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.
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.

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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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