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Movie Review: The Constant Gardener and Lord of War: No Evidence

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Spoilers Ahead: Proceed With Caution

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener, adapted from the literary thriller by John le Carré, is the most idiotic and irritating political melodrama since Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Although a straightforwardly crusading effort, The Constant Gardener is no more to be taken seriously than the Harrison Ford suspense blockbuster The Fugitive (1993), in which the wife of a similarly mild-mannered protagonist is also murdered for reasons having to do with the testing of new product by a pharmaceutical company. By figuring out who killed their wives, both the constant gardener and the fugitive turn into traditional truth-seeking romance heroes.

The Fugitive is an uncomplicated, if lumbering, melodrama in which the hero’s best friend and colleague (Jeroen Krabbé) is unmasked as the man who has suppressed negative trial results in order to bring a problematic drug to market and then framed the hero for his wife’s murder to prevent exposure. It’s a dopey premise: apparently the villain thinks he’ll get richer faster by rushing past bad results, but at the expense, surely, of exposing the company and himself to potentially ruinous liability. In any case, the moviemakers did not imagine they were making an important statement about pharmaceutical companies and so had the good sense to include lots of action high points and to build up the role of the U.S. marshal chasing the hero so that in the role Tommy Lee Jones could entertain even those bored by the story.

By contrast, The Constant Gardener is intended as an impassioned indictment of the testing of drugs on poor Africans—in order to receive any medical attention at all they have to “consent” to treatment with unproven drugs, some of which have lethal side-effects. The pharmaceutical companies aren’t working alone, however, but in collusion with the diplomatic wing of the British government and the enforcement power of the Kenyan government. The key to the political inflation of the melodrama is the fact that the wife is not just an unfortunate bystander, as in The Fugitive, she’s an activist working to expose the nefarious doings of all parties.

John Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a diplomat who is quaintly obsessive about gardening, meets his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) in London when he gives a speech in the stead of his higher-up and she stands and delivers a rambling, cliché-filled rant against the current Iraq war. Tessa’s grandstanding is of a kind I’ve witnessed countless times in my bicoastal academic career—the party may see herself as Joan of Arc but it’s hard to imagine what she thinks she’s accomplishing. Tessa is somewhat abashed afterwards, but then later, once she has married Quayle and followed him to his post in Kenya, she purposely asks embarrassing questions of one of the conspirators at a cocktail party and it’s clear the movie considers her heroic. Tessa is, in fact, the model after which Quayle, awakened by her murder, remakes himself into a hero, and the allegorical structure of the movie is designed to tell those concerned about the state of the world to lift their gazes above their own little gardens, to stop quailing and being diplomatic and to speak up, anywhere, everywhere. Whether or not doing so could conceivably have any effect, I presume.

The movie can’t be considered a guidebook on how to expose drug companies’ bad behavior because for the most part all Tessa does is speak up. She does write a report as well but then, like the kind of fool the melodrama requires her to be, she doesn’t publish it but seduces one dirty guy into sending it on to one of the top guys in the conspiracy. (How valuable can her report have been if she didn’t even figure out who was involved in the evildoing? We can’t judge because the movie doesn’t risk boring us with its contents.) Tessa does not form an organization, and you have to wonder, Why should a businessman or politician respond to what every overheated person says to him at a cocktail party or in a “report”? They would in this instance, of course, if they had the privilege we have of seeing the holy light of truth shining off Tessa. But they’re benighted and so Quayle takes up Tessa’s sword against them and becomes a man, not in realistically contemporary terms but in the venerable terms of chivalric romance.

Romance has its allure, of course, and this is certainly seasoned entertainment, with the bouquet of civilized moral rot that le Carré took over from Graham Greene. But the ambitions overfreight the story and the actors practically grunt with the effort of making it all at once judiciously novelistic, overripely sexy, throbbingly romantic, and morally exalted. The political ambitions of le Carré and director Fernando Meirelles are quite insistent, but the story feels like a story, not like the truth—it’s both far-fetched and predictable. For instance, governments and corporations in The Constant Gardener operate with nightmarishly perfect synchronization. They not only hold together a coalition to work out the hitches in a potential blockbuster drug on the “expendable” population of sub-Saharan Africa, but when Quayle starts investigating his wife’s murder they track him down no matter where he goes in five countries on two continents, even using a fake passport. They know, they see, they arrive. (And he, with his own convenient foolishness to match his late wife’s, enters his German hotel room even though he hears a TV set playing that he hadn’t left on.) The paranoia isn’t even stimulating as it was in The Bourne Supremacy, for example, because the makers don’t think of themselves as paranoid. The sex and action are bait for the politics; you are not really supposed to be having fun at this movie.

