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Sat, 31 May 2008

The War Profiteer In The Titanium-Gold-Alloy Mask
A Review of the Motion Picture Iron Man

It was with the thought in mind that perhaps Hollywood has in fact run out of original ideas, or that it was a continuation of the trend of shameless pandering to those of us who are part of the Baby Boom generation -- or both -- that I decided to spend a couple of hours a few weeks ago watching the big-screen makeover of Iron Man.

And while I am still firmly convinced that Hollywood has indeed run out of new and original things to say, I was pleasantly surprised that the new release of Iron Man motion picture did not only entertain, but also managed to bring up some thought-provoking points that rarely surfaced in the original from my childhood.

First, some general comments about the film itself.

The Iron Man comic books and television cartoon of my youth was set in what was then "the present day", which meant that Iron Man spent a lot of time battling communist skulduggery. Of course, considering the youthful demographic the producers skew to these days, to today's audience, Vietnam and the Cold War all happened about a million years ago, so the updating of setting to the present day war in Afghanistan was almost inevitable.

I have to admit that when I first heard that Robert Downey, Jr. would be playing Tony Stark, I was skeptical -- his once-promising movie career seemed to have gone off the rails years ago; frankly, I did not think he would be up to a role where he would be on-screen in something like 90% of the scenes.

As it turned out, Downey's own personal history seems to have been almost providential in preparing him to play Tony Stark. In the original comics, Stark was a prototypical 1960s "millionaire playboy industrialist", from the days when that was pretty much synonymous with "respected captain of industry". If you couldn't be a spy like James Bond, being a millionaire industrialist was one of the next-most glamorous and coolest things to be. Of course, today's social scene is somewhat different than that of the 1960s, and that is where Downey could bring his personal experience to bear. Having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time on the Hollywood party circuit, Downey wound up spending a number of stints in drug and alcohol rehab, coming close to winding up in prison on more than one occasion. He makes Tony Stark's personality less of a respected industrialist and more that of a spoiled teen-ager: a self-indulgent "user" who is outwardly polite and friendly as he takes advantage of other people's good natures. In this film, Iron Man's alter ego is not a tremendously likable character, unlike the way that Clark Kent, for example, was just as nice and noble as Superman was. Downey's background and experience with addiction probably made portraying those aspects of the role somewhat effortless.

Second, a couple of comments on the technology shown in the film.

Okay, I know this movie is based on a comic-book superhero, so the prerequisite willful suspension of disbelief in full force here. Shows like Star Trek, where the action takes place hundreds of years in the future, or watching someone like Superman, who comes from so far outside our normal domain of experience that all bets are off anyway, are pure fantasy, and can be enjoyed as such. But Iron Man is a superhero not because of magical super powers, but because of his sophisticated use of what is supposed to be state-of-the-art technology. In stories like this, there's at least a minimal requirement that what you're showing be plausible, in the sense of not violating the basic laws of nature -- Tony Stark shouldn't be able to build a machine that violates the laws of thermodynamics, for example. (Well, I guess he could, and most of the audience wouldn't notice or care, but it would spoil it for me.) Here, Iron Man falls a little flat -- while the less technologically sophisticated in the audience will probably buy in easily to the technological premise on which the movie is based, I found it to be something of a nagging annoyance.

Captured by Taliban-like cadres in Afghanistan, Stark is ordered to assemble one of his company's new sophisticated missiles in a makeshift laboratory/workshop deep in a cave. Surreptitiously, Stark manages to build a phenomenal power source out of melted scraps of somewhat rare metal (palladium) , a cat food can, and a couple of wires -- an accomplishment clearly taken from the "Gilligan's Island" school of engineering, in which The Professor was constantly building things like televisions out of coconut shells, tin foil, and bicycle-powered dynamos. Palladium is used to make multi-layer ceramic capacitors, and so using it as the key component of Stark's power source makes the whole idea only marginally plausible, coating an otherwise unconvincing aspect of the story with the thinest patina of verisimilitude.

In many ways, Stark's improvised "arc reactor", which is relatively easy to assemble out of fairly inexpensive parts, fits in the palm of one's hand, and somehow manages to produce power by the gigawatt, reminds me of the ongoing attempts of cold fusion proponents to get their tabletop power cells working in a reliable and verifiable manner. Years ago, when the cold fusion craze first surfaced, I had a conversation with my friend Shiloh about cold fusion's prospects. I told him it reminded me of the old joke about two people discussing a bad restaurant: the first person runs down the litany of all the things wrong with the food, and the second chimes in with "Yes, and such small portions!". I said that even if cold fusion worked (in the sense of getting out more power than you needed to put in, which it didn't seem to), the power output was negligible anyway. "No, that's the whole point!" Shiloh replied. "That would mean it's not a physics problem -- will it work? It would be an engineering problem -- how do we make the output bigger? That's a lot easier problem to solve." Ironically, cold fusion experiments involved palladium electrodes, so maybe the film's producers consciously decided use the word to stir up some vague, mostly forgotten association between the word "palladium" and a source of inexpensive, unlimited power.

