyguards beat John up. In the process, Josef kills John’s dog, Daisy, a gift of his late recently departed and much loved wife who died of cancer. All of the above takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie. The quest for revenge is spurred by the violent murder of Daisy.

Why does John retire in the same city in which the Russian mob holds total sway? How is it that neither Josef nor his two sidekicks know of the infamous John Wicks, dubbed the bogeyman? How can only three men at the beginning of the mobster film beat John to a pulp when, in the rest of the movie, in a series of three different scenes, John Wick slaughters scores – literally scores – of Russian mobsters? Could the answer be because he had buried his enormous collection of firearms in concrete before he retired? Without guns, he is literally a sitting duck, whereas once the weapons are unburied, he can beat anyone in boxing, wrestling, and using the most violent of the martial arts, though his main tool of slaughter is the machine gun and the pistol. But if you have to ask questions about realism and causation, then the film has not swallowed you in the high kinetic pace of a series of brilliantly staged massacres. After all, the intelligence of the movie has been concentrated in stunt driving and the most graphic murder scenes.

My wife, who said the movie was the worst she had ever seen – she is not a lover of violent action thrillers – thought it must have been a spoof. Kill Bill is a spoof since Tarantino directed it with choreographic brilliance and with his tongue in his cheek. Tarantino is a consummate craftsman with a fantastic sense of humour. I could not find an ounce of comedy or satire in John Wick. It was but one scene of murder and mayhem followed by another, with only the slenderest thread tying the scenes together. Instead of serving as an implicit commentary on the genre of violent films or even as a more explicit one as in A History of Violence, the violence in John Wick consists only of cinematic effects, though the latter are brilliantly executed.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill arises like Lazarus from the dead – a victim of murder by Bill of her whole bridal party. She alone survived in a coma for years. Keanu Reeves recovers by the next scene. John Wick lacks any of the tricks of magic realism that so infused Kill Bill and transformed the genre of action thriller into a fairy tale for modern times with no narrative. The plot takes no more than a sentence to describe. In John Wick, it takes three or four sentences, and that is at least two too many. The far too long plot line with a few twists never offers enough to create mystery, but strings together too many sequences that provide plenty of time to question the slender artifice on which the film rests. It would have been better to rely on the sheer gratuitous quality of the action.

In the fairy tale, the tailor kills 99 in a single blow, Uma Thurman killed 88 in Kill Bill – along with an assortment of bodyguards and specialized murderers. The body count in John Wick seems to closely rival Tarantino’s send up of violent thriller movies, except there are two other specialist hit men in John Wick – Marcus (Willem Dafoe), his former mentor and friend, now hired by Viggo as John’s executioner to protect Josef, and the more interesting and most comic figure in the movie, Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), the female assassin. As in Kill Bill, the thrust of the film supposedly comes from the depth of John’s vengeance as well as the breadth of his murderous skills, but with respect to the motivation, as the pursued cowardly bully, Josef, says in the most unintended comic line of the movie before being dispatched by John Wick in revenge for Daisy’s death – all this because I killed your f…ing bitch dog?

Since most of John Wick is a flashback of John’s fallout with Viggo over John’s intention to kill Josef in revenge for Daisy’s death, one might have expected the film to have been a flic about character using the genre of a revenge thriller, but instead John Wick turned towards stale plot devices of a dozen violent predecessors to hold the action scenes together. The violence is displayed in graphic detail without the gore of the 2010 Kick-Ass and without any indication of any theme such as the one Cronenberg provided on violence. There is no hint that we in the audience have any role or responsibility for this violence.

This is not true of Nightcrawler directed by another novice director, but experienced screenwriter, Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script. That movie is a thriller chiller on a whole different plane than John Wick. Just as tow truck operators listen to police dispatchers to learn the location of accident scenes, nightcrawlers use the same frequencies for the same reason but for a different purpose — to get video tapes of the victims to sell to TV stations. If John Wick leaves you on the edge of your seat with the frenetic pace of the slaughters, the ghoulish Nightcrawler worms its way into your intestines as Lou Bloom, played with outstanding brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal, progresses from a scavenger of scrap to his rise to eminence as the ironic poster boy for entrepreneurship, self-help and a Műnchhausian dirty determination to raise himself by his own bootstraps to a business CEO in a media-crazed age. Nightcrawler is a worthy successor to The History of Violence.