The Constant Gardener at least has the advantage of Meirelles’s distinctive temperament. He has a photographer’s eye but throws spectacularly “grabbed” shots on the screen in jaggedly rhythmed series and at times gets this art-house entertainment beyond the museum-quality pictorialness of David Lean’s or Anthony Minghella’s big-literary projects. In this 15 September 2005 CNN.com article, Meirelles says that he and his longtime cinematographer César Charlone never storyboard their scenes, preferring to shoot them on the go with a small, handheld camera. Meirelles gets the virtue of this method just right: “The camera is never in the perfect position, and I think this is what keeps this feeling of reality. The frame is not perfect.” Meirelles and Charlone’s imagery shows the world through the eyes of men so agitated by what they’re seeing that they couldn’t find words for all that the images mean to them and yet you get it—a direct jolt of visual expressiveness from their retinas to your brain.

It’s a style peculiarly suited to Meirelles’s international breakthrough City of God (2002) in which the seductiveness of criminality for the teeming hordes of poor children in Rio de Janeiro practically unseats your reason. How can you live in a world in which this goes on, decade after decade after decade? The formal exhilaration of Meirelles’s imagery gives you some perspective on these structureless lives tending inevitably downward, and because photography provides a way out of poverty and crime for the young hero (as it does for the kids in the documentary Born Into Brothels (2004)), the movie suggests the power of vision.

Finally, however, City of God is more like a Warner Brothers gangster movie such as The Public Enemy (1931) that show you hoods headily rushing down the slide to hell than it is like the full-grained neorealism of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946). City of God is even more brutally matter-of-fact about the pleasures of sociopathic self-assertion than a Cagney picture, and it has a destabilizing aesthetic excitement that the American gangster movies of the ’30s lack, and none of the unconvincing piety of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), for instance. But Meirelles is almost too excited—his script can’t quite account for the thrill he’s transmitting to us with his depiction of these deplorable situations. (Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) has a similar disconnect.) The events in City of God have been shaped on the outside but not on the inside.

Meirelles’s style is a robust but crude expressionism, which in The Constant Gardener is best suited to the scenes set, and shot, in Kibera, the Kenyan slum that Tessa visits with a native doctor. (She peculiarly insists on giving birth in the hospital that serves the slumdwellers, as if to say, “If it’s good enough for the locals it’s good enough for me,” though the moviemakers clearly think it isn’t good enough for anybody.) Unfortunately, in the rest of The Constant Gardener Meirelles’s style is noticeable in less meaningful ways. For instance, he shoots the preparation of a banquet meal the way another director might shoot a mortar attack and Tessa and Quayle’s initial sex scene could function as a parody of certain perfume ads. The sequencing of remarkable shots is intentionally nerve-jangling, but it can also be “lush.” Although certain stretches of metallically discolored mud are the site of two murders, the way they’re filmed makes you want to ask your travel agent about them.

The Issues

Generally I prefer to discuss a movie in aesthetic terms—narrative structure, acting styles, visuals—i.e., the area of a critic’s competence. It feels sort of ridiculous to set my soapbox down next to le Carré’s and Meirelles’s and try to shout them down, but I’d like to explain that while their reliance on narrative formulas reduces le Carré’s intended political message to pulp, the message itself is flawed.

