Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nothing New Under the Sun

Talk of Blagojevich and impeachment has turned my mind toward my favorite movie, All the President's Men. This is the film I rent when I'm feeling blue and looking for something that will give me reason to hope.

Corruption is a baseline expectation, so I'm not discouraged by the film's depiction of Nixon's blatant lies, the vastness of the conspiracy and cover-up, or the recognition of how little has changed in politics. All of that muck is so cleanly stepped through by Woodward and Bernstein as portrayed by Redford and Hoffman. This film makes me believe that you can make a difference in the world by being smart and paying attention. It's also a story of courage and stubborn persistence -- and good writing.

The film emphasizes writing first with its closeup of a blank page being imprinted by a teletype -- the words pounding onto the page, revealing the truth. Then there is the scene where Bernstein steals and rewrites an article that has been turned in by the less-seasoned Woodward. Redford conveys mild annoyance tempered by an eagerness to learn. He asks Bernstein not to go around his back but bring edits directly to him, nodding at the revisions and saying, "Yours is better." In the film it's not only the truth that matters, but also how it is told.

There are convictions in these two characters -- but in the film those convictions don't translate into self-aggrandizement. Yes they want to get the big story, but they're also passionate about learning the truth and telling it right.

It's startling that these
two young journalists were perceptive enough to pick up on a small story-- buried deep within the pages of the Washington Post--mentioning a break-in at the Watergate hotel. Like all the best detective stories, something in plain sight turned out to be a clue to something much deeper. When Woodward and Bernstein saw those few paragraphs they recognized, quite literally, that there was more to the story. To see the unwritten story, and to write it. What a feat!

In a way this speaks to a broader truth about facts and what's behind them -- the way in which there is always "more to the story." To question what's behind a brief crime report is to recognize that events have underlying causes. Just as a break-in on page three has a cause, so does any other seemingly plain fact.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm often consumed by questions--peering under the surface of things to see if there's some underlying problem that can be solved and acted upon. The hope (or fantasy) of All the President's Men is that sometimes these perceptions and questions can make a difference.

Despite my love for the film, I also recognize it as a fantasy and piece of entertainment--the characters so likable and cool, the answers so neatly uncovered. And although Woodward and Bernstein's efforts did in reality help end a corrupt Presidency, far worse corruption has followed in the succeeding decades.

So I enjoy the film, while also always being left with the awareness that the triumph it depicts is just a moment in time. The pursuit of justice and truth are as old as human history, and each victory is tempered by the complex intersection of competing interests, human greed, and versions of the story.

A film like All the President's Men and the story it tells gives us the sense that change is possible. But once you start searching for the whole story--prying up the paving stones of "how things are" to see what's beneath, it's hard to stop questioning. I sometimes feel the way the teacher in Qohelet/Ecclesiastes describes when he laments:
What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes contains a desperate search for truth, describing a teacher's exploration of many potential sources of meaning in life--work, pleasure, wealth, knowledge, love. How can we find meaning when everyone's life ends the same way, it asks? Near the end it states:
...the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
Although everything is declared meaningless, there's still a paradox within the story as the Teacher repeatedly returns to his questions, holding out hope that an answer can be found. He shares a story that reminds me of Woodward and Bernstein:
I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom.
Despite the greed and hunger of a powerful king, a poor man was able to save a small city (a metaphor for the truth?). Unfortunately, the lessons of quiet wisdom don't last as long as the impact of a powerful fool. The Teacher concludes:
But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good.

In the end, a small act by an individual can bring down a King... but a powerful leader can do lasting damage.

Just as All the President's Men is bookended by a teletype, Ecclesiastes begins and ends with a narrator who is not the Teacher. After the Teacher has proclaimed everything to be meaningless, the narrator seems compelled to come up with a more tidy ending. He explains, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body."

Then he offers what sounds at first like a platitude: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."

I see two ways to read this conclusion. At first it seems like a pat on the head: don't worry so much about meaning and why -- just follow the commandments.

But then, it's also a practical bit of advice. Yes, the struggle to do good and live wisely is unending, but still, we've got to do the best we can.