Though Nightcrawler does not adopt Cronenberg’s Hobbesian metaphysic that violence is an integral element in our DNA, the love of violence of Lou is perceived as simply a byproduct of a consumer rather than a producer culture of violence reinforced by media news that caters to our lowly tastes. The news director in Nightcrawler, Nina (played by Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo as a paean to Faye Dunaway in Network but with more wrinkles and eye shadow) sums it up: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The supreme achievement is to broadcast a screaming woman with her throat cut running in panic in a quiet upscale neighbourhood. On many stations, the mantra of seeing a woman bleed in a safe suburb infiltrated by urban violence has become the marker for the appeal of much local evening TV news. [Incidentally, the movie also includes Gilroy’s brother Tony as a producer and his brother John as the editor, a documented refutation that the film is autobiographical in any way.]

It is not so much that we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, but that our passion for consuming visions of violence propel media news in a system founded on the need for advertisers to cater to our tastes. Nightcrawler does not adopt the discarded theory that violence on television breeds violence in the streets, but rather adopts the position that the taste for violence in the streets leads to the emphasis on violence on our screens that, in turn, allows a psychopathic petty criminal with a degree of intelligence sharpened into self-learning through home schooling, spouting the potted business mantras of his auto-didact education, to rise in the cut-throat business world to create his own nascent business empire.

Even though Jake’s character, Lou Bloom, unlike John Wisk, never acts directly as the executioner, he brilliantly sets the scenes for the execution of others – whether his competitor in the nightcrawling video business, the cops or his own employee, Rick, played with hysterical passivity by Riz Ahmed. Lou progresses from a chaser of news to a shaper and composer of news to a creator of the news itself. He becomes his own director to a racing beat but without the frenetic energy of John Wick. In the process, we gradually learn the depth of his madness and the breadth to which this form of psychopathy has penetrated. Jake Gyllenhaal increasingly stares with concentrated attention and gleeful penetration with eyes sunk in deep sockets exaggerated by his loss of 28 pounds to play the part. He sees what we evidently want to see but look away when it is in front of our eyes. However, when presented through the media of television, we watch with unblinking and mesmerized fervor.

On 14 June 2014, Nancy and I arrived in Dublin just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday. If Leopold Bloom, a Christian convert who was a blend of wandering Jew and the Greek hero Ulysses, walked the streets of Dublin observing and describing his fellow Dubliners with the distance and detachment of a Jewish eye over a 24-hour period, Lou in contrast to Leopold stalks and rides the avenues of the nighttime in film noir Los Angeles, not to describe its life, but its violence and love affair with death. If New York in John Wisk is gloomy with haze and pouring rain, the night air of Los Angeles is murky and bleak. Each movie has numerous stock scenes – in John Wisk, a nightclub, a church which is a front for the mobster’s bank, a depopulated industrial remnant presumably in New Jersey, and the choice of the iconic scenes of Los Angeles of Venice Beach, the LA airport, palm trees and oil derricks – the selection seems more deliberate in Nightcrawler for that movie is as much about Los Angeles as it is about an individual nutcase.

If Leopold Bloom in Ulysses was modest, Lou Bloom has chutzpah in spades, even if there is no suggestion that he is Jewish. However, just as his namesake did in Dublin, Lou unveils the mundane and the intimate of daily life, but its very dark side. If Leopold was a consumer of inner organs of beasts and fowls, stuffed roast heart and liver slices, Lou is a visual consumer of human carrion, of human hearts and bleeding internal organs. Both Leopold and Lou are driven by their appetites and both have a penchant for voyeurism, but Lou’s appetites have morphed into the macabre while Leopold, even as he frets over the affair of his wife, Molly, and the death of both his son and his friend, always exhibits a sense of humanism and tolerance. Lou, in contrast to Leopold, is a loner, and in contrast to the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is, paradoxically, gregarious. Lou is a gregarious loner in a world where madness has simply become ordinary corporate practice. In this movie we are purportedly exposed to the real Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank.

If Leopold detests violence, Lou is smitten with it. And unlike John Wick, there is a real progression rather than simple repetition in the type and scale of the violence. In radical French philosophy, Leopold Bloom is the archetype of loss of identity and political apathy for a nihilistic mass contemporary culture. Lou Bloom is its apotheosis where the divine has become truly satanic. While Leopold always thinks in the poetic English of the Irish, Lou speaks with the metronomic patter of managerial textbook jargon that reveals its ghoulish qualities so that it truly and literally becomes wickedly funny.

In all its horror and action, it is a very comic film.