The problem with what we see going on in the African clinics in The Constant Gardener is the lack of consent by the test subjects, but objections to the pharmaceuticals arise from their profits. In his 24 December 2000 Sunday Times (London) commentary upon the publication of le Carré’s book, Andrew Sullivan wrote, “The fact that Big Pharma doesn’t give away the products of its research for free, or without profit, is [taken by its critics to be] the ultimate sign of its evil. And the profit motive, according le Carré, has all but corrupted the very basic principles of medical practice across the globe.” (One irony, according to Ronald Bailey’s defense of the pharmaceutical industry in the April 2001 issue of ReasonOnline: in 1999 drug companies spent $13.9 billion on advertising and promotion, half of which was for drug samples that doctors gave to patients for free. In this article from the 16 December 2004 San Diego Union-Tribune Doug Bandow puts samples as 2/3 of marketing expenses.)

As one character says in the movie, the drug companies never do anything except for profit, which is indisputable, but what the critics of the industry don’t understand is that if the drug companies ignore profits, by permitting generic copies of their drugs before the expiration of their patents, or by selling their drugs at cost, they will not be able to finance the research and development necessary to produce the drugs that they’re supposed to be giving away. As the Tax Court laid out the economics in its opinion in Eli Lilly & Co. v. Comm’r, 84 T.C. 996, 1160-61 (1985), “Pharmaceutical companies rely for their long-range survival on the research and development of new chemical products as well as on the maintenance and upgrading of their existing patents. The time and cost of inventing and developing new drugs and testing them in order to receive FDA approval to market them is a complex, risky, and expensive process. A pharmaceutical company must fund that process through the revenues of its successfully marketed products.” And we want a constant flow of new drugs, which tend to be better than older ones. According to Bandow in this 8 May 2003 Policy Analysis (No. 475), Columbia University economist Frank Lichtenberg concluded in National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 8147 (March 2001) “that replacing 1,000 prescriptions for older drugs with 1,000 prescriptions for newer drugs would increase drug costs by $18,000 but slash hospital costs by at least $44,000.”

In his review in the 17 September 2005 New Republic Online, that eternal numbnuts Stanley Kauffmann connects the dots: he reports that before the release of The Constant Gardener a pharmaceutical industry representative sent movie reviewers an e-mail saying, among other things, that “from 1998 to 2003, the pharmaceutical industry donated $4.1 billion … to improve global health,” to which Kauffmann retorts, “The email says nothing about the prices of drugs that made those billions available.” Kauffmann is perhaps one of the “many people” who, in Bandow’s words, “appear to believe that pharmaceuticals fall from the sky rather like manna from heaven. In their view, employees of the evil drug companies got up before anyone else and grabbed the manna, and then sold it at outrageous prices.”

The underlying issue is one of intellectual property, which, in relevant part, operates in the pharmaceutical industry just as it operates in the arts. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The resulting patent rights and copyrights exist not primarily to make money for inventors and artists but to provide them with a financial incentive to come up with their works in the first place, explicitly for the benefit of society generally. In the case of patents, inventors get an exclusive right to the financial rewards of their patented subject for a limited time (20 years in the case of pharmaceuticals) as a trade-off for publishing the technology embodied in their inventions.

Invention is, however, a hit-or-miss prospect. Doug Bandow writes in Policy Analysis, “Of every 5,000 to 10,000 substances reviewed [by pharmaceutical companies’ research & development organizations], only about 250 make it to the animal-testing stage. Around 5 of them go on to human clinical trials. Only one, on average, makes it into the market. Even at that point, only 3 of 10 new drugs actually make money.” This academic study from the Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003) estimates the cost of developing a new drug as $802 million (in year 2000 dollars; $403 million is out-of-pocket expenditures, the remainder opportunity costs).

Understanding what reimbursement includes requires a basic grasp of business organizations. People tend to speak of “corporations” anthropomorphically, as if they acted for their own interest. The directors and management make the decisions but within limits set by the corporation’s by-laws as well as federal and state statutes, regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, fiduciary duties that require them to act in the interest of the shareholders, who are, of course, the owners of the corporation. Pharmaceutical companies thus have to compete in the capital markets for investors’ money; if the profits they return on those investments are not competitive, investors will take their money out of the pharmaceutical companies. If the company’s revenue and profits decline, past a certain point it will make better sense to liquidate the company than to continue operating it.