A clever way the film tries to coat itself with a greater feeling of technological plausibility is through subtle allusions to the inventions and legacy of a real person: Jack Northrop, the founder of the Northrup Aviation company. Northrup was far ahead of his time in aircraft design, and one of his most futuristic projects was the development of "flying wing" aircraft. Quietly but unmistakably, Iron Man works in lots of photos and videos of the Northrop N-1M, N-9M, YB-35, and YB-49 flying wing bombers designed and built during and just after WWII. These planes were too far ahead of the technology of the day to the practical, and only a few prototypes of each were ever built. It was only in the 1980s that Jack Northrup saw his flying wing ideas reach fruition in the B-2 Stealth bomber, still being used today.

And a final technological question: Just how do those rockets in Iron Man's boots work anyway? Where in the suit does he carry their fuel? This is the closest the movie comes to abandoning technology for magic, with Tinkerbell-like contrails of glittery sparkles wooshing out behind Iron Man as he flies through the air. I guess we are all supposed to gloss over details like these.

Despite all the technological fogginess, Iron Man manages to riff on a number of surprisingly sophisticated questions, which to me was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film.

One such question: is Tony Stark just another war profiteer?

The history of "war profiteers" is a long and checkered one. For example, I have no doubt the guy who sold the elephants to Hanibal managed to turn a tidy profit on the whole deal, and I am sure that as long as humankind has been fighting over this or that piece of turf, there have been people who saw a way to use the situation for their advantage. But as wars increased in scale and carnage over the centuries, so too did public understanding and condemnation of this kind of activity -- a slowly developing consensus grew over the years that it was not really terribly moral to profit by the manufacture of weapons. The tipping point seems to have come around the time of World War I, when the "war profiteer" label was invoked against companies like DuPont in the US and Krupp in Germany.

By the time of World War II, to avoid any stigma of profiteering, nearly all companies in the US doing war work limited themselves in their government contracts to a token profit (usually $1). This assuaged the public, while allowing the companies to continue to perform their vital work for the war effort -- now being undertaken out of a spirit of patriotic duty rather than the pursuit of profit. Of course, even though they made no real profit, the contracts paid their costs and expenses in full. Thus munitions work was a thinly disguised way for companies to acquire permanent facilities for research, development, and greatly expanded production at taxpayer expense -- certainly, after the war, the Army Air Corps didn't come back to Ford and dismantle all the assembly lines used to produce bombers instead of cars.

So is Tony Stark a war profiteer? At least initially in the film, the answer seems to be, "Yes". Even an organization as militant as the Air Force's Strategic Air Command -- the guys in charge of nuking the Soviets -- at least had the PR savvy to come up with the slogan, "Peace is our Profession" (instead of something more realistic like, "War is our Wherewithal"), but Stark Industries is presented as a thriving, unapologetic weapons manufacturer, and Tony dutifully -- and earnestly -- delivers sales pitches to the military brass that go beyond the platitude that "a good weapon is one you never need to fire". To Tony, the best weapon is one you only fire once, its effects being so devastating that your enemies never attack you again.

After his capture by and escape from the bad guys in Afghanistan, Tony has a road-to-Damascus moment when he sees news reports of the same folks using Stark Industries weapons to slaughter and terrorize helpless civilians. Upon his return, a great deal of the remainder of the movie revolves around the conflicts created within the company after Tony abruptly announces that Stark Industries will get out of the weapons business. (Frankly, from a purely capitalist perspective, Tony's newly perfected, super-duper, micro-miniaturized, infinitely-powerful arc reactor technology seems like a far more lucrative business to be in than selling missiles to the military, so I didn't buy in to that part of the story. Maybe all cinematic bad guys just suffer from an inability to focus on the big picture and the long term instead of the here and now.)

Wrestling with one's conscience over making and selling munitions is nothing new. Alfred Nobel made a great fortune from the manufacture of nitroglycerin and dynamite. A French newspaper, condemning him for his these inventions, is said to have brought about Nobel's decision to leave a better legacy after his death: possibly as a satire, the newspaper published a premature obituary of Nobel, stating, "Le marchand de la mort est mort". ("The merchant of death is dead"); it went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Perhaps as an act of contrition, Nobel used the bulk of his wealth to endow the Nobel Foundation, which awards the now-famous Nobel Prizes, including a prize for Peace.

Finally, there's an interesting (if somewhat imprecise) analogy made in the film between Stark Industries and what was probably the biggest military-industrial effort ever undertaken: the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb during World War II. At one point, bad guy Obadiah Stane tells Stark, "Your father worked on the Manhattan project. He gave us the atomic bomb. What do you think he would have thought of this [the Iron Man suit]?"

