Political thrillers are not merely fiction. On January 3, three days before the assault on America, I blogged about political thrillers mainly from the 1960s (Seven Days in January: This Time It Is Not a Movie). These stories tell of the efforts undertaken by people in power to maintain or increase their power through illegal means. They generally involve the President and the American military. In some cases the President may be the one reaching for power; in some cases the President may be the one seeking to prevent a military takeover.
These thrillers were written and made into movies during the height of the Cold War. The stakes were high as control of or use of nuclear weapons might be involved. There also was the real shadow of the showdown between President Truman and General MacArthur looming in the background. There even was the example of a military hero leaping directly to the presidency as General Eisenhower did after a short stint at Columbia. All in all there were plenty of ingredients for crafting a suspenseful story.
The genre was not limited to the United States. One prominent movie made along these lines was “Z.” In this story set in world of Greek politics, all the features of political intrigue were present. It almost seems quaint now that the weapon of choice for the assassination of a political challenger was a drive-by clubbing. There was nary an automatic weapon in sight. In that story, the military was the agent of power. In a time of military juntas both then and now, the common expectation is that the military undermines democracy, it does not protect it.
In the movie Gladiator, these same forces are brought to bear in the story about the Roman Empire. Maximus is a fictional character. He is contrasted with the Emperor Commodus, who attained power through assassination of his own father. Clearly based on merit, Maximus is the superior candidate. He had proved himself on the field of battle. Commodus is well aware of his shortcomings as a true warrior and leader and wisely has Maximus killed … or so he thought. Hence the story.
A telling scene in the story of these two individuals occurs when Maximus returns from the dead. He competes in the gladiatorial games. He does so quite successfully and upstages the planned performance of the second fall of the Carthage. The Emperor is expecting the barbarians to lose as they had in history but instead they succeed against Rome. Since this rewriting of history is entertainment, Commodus is not upset, he enjoys the surprise. He expresses a desire to meet the gladiator known as “the Spaniard” who effectuated the unexpected result.
The moment of truth occurs when the Emperor goes into the arena. Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase is fulfilled cinematically. The two protagonists face each other, one masked, the other “crowned.” Maximus then turns his back on the Emperor and starts to walk away. The Emperor orders him to identify himself. Maximus removes his mask, turns towards the weak insecure ruler and says:
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
Words alone are insufficient to convey the power of the moment. There is the tone, the body language, and the context. It is a defining moment in the movie. The contrast between the two figures that has been building throughout the movie explodes in this scene.
So why didn’t Commodus kill Maximus? When the moment of truth arrived, Commodus had the power to have Maximus killed on the spot. The gladiators had dropped their weapons. They were surrounded by Roman soldiers. They were outnumbered. Commodus clearly had the physical power. Yet he let Maximus live. Why?
Commodus could not have Maximus killed because he felt who had the real power. Commodus knew that Maximus was the real warrior that he was not. Commodus knew that his own soldiers knew Maximus was the superior warrior. Commodus knew that the people supported the charismatic Maximus. Finally, he knew he would have to kill Maximus Putin-style when no one was looking. Maximus had exposed the short comings of the Emperor. He was not wearing any clothes and everyone could see his weakness.
The movie uses words American audiences traditionally like. There is a ‘Senate” like the one which had confronted Joe McCarthy and “republic.”
Maximus: Quintus! Release my men. Senator Gracchus is to be reinstated. There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.
One must ignore the actual history of Rome at this point and instead consider the message being delivered through the staging of this event. The movie asks us to understand that the fate of the Roman Republic was at stake. We are to realize that regardless of our historical knowledge, we are to support the continued existence of the Republic.
Although we did not know it at the time, the existence of the American republic was at stake after the election of November 3, 2020. We are slowly learning about what had happened. We are slowly learning that the battle is not yet over. We have yet to address what we need to do to prevent a reoccurrence of the threat so we celebrate our 250th birthday.
Milley understands the stakes. He said the same thing about the American President that Maximus did to the Roman Emperor. His precise words obviously differed. The exact circumstances were not identical. The message was though. He was and is as aware of the shortcomings of the American President. He understood that the existence of the American republic was at stake. He had no illusions about the seriousness of the situation. For the first time in American history, an American President was considering extra-illegal actions to maintain his position of power.
Years ago Michael Cohen warned us that “Mr. Trump” as he calls him would not leave the White House voluntarily if he lost. There was a lot of talk about whether or not there would be a “peaceful transition.” Task forces were created to map various scenarios. Mike Pompeo’s “joke” that there would be a peaceful transition to a second Trump term was taken as the words of a loyalist seeking to be a Presidential candidate one day. Little did we know what was going on behind the scene. The peaceful departure only happened because by then he had run out of options to remain in the White House.
We would be wrong to over exaggerate his prowess at launching a coup. At heart he remains a simpleminded immature child with the emotional maturity of a three year old. People should take Mary Trump seriously. He lacks the management and administrative skills to organize a coup just as he has lacked those skills in all his business failures. As the adult world pressed down upon him labelling him a “loser,” he responded as one would expect a child when told that playtime was over.
Commodus: But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?
Maximus: You would fight me?
Commodus: Why not? Do you think I am afraid?
Maximus: I think you’ve been afraid all your life.
Despite all the posturing, Macho Macho Boy has been a sacred little boy all his life.
Putin knows this and so does Milley. The alpha male wannabe loved playing with his action figures. He loved parading them around including at Lafayette Square. The generals were Hollywood cast which is the limit of his mental necessities. Then he discovered that they were more educated than he was, that he was not the smartest person in the room when they were there, that they talked down to him because he was so simpleminded and ignorant.
His only victories were in rigged performances in the professional wrestling arena. His domination of Lafayette Square was a sham. He threatened execution for the White House worker who leaked the truth of his bunker stay. His demand of governors to dominate their cities followed the failure of the military to obey him and open fire on American citizens. Milley was the one who informed the American President of the difference between Lincoln who faced an actual revolt with the present protests. It was a signal of what was to come following the election.
One day there will be a movie about November 3, 2020 to January 6, 2021. We are learning more and more about. The movie may end with the House Commission exposing the perpetrators one-by-one as they are shown on the screen. Kevin McCarthy will not tell the truth even under oath; General Milley will tell the truth. In this political thriller, it will be the military which saves the Republic from the Republicans who cower before Donald Trump and who still protect him.