The way the directors and management of drug companies make money for the shareholders is by developing and commercially exploiting drug compounds and processes, and the period of patent protection is essential to their success. Profits in the pharmaceutical industry are high (Ronald Bailey puts them at 9% as against 5% typical of many other American industries), but higher-risk investments always earn supernormal returns or the money would flow to less risky ventures. And drug companies do face greater risk: if you open a shoemaking business you can be fairly certain that your factory will produce shoes; if you launch a pharmaceutical R&D organization, however, you have no assurance at all that it will produce a marketable compound, and even if it does the risk of class-action tort suits seeking damages for deleterious side effects never goes away.

To judge from the informational shorts shown in theaters explaining how piracy of movies will lead to the collapse of production and loss of jobs, moviemakers understand the importance of intellectual property when it’s a matter of their own corporate profits and jobs. As for le Carré, while he’s not a corporation, he is essentially a sole proprietor who owns and exploits for profit the copyrighted material that he produces. Probably le Carré could not afford to go on writing books if he had forgone the handsome profits made by selling this copyrighted material. Of course, if he were independently wealthy or had married an heiress or something, then he might, if he chose, continue to write even though he made no profits from it. This is the difference between le Carré and a pharmaceutical corporation, which cannot be operated for love or charity. Pharmaceutical companies do not exist in nature; if they can’t be run profitably they will cease to exist and we’ll all be worse off. (Here’s by how much: as Ronald Bailey reports, “Between 1960 and 1997, life expectancy at birth for Americans rose from 69.7 years to 76.5 years. ‘Increased drug approvals and health expenditure per person jointly explain just about 100 percent of the observed long-run longevity increase,’ writes [Frank] Lichtenberg.”)

If drug companies are forcing “consent” among third-world clinical-trial subjects as is shown in The Constant Gardener that’s deplorable and they should stop it. (Expropriation of their patents and profits, of course, is not a punishment fitted to this crime.) But as Meirelles says in this 1 September 2005 interview with FilmForce, “This plot is based on something that happened in Nigeria actually…. [T]hey were testing a drug for diabetes, and after four months, people who were taking the pills couldn’t walk, so now there are a couple of lawyers suing this company.” So, on the one hand, the drug companies are not getting away with it, not because of le Carré’s raging potboiler but because of tort liability. On the other hand, we would need more information about what they are allegedly doing. To ensure the accuracy of trial results, some patients must be given placebo, and probably a certain amount of them would have been cured by the real drug. In addition, some trial patients may suffer from debilitating side effects. These aren’t good things, but they have to be analyzed in context: Apart from the lack of consent, how is this situation different from clinical trials in America or Europe? What alternative is there for sick people in these impoverished countries? How many people do benefit from the trials? Why are trials outsourced to other countries in the first place?

Among the reasons for the latter, as Sonia Shah reports in the 30 August 2005 online version of The Nation, is the reluctance of first-world citizens to volunteer for drug trials. She writes, “On average, every American buys more than ten prescription drugs every year…. [Yet l]ess than one in twenty Americans take part in experimental trials, with half the American public maligning test subjects as ‘guinea pigs,’ according to a June 2004 Harris Poll. The logical outcome of this ‘all gain, no pain’ attitude toward modern drugs is for drug companies to shift the burden of experimentation away from Western consumers….” The fact that life is cheap, as it is put, in sub-Saharan Africa is the cause, not the result, of pharmaceutical companies bringing their clinical testing there. (By implication, the makers of The Constant Gardener, unlike the drug companies, do not see African lives as less valuable, but we’ll have to take their word for it: there is only one African character who is as much as peripheral to the story and the English villains have more dimensions than he does.)

The Constant Gardener does not assess the situation reasonably or make the slightest attempt to understand it from a balanced point of view. Still Le Carré has warned, as Kauffmann quotes, “[B]y comparison with the reality, my story [i]s as tame as a holiday postcard,” and, as quoted in this 2 March 2001 Kaiser Foundation Daily HIV/AIDS Report, the actions of drug companies are “far more awful than anything [he’s] written about.” This is classic conman speak. Why on earth would he omit the most damning information he knew of? Would you write about the Nazi treatment of the Jews and leave out the extermination camps?

