Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BREACH - A Psychological Thriller - and a Parliamentary Melodrama in Ottawa

Bramptom M.P. Bains with former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin

I live in a city where nearly every person of social consequence has a multiple identity, be they office holders, natural born celebrities or one of the legion of networking wannabes. It is not merely that so many individuals here are “on the make” or “on the take,” ever conscious of the need to cover their tracks. Add to these a few hundred thousand Vancouverites who have widely divergent identities, able to slip easily back and forth between their particular ethnic enclaves into the so-called “mainstream” community. That complicating reality has contributed much to the failure of Canadian law enforcement to succeed in prosecuting the Air India terrorists. Every suspect, every witness, and certainly a whole generation of politicians, (civic-provincial-federal), who exploited the AIR INDIA case for electoral gain... all have multiple identities.

Last year I did some valuable reading on the problem which mass scale multiple-identity phenomenon poses to law enforcement in North America. Elizabeth Loftus in EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY (Harvard 1979) makes it very clear that people are very poor at making “cross-racial identification” and that a whole battery of cultural assumptions throw off the accuracy of sworn testimony in court. Here in Vancouver we solved that problem by dispensing with a jury, letting one magistrate sit in judgement of police evidence. The accused went free.

Even more important is that we, as active viewers, inject so much of our own prejudice or faulty logic into what we observe people doing around us. Consequently we often create substance where it did not exist. Cooper & Redlinger remind us of that fact in their book CATCHING SPIES (Bantam 1990). "Is not identity, then, in the last resort, a fiction at least, a social construction at best, based upon different sets of assumptions? However rigorous our procedures and investigations, regardless of the tests we apply, acceptance rests on an act of faith.”

These two realities about identity and eyewitness testimony are what sprang to mind this morning when I read Kim Bolan’s latest investigative piece in the VANCOUVER SUN. She discusses the background of Navdeep Singh Bains, an M.P. from Brampton, whose father-in-law, Darshan Singh Saini, seems to have material knowledge which would assist the police in pursuing the investigation of Sikh militants involved in terrorism in British Columbia. Will Darshan Saini testify? He is quoted by Bolan as responding with "If they call me, I will see. I don't know about that," he said. "It is not that I hide anything. If something comes up again, that is that." It sounds like Saini will be a perfectly atrocious witness. I read a few minutes ago that our Prime Minister referred to Bolan’s article in the House of Commons this afternoon. We shall see if the story has legs. The Liberals were looking to cover their tracks as they fled from the debate on Anti-Terrorism provisions. They will now torture us with their childish rhetoric.

Also this morning, I read a wonderful response to the new Universal movie BREACH, written yesterday by Ron Rosenbaum for his Blog.
Actor Chris Cooper plays renegade FBI agent Robert Hannsen in BREACH

BREACH explores the craft and craftiness of Robert Hannsen, former FBI counter-intelligence officer who betrayed his country to the Soviets. The role of Hannsen is brilliantly played by veteran actor Chris Cooper. (I’ve been a grinning Cooper fan since the 80’s, so getting out to see BREACH is on my list.) Ron Rosenbaum is an old-hand at espionage (non-fiction and fictional) and he uses a comparison with the new Matt Damon flic THE GOOD SHEPHERD, to make his point.

Let me begin the comparison between Matt Damon in and Chris Cooper in by saying I admire reticence in film acting when it’s done well. But there’s reticence and there’s reticence.
The reticence of Matt Damon, an actor I ordinarily admire, in was virtually catatonic. He was supposedly playing a buttoned up WASP based mainly on James Angleton the legendary CIA counter-spy. But if that was the intent he was playing the wrong stereotype. Angleton was no pure WASP silent type. He was half-Mexican and there was a Latin and Latinate flair to his rhetoric. Damon played Angleton as if he were Rainman.
Meanwhile Chris Cooper in Breach: wow, what a treat to see someone at least play at underplaying in a film. The guy is really convincing in conveying the mixed motives, or the incoherency (something slightly different from mixed) of his motives. Someone who doesn’t even fathom his own profound split and masks his incomprehension in reticence as he methodically goes about selling the most super-sensitive U.S. spy secrets to the Soviet Union. Selling out the lives of our agents in the KGB. For cash, not conviction.
It offers us something that we rarely see in films: non transparency. Someone who is not clear even to himself. Someone who is an apparently sincere devout Catholic who becomes a traitor for…merely money? For ego? So that he “matters”. He is essentially a multiple murderer; the information that he passed to the Soviets led to at least three deaths perhaps many more. And yet he goes about his business grimly but methodically. It’s haunting, chilling. In a way he reminds one of the kidnapper/murderer in the original Dutch version of The Vanishing. We don’t understand him because he doesn’t understand himself, and this is what touches on a nerve and makes the performance great.
So many film roles over-explain their characters. Make everything transparent. That’s why a performance that renders a character fascinating but opaque, a mystery to him and us is so rare and so riveting to watch. The most difficult espionage is our attempt to spy on ourselves. It’s not always successful, but it’s fascinating to watch
. “

I hope I don’t get roasted for quoting almost the entire Rosenbaum piece. It’s just so useful intact that I could not cut it down. I dare not quote at length from Bolan's piece, but suffice it to say that she is the most courageous reporter working in Canada. Hers is the only testimony I can trust. I can think of several men who would kill her tonight, if they thought they had a chance of pulling it off. This is a dangerous city, and the mountains make a lovely backdrop to the cemeteries. It's an unhappy boast that I have actually met many people in Vancouver who fit the Hanssen profile – rotten and ruthless, and who never troube to question their motives or instincts. They seem to assume that everyone else is hearing the same voices or perhaps think we are suckers for not joining them at the table. I have a creepy feeling that BREACH is going to leave me sitting in a cold sweat. That’s what evil does.

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