or, Daniel Day-Lewis teaches me about the nature of power
One of those wonderful cosmic confluences has given me some new grist for my thinking about power and activism in the form of two Daniel Day-Lewis films that hit my consciousness within a week of each other.
In the 1993 film In the Name of the Father Day-Lewis plays Irishman Gerry Conlon, who along with three others was coerced under torture to confess to the 1974 Guildford pub bombings. Conlon and the other members of the Guildford Four spent 15 years in British prisons for the crime until it came to light that police officials had lied about their initial interviews with the Four and had doctored evidence to implicate them, all in an effort to demonstrate to the British public that they were succeeding in their efforts to stop IRA bombings. Their convictions were reversed in 1989, and in 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a formal apology to the Four and their families, stating, “I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and injustice (…) they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated.”
Day-Lewis plays a much different character in last year’s magnificent There Will Be Blood: turn-of-the-century oilman Daniel Plainview. Driven by his insatiable lust for power, Plainview shows himself willing to crush anyone who gets in his way, including members of his own family. I hesitate to reveal any more of what I consider to be the one must-see movie of 2007 for the sake of those who have not yet seen it, but knowing that the story is based losely on Upton Sinclair‘s novel Oil! will probably give some idea of the ethos and pathos of the narrative.
Together, these two stories have helped me cosolidate my recent thoughts on the nature of social power. To be precise, they’ve taught me
- that once they attain a certain modicum of social power, individuals or groups will very rarely surrender it, and
- that far more frequently they will stop at nothing to maintain and expand their power, including the wanton violation of social norms and values concerning power.
What I found most fascinating, however, was how quickly in both stories those whom we would expect to advocate for the powerless themselves fall prey to the dynamic cited above. This sad truth becomes apparent almost from the outset of There Will Be Blood in the person of preacher Eli Sunday (again, I’ll refrain from saying more in the interest of readers who have yet to see the film). In In the Name of the Father, Gerry Conlon learns this hard lesson under the tutlege of a fellow prisoner, Irish Republican bomber Joe McAndrew, who proves himself just as capable of injustice as those who have unjustly imprisoned the Guildford Four.
Note to those of us who consider ourselves activists and advocates for the marginalized (including myself): “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; [for] the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”