The Impossible

TOMMY SHANE asks whether The Impossible is an impossibly gross product of our darkest shame.

argo dark zero thirty Ewan McGregor Harry Jackson naomi watts oscars the impossible tsunami Varsity

On Friday, Harry Jackson wrote a review for Varsity that astutely covered the numerous merits of The Impossible, the first major Hollywood film to adapt, or perhaps rather exploit, the 2004 boxing-day tsunami. While I would be wary of overstating the quality of Ewan McGregor’s performance, if you want to read about the film’s excellent tension and dramatic force, then I very much recommend you read Jackson’s review.

However, this is not what I’m interested in. What intrigues me is Jackson’s final question:

“Was it ever appropriate to make a film about a comfortable, western family recovering from a ruined holiday, when the same tsunami had such a horrendous, irreversible, and deleterious effect on so many others?”

For Jackson, this renders the film ‘tarnished’. But he, as with most major critics, are cagey about stating exactly why.

Several of the films nominated for Best Picture at next month’s Oscars have gone re-writing the history books. Katheryn Bigelow has implicitly claimed that we have torture to thank for getting Bin Laden, despite there being no substantiating documents.

Similar is Argo, Ben Affleck’s new movie, which tells the story of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s ingenious rescue of American diplomats from Iran. A little historical tampering has gone on here too: Mendez, as his name quite clearly suggests, was Hispanic  In a country known for vilifying southern immigrants, Mendez is a rare ethnic-minority figure held in national esteem as one of the most highly decorated CIA officers of all time. But in Argo, he’s white.

While Affleck has been palpably scrupulous about character-actor fidelity, he’s happily whitewashed a recognised American hero. He’s given him a pretty blonde wife and a white face, making a film about white people rescuing white people from bloodthirsty, maniacal Iranians. And all this from one of Hollywood’s supposed liberals.

Affleck’s white-washing is particularly relevant to The Impossible, in which a white, English, and very rich family escape the South-East Asian tsunami. It may be worth labouring on the ‘South-East Asian’ part before ‘tsunami’. 227,898 people died in the natural disaster. Tourists comprise 0.03% of that figure. The other 99.97% left behind families that lost not only loved ones, but friends, their homes, their infrastructure, and their industries. They were also, I might add, not white.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor have faced questions on this whitewashing, and they, like many of you, will insist that this is merely one of many stories, of a real family that happened to be white. Let me stop you right there. The family upon which this ‘true story’ is based, were not white. They, like Tony Mendez in Argo, were hispanic. Tomas became Thomas, Quique became Henry.

And this family, even by western standards, were extremely rich. If the film is anything to go by (which I suppose it is not), the family were flown out on premium Zurich insurance – on a private jet – out of the troublesome continent. The final shot of the film, with Watts complacently smiling as a nice European future of private healthcare and functioning toilets await her, verges on vomit-inducing.

But it’s a true story! So what? 227,898 people didn’t have the preposterous and mind-boggling luck of this family. As they fly away from Thailand, one can’t help thinking that they, like the film itself, are flying away from the truth of this story – despite the words ‘true story’ lingering on the screen for about 15 seconds at the beginning of the film.

If I had lost a loved one in that disaster, I would feel betrayed by a story that solely portrayed happy survival. And if I had flown in to volunteer, like the countless thousands that did, I would feel sick at the depiction of this healthy white family cheerily flying out. And the producers too must be feeling quite cheery right now, having raked in a cool hundred million. Serious questions must be asked if this is merely unpalatable, or morally deplorable.

Iran has promised to respond to Argo with a film that actually seeks to explore the reasons and goals of the uprising that Affleck depicts with such indolently apathetic racial stereotyping. I hope someone will respond to The Impossible too, with the actual true story of this disaster, possibly with more than two Thai speaking roles and non-white leads.

It haunts me that if no one does, it means that there isn’t a market for such a film. And then, we can only look at ourselves.