The implicit points of Stane's questions -- your Dad made a lot of money from what he learned during and contributed to the Manhattan Project -- actually ring hollow to me. If there was money to be made in war profiteering, working on the Manhattan Project was almost certainly not the way to do it. Being classified as "Top Secret" and run by the Army, the Manhattan Project did involve huge sums of money invested in plants and equipment over the course of just a few years. One historian remarked that the project was equivalent building from scratch a new industrial complex akin in size and scope to the automobile industry. But unlike Ford making bombers or Kaiser building liberty ships, the multi-billion dollar Manhattan Project infrastructure was almost entirely made up of government-owned facilities. The Army, in turn, contracted with industry to build and/or operate the plants and equipment: the Tennessee Eastman company operated the huge uranium separation facilities at Oak Ridge; DuPont managed the operations of the plutonium-generating reactors at Hanford. But all of this was done, as mentioned, with an eye on public opinion, and thus windfall profits were contractually prohibited.

Second, there was very little about the Manhattan Project that would have lent itself to immediate commercial exploitation. Apart from the secrecy imposed on the work, the Army was also very careful to ensure that any intellectual property or inventions the scientists developed were promptly patented (making a deal with the Patent Office to keep the details of these patents secret, of course), with the rights immediately signed over to the US Government. Unlike, say, NASA, the trickle-down, spin-off benefits from developing nuclear weapons only made their way into the public domain very slowly.

Finally, the very senior people in the Manhattan Project were the scientists. With only a few exceptions, they remained civilians (despite talk early on of having them all commissioned as officers in the Army), taking leaves of absence from their college and university positions to work on the project as private contractors to the Army. While many made important contributions to the overall effort, no one person "gave us the atomic bomb", as Stane alleges. While the number of senior scientists was relatively small compared to the many tens of thousands involved in the building and running the facilities, no one of them could reasonably be singled out as "the father of the atomic bomb". The physics and engineering of the bomb were just too complicated to have had the finished weapon spring forth fully formed from the mind of one person. Ask people today which scientist was chiefly responsible for the atomic bomb, and I would bet that most would say Albert Einstein. Yet while his E=mc2 is probably the most famous physics formula of all time, and while it does explain how atomic bombs derive their enormous power, Einstein was only briefly involved in the project and had no role in the bomb's actual development. Far less well known today, physicist Robert Oppenheimer was in charge of the Los Alamos laboratory where the many streams of effort on the project converged to actually produce the bomb itself, but even his own technical contributions were fairly minor.

A number of the senior scientists of the Manhattan Project became so caught up in the academic challenges of designing and building the bomb that they essentially forgot about the fact that what they were building was not just "superb physics" (as one of them put it), but was also a "practical military weapon" (as the Los Alamos Primer, a thirty-page summary of the project handed to newly arriving scientists at the laboratory, characterized it) whose sole purpose was to kill large numbers of people in an efficient manner (shades of Nobel).

Moments after the first atomic bomb test, before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfolded upon the world, Robert Oppenheimer recalled the words of Krishna from the Hindu scriptures: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. "We all felt like that to one extent or the other," he added to an interviewer years later. Apparently lacking something of the sense of conscience shown by Oppenheimer, Tony Stark, like so many others in similar situations, seems to have been caught up in the science and technology of that his company did; by keeping his head down and his nose to the technological grindstone, as it were, it was probably easy to avoid having to think about the consequences of his work very much.

To his credit, like the Prodigal Son, Stark at least eventually realizes the downside of what he has created, and sets about trying to change his path. But the questions of morality and responsibility for our actions, even if we are not involved in working on things as seemingly clear-cut as weapons and munitions, are ones not easily avoided. Does the major financial institution I work for contribute to third world poverty by attaching egregious terms to loans to poor governments? I work on some of the computer systems that help them manage their business -- so does that make me responsible (even a little) as well? Is the woman on a Hummer assembly line as culpable as a coal-fired power plant in China in contributing to global warming? When we don't bother to plan our car trips efficiently, are we culpable also?

Questions like these are hard to answer. In some cases, I'm not completely sure myself how I would decide them. But it was this surprising and unexpected level of depth and complexity in the film that has gotten me thinking about these questions once again, and which made watching Iron Man an enjoyable experience.

A Postscript: going in to the theatre to watch Iron Man, there was one thing I was sure had to be there, and I looked forward to it. But the first hour passed, and it wasn't there. Then the second -- still nothing. The film's denouement came and went without any sign of it. I was a little dismayed -- had I misjudged things so much?

Finally, the closing credits rolled, and there it was, literally "at last": I refer, of course, to the song Iron Man, the best-known work of the heavy-metal band Black Sabbath. While I am no particular fan of heavy metal, I just knew that there was no way the film's producers or director could possibly leave it out. And besides, the song has one of the best known guitar riffs in all of rock and roll:

Iron Man Riff

Posted May 31, 2008 at 18:13 UTC, 3170 words,  [/richPermalink