Finally, National-Security Storytelling That's Not Propaganda

Homeland's no fun to watch these days. But it does offer a corrective to the boosterish likes of Captain PhillipsZero Dark Thirty, and Argo.
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Columbia, Showtime

There’s a moment in Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s excruciatingly tense tale of the 2009 capture of an American ship captain by Somalian pirate, where the audience gets a rare chance to laugh. It’s probably not meant to come off this way, but after 90-ish minutes of nightmarish, shaky-cam time spent with Tom Hanks’s schlubby title character and his harried, emaciated captors, the appearance of square-jawed, capital-H Handsome Navy Seals onscreen sent at least a few of the people in my theater into titters.

The mood changes in other ways once these guys literally parachute in and then, spoiler alert, bring an end to the hostage situation. An aircraft carrier and a couple Navy destroyers assist; as Time’s Michael Crowley wrote, “you feel that the U.S. military has come to your rescue.”

Captain Phillips joins a host of recent, acclaimed, non-fiction films that leave viewers gleeful about the power of the United States' national-security forces. Zero Dark Thirty documented the abuses, dead-ends, and bureaucratic bullshit that prolonged the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but its final third satisfyingly drove home just how smart and surgical the CIA and Seal Team 6 ended up being. Argo leapt back a few decades to show Ben Affleck’s covert agent as a personality-free avatar of competence who whisked a group of stranded Americans out of a hostile Tehran.

Homeland brought flashbacks to Zero Dark Thirty and Phillips in last week’s episode when a band of military commandos entered the ensemble. It’s not clear (to me, at least) whether these bearded, built, and, yes, incongruously handsome dudes who help retrain Sgt. Nicholas Brody are Navy Seals per se. But they definitely seem like saves-the-day types in the mold of the aforementioned films, slinging jargon and gearing up for physical challenges with an intoxicatingly assured mix of chillness and seriousness.

This week, though, Homeland blew that all up. (Literally, of course). The special forces' mission, to transport Brody to the Iran/Iraq border so he can take out the Iranian security head, goes awry in nearly every way imaginable. The surveillance drone malfunctions. Iraqi cops make an unwanted inspection. The truck runs over a land mine. More Iraqi soldiers show up.

Homeland often traffics in plot contrivances that make its characters’ lives more difficult—and, theoretically at least, the viewing experience more suspenseful. The parade of obstacles in this episode, “Good Night,” felt like an extension of that; it was the most captivating hour the show’s offered up in a while. But it also felt like an extension of the phenomenon I wrote about last week: Homeland going all-in on the political, straining to demonstrate just how messy, destructive, and arguably futile America’s anti-terror efforts are. That hasn’t made for great TV, but viewed in relation to the rest of the pop-culture landscape, it’s downright iconoclastic.

I mean, what other popular work about Obama-era security dealings would have the White House chief of staff advocating a drone strike against US soldiers to cover up a botched operation? (Well, Scandal might, but only for the delicious plot implications). Saul puts a firm stop to that plan, but the fact that it was floated at all highlights the terrifying possibilities that drones afford.

Even if America didn’t literally massacre its own in this episode, it figuratively did. American-friendly Iraqi patrolsmen doing the job they were paid to do—ferret out Al Qaeda agents—were gunned down without warning by U.S. troopers. An American undercover Al Qaeda agent, in turn, was gunned down by an Iranian security minister—working undercover for the U.S. (Got that?). These deaths fell in line with others throughout the season, from Javadi’s American family to the peaceful Muslims in Caracas: bystanders harmed by a global effort to, ostensibly, save bystanders.

None of the things that go wrong in “Good Night” result from human error. They result from chance, mechanical failure, and more importantly, the fact that the mission was taking place at all. By going into an operation like this—with strong parallels to historic interventionist boondoggles in Iran and Iraq—you’re taking a mortal, reckless gamble, Homeland seems to say.

It remains impossible to root for anyone here. If Brody ends up inducing regime change in Iran, it will have been a monstrous accomplishment that, knowing everything we know about the real world and the show’s world, will accomplish little and have come at a great cost. The other poisonous effects of his, Saul’s, and Carrie’s maneuverings this season are more metaphorical—Dana Brody psychically wounded, Carrie's unborn child at risk, Saul’s marriage compromised. Now we see Fara’s Tehran relative asked to be put in harm’s way.

Captain Phillips, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo are all flat-out better works of entertainment than Homeland. But inadvertently or not, insidiously or not, they also function as propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty was made with the government's help; all three tweak facts ever-so-gently to create a narrative of U.S. heroism and competence. You can’t fault any of these films for making you proud to be an American, as the accomplishments they depict really did happen and really were extraordinary. But you should watch them with a certain amount of wariness and a certain amount of curiosity about what other stories aren’t being told.

Homeland is telling one of those other stories. It's fictional, yes, and you can argue over its real-world applicability—after all, it appears Obama is making progress on a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iran, not executing half-baked, far-fetched plots to kill its top officials. But given that the real-life war-on-terror prosecution often does get messy—see the Iraq occupation, or the recently botched raid on al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the ongoing civilian casualties of drone warit can't hurt to have a work of popular storytelling focused on the pitfalls of trying to meddle abroad in the name of safety at home. Each week this season, viewers have rightly bemoaned the show's leaps in logic, clunky dialogue, and seemingly pointless violence, but maybe at this point Homeland doesn't care about succeeding as entertainment—only as protest.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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