The Peacemaker (1997)
D. Mimi Leder
“The truth is, I am not a monster. I’m a human man. I’m just like you, whether you like it or not.”
(Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich in The Peacemaker)
“I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear warheads. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.”
(Nicole Kidman’s Julia Kelly)
(NOTE: Spoilers included. I highly recommend seeing the movie first…but don’t forget to come back and read it later!)
There are millions of people walking around blissfully unaware of this, but Nicole Kidman is a big crit-illuminati favorite.
So far as I can tell, this is mostly a cover for geek males who have the hots for her (David Thomson wrote a whole book about her–I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough of Thomson to know he’s an emotional fellow even when he isn’t thinking with his zipper so I ‘m guessing his book is Exhibit A), but plenty of women indulge as well. When she recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday, there were a lot of twitter threads devoted to allowing people to share (or show off) their deep awareness of the Nicole Kidman catalog.
Having missed out on all that–and having noticed that neither of my favorite Kidman movies came up on a single thread I followed, I decided to put my two cents in here.
There’s nothing rational about the illuminati‘s response, of course. Beautiful women have been driving people of both sexes crazy for as long as people have left a record of themselves.
It’s too bad, though, in this case, because Kidman really is a fine actress who has made a career of taking what are, by Hollywood standards, remarkable risks. She deserves the kind of even-handed scrutiny she’s never really gotten.
At least on the surface, where things count when we are judging the beautiful people, The Peacemaker isn’t one of those risk-taking roles. And it isn’t my favorite role of hers. For that you can go here.
But it is my favorite movie of hers.
It was released in the interim between the first attack on the World Trade Center (deemed unsuccessful because it only killed six people) and the second attack, which killed quite a few more and briefly caused a bit of consternation among the Overlord class, before they realized how little time and patience would be required for this, too, to be dumped down the memory hole as long as they stayed patient and refused to win any more wars. Turned out they were up to the task. We underestimate them at out peril.
But The Peacemaker still roils the placid surface they’ve striven so hard to maintain.
The film was a modest success, both critically and commercially. Exactly no one I know of put it on their list of favorite Nicole Kidman movies (which, after 1995’s genuinely unsettling To Die For, had already become a signifier of knowingness, what the kids call a thing) or favorite anything else.
Here’s Roger Ebert, with a fairly typical take:
At one point, trying to dismantle the bomb, the Kidman character tells a children’s choir director, “Get those kids as far away from here as possible,” and the kids scurry out the church door. A nuclear bomb is set to explode in under two minutes. If it does, it won’t help that the kids are four blocks down the street. If it doesn’t, the kids are safe where they are.
That’s illuminati-speak for, “I’m bored. Get back to amusing me.” and exemplifies the laziness that’s typical enough of the mindset to make it reasonable to assume it’s a prerequisite.
It happens that Kidman’s character doesn’t say anything remotely resembling “Get those kids as far away from here as possible.” She doesn’t say anything about the kids at all. It’s not likely she would, since they are running by her as she fights her way into the church.
She does tell the FBI agents who help her move the body to which the bomb is attached into an area of the church which will help diminish the bomb’s radiation yield (however marginally) if it goes off, to get out and evacuate as many people from the area as possible.
Ebert’s point might still hold….Except it also happens that the nuclear bomb is encased in a smaller bomb, which Kidman’s character is going to have to trigger in order to destroy the timer and keep the nuclear bomb from going off.
So, yes, the kids she didn’t evacuate (and the FBI agents she did) are much safer four blocks down the street than standing next to the smaller bomb, which does indeed, go off.
I noticed all this even when I saw The Peacemaker in the theater and have kept on noticing it ever since. Ebert seemed like a nice fellow, and his late career outreach to first rate younger critics like Matt Zoller Seitz and my blogging pal, Sheila O’Malley, was a real service, but was anyone ever better at not noticing?
And simple logistics aren’t all that Ebert–and, to be fair, pretty much everyone else–failed to notice.
The really big thing they failed to notice is that The Peacemaker’s ticking-time-bomb plot (well-handled, by the way–strictly as a thriller, it meets the J. Lee Thompson-John Sturges sixties-era standard, the highest there is), is a cover for the movie’s real theme, which is that the man who makes his way to Manhattan with a nuclear bomb in his backpack might have a point.
Post 9/11, that’s something even the few Western intellectuals who pondered it previously have been all too willing to forget.
And all of that–the pondering in the moment and the subsequent forgetting– plays to Kidman’s character in the movie and to the skill the actress brought to the role.
One of the things that went unnoticed at the movie’s release and has gone unnoticed since, is that Kidman’s Julia Kelly is a first-rate portrait of a woman operating in–and adjusting to–a man’s world. Not just any old man’s world, mind you, but one put under the most extreme duress imaginable: a scenario where nuclear bombs have been stolen (in the movie’s tense opening sequence, which concludes with one of them going off in the Ural Mountains), and one of them is missing and presumed headed to New York.
After that “failed” bombing in 1993, that was always the threat.
New York, it seems, is full of symbols.
In The Peacemaker the symbolic target is the United Nations, but, really, it could be any totem of Western power and prestige. It’s our symbols, as much as our reality, that Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich wants to destroy.
And it’s Julia Kelly who stops him.
She doesn’t stop him single-handed (this is a movie that works in part because, despite the Hollywood trappings, which, to be fair to Roger Ebert, are certainly there, keeps rubbing up against realities which have only become less comforting with time). This isn’t Woman turning into Kick-Ass She-Male and fulfilling every fourteen-year-old boy’s I-got-your-empowerment-right-here-bitch hand-job fantasies.
But Kelly has something to bring to the table and it’s that particular something that becomes crucial in the film’s final moments. Not so much her technical expertise (which does come in handy, but would have been possessed by any man who held the job that puts her in that position to begin with), as her understanding of the bomber’s motives.
While the men around her are focused on the logistics of hunting him down in a specific, ever-narrowing space, she’s trying to get inside his mind.
She can focus on that because she’s nobody’s idea of a warrior. An athlete yes. One of the film’s most effective sequences is the early segue from the nuclear explosion in a faraway mountain range to a shot of Kidman’s long body exploding out of a turn in an Olympic-size swimming pool where she goes for exercise. When she reaches the other end of the pool, the news of the real explosion is waiting for her.
The segue works in the short term, as solid film craft. But it works as character development, too, because by the end of the film, it will only be an athlete who can keep up with the Warriors (led by George Clooney’s Tom Devoe) tracking the bomber on foot through the streets of a Manhattan clogged by the easy panic and de facto martial law (now readily relatable to Boston’s response to the Marathon bombing and all the more effective for being glimpsed rather than dwelt upon).
But, even within a two-block Manhattan-specific radius, a man with a bomb in a backpack is a needle in a haystack.
Kidman’s Kelly finds the needle because she’s the one who has been focused on the why rather than the how all along.
And that focus has something to do with being, not a woman per se, but a woman in a man’s world. A woman who has stuck to her guns throughout, often in the face of male ridicule–has insisted that the bomber wants his act to have that symbolic meaning her Warrior partners (Devoe in particular) have continually dismissed as so much hooey.
Her Warrior partners put her in a position to just possibly save the day. They put her in the position to save the day because they possess qualities she does not.
But she saves it because she possesses qualities they do not. (And it’s not that no man could posses those qualities–it’s that no man who does would be likely to feel the need to prove himself in a man’s world. No man would need to be where Julia Kelly is the way she needs it.)
Then and now, plenty of people noticed the lack of sexual chemistry between Kidman and Clooney. A few people have noticed ever since that Clooney has rarely struck a spark with any of his leading ladies–like Paul Newman, he does his best work with other men. Almost no one seems to have noticed that, in The Peacemaker, sexual chemistry would be pointless, if not ridiculous. They’re trying to save the world. And what they do have is professional chemistry.
You know, the kind a woman needs to excel in a man’s world.
If it weren’t cased inside a well-made thriller, the world might have also noticed that Kidman’s performance is a finely tuned variation on those good old American standbys: The Striver and The Innocent.
They’ve often been intertwined–in the same stories or even the same characters–because they have an inverse relationship. The more one Strives–at least the more one strives for anything worth the effort–the less Innocent one becomes.
The Peacemaker was prescient in a lot of ways, large and small. The casual use of torture is standard (traceable at least as far back as To Have and Have Not, where it was admittedly a lot sexier–who doesn’t want to see Bogie pistol-whip a French Nazi?).
But most of the rest is a window on the world that has come to pass:
The cleverest and most committed terrorists are likely to come from the upper middle class. Russia will always be a player. Martial law tactics are always presumed effective by the people who made the need to “protect” us necessary in the first place. The defeated will always find ways to use our technology against us (exemplified here by an opening scene which sets the plot in motion with a man assassinated in his Orthodox church because he answers his cell phone and a closing scene where the man who took his place has set a bomb triggered by a Harvard-trained Pakistani on a timer that is ticking down inside a Catholic church half a world away).
There’s our increasing reliance on experts, special ops, and the movie stars who play them.
There’s tyranny loving a sniper.
And expedience the same.
There’s the man who wants one nuclear warhead still being more terrifying than the man who wants ten.
Heck, there’s even a Trump joke.
Laughs all around.
But, absent the habit of Not Noticing, The Peacemaker‘s slick surface can’t ease or erase its prickly insights.
The most prescient moment of all–striking truer than anything I’ve seen outside the history books regarding the true cost of Empire–comes when Dusan Gavrich, the Empire’s ultra-civilized victim, is explaining himself to Julia Kelly, the one who might understand.
Devoe’s Warrior, insistent upon logic in ways the Innocent Striver is not, breaks in.
“Sir, it’s not our war.”
Just before he shoots himself in the head, Gavrich’s face hardens into that of the Man of Chaos he never wanted to be.
“It is now.”
I remember that moment from the theater, too.
The innocent, striving days of 1997.
It stayed with me through the denouement that scrambled Roger Ebert’ s brain.
It’s with me still.
I watch it as often as I can, lest I begin not noticing.
(And now that’s out of my system….I’m off to see Wonder Woman.)