Lord of War

Le Carré confined these inane remarks to publicity for the book; writer-director Andrew Niccol incorporates similar sleight-of-tongue into his new movie Lord of War itself. At the end of Lord of War the protagonist Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an international gun trafficker, is busted and then mysteriously let off the hook thanks to his dark, but unspecified, connections with the U.S. military. Unspecified connections—in other words, Niccol can hint at deep entanglements without providing any evidence whatsoever.

Yuri then goes on to claim in voice-over narration that the current President Bush is the biggest arms dealer in the world, and not only is no evidence provided, it’s entirely irrelevant to the narrative, which has been an attempt at ironic romance about a man who gives in to temptation and loses his soul. But among artistic types, hating George Bush is enough to set you up as a political theorist, an intellectual, someone with something important to say. (Le Carré’s stint in the British Foreign Service during the Cold War at least gave him a basis in actual experience for his earlier spy books.) It’s certainly good enough for Niccol to use as a finish, giving Lord of War the most arbitrary, “provocative,” all-talk ending since Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (without having given us the pleasure of watching Martha Raye.)

The movie has even bigger problems as entertainment. It supposedly sets out Yuri’s story with novelistic detail—he’s a Ukrainian immigrant to the U.S. from a family of four none of whom is fully able to take root in the new culture. They’ve settled in the Brooklyn of the 1980s, plagued by the gangsterism of their fellow immigrants, which sets Yuri to imagining how he can play the same game on a bigger scale. But the movie doesn’t have the richness of incident, the cultural texture, the personal motivations of The Godfather, Part II (1974), which explains how the mafia arose in our Italian-immigrant ghettos. And Cage, way off form, and probably miscast, doesn’t seem like a Ukrainian or a Brooklynite or a criminal. He’s more deeply sleepy than even his Valley Boy persona would require; his body language and his voice in the start-to-finish voice-over never suggest the kind of drive that would push Yuri beyond the bounds of morality, at the cost of everything but some acorn-sized diamonds. This is a story along the lines of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), but Cage never musters the energy for it. He compares his first gun sale to sex, but this is not a sexy performance, not even when he’s literally having sex, and he doesn’t come across as driven by lust, by greed, for money or power, by much of anything. Cage plays a man who brings a world of crime and death out of himself and yet in this movie he is what I never thought he could be—a dead wire. (The movie sorely lacks the show-off gusto he wasted on The Rock (1996).)

Lord of War could certainly use Cage at his zaniest because nothing is convincing at the literal level; apart from Cage’s performance it’s a very stylized depiction of its subject. (Stylized but not comic: the sole touch of wit comes when the paint on the body of an airplane Yuri is trying to pass off as his private ride smears on takeoff.) For instance, Yuri is supposedly one of the biggest arms merchants in the world, but he doesn’t seem to have an organization. (He has fewer people working for him than a single-lot used-car dealer.) Yuri does it all himself—so there he is in the post-Soviet munitions warehouses snapping up AK-47s and tanks and helicopters, and there he is in the plane or on the cargo ship making deliveries and foiling the authorities. In other words, Yuri acts with superhuman effectiveness in an unrealistically vast theater, yet Cage’s damp performance and Niccol’s evident belief that he’s showing us how these things really come about keep the brash comic-book approach from having any punch.

The comic-book romance elements include Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), a globe-trotting superagent who is Yuri’s white-knight double (and who, poor guy, has to deliver the lectures telling us what anyone could figure out for himself), and André Baptiste, Sr. (Eamonn Walker), one of Yuri’s best customers (modeled on Charles Taylor, former warlord of Liberia) who is Yuri’s black-knight double and who makes explicit the corruption eating Yuri from within. (Walker is the only performer who shows any authority with the material.) In addition, there are no fewer than four characters who represent the soul Yuri is sadly betraying in himself (his father, his brother, his wife, and his son), which is at least three characters too many. Yuri is written as an ironic protagonist whose justifications we’re meant to see through easily; there’s a wealth of comic possibility, especially since he’s the self-revealing narrator, in the manner of Michael Caine as Alfie. Instead, Niccol squeezes his cartoonish irony for pathos, as if retelling Superman from the dark side but softening it to make us lament, “Poor Lex Luthor. Poor, lost Lex Luthor.”

A specialist in combining slick high-tech concepts with fogeyish worrywarting (S1m0ne (2002), The Truman Show (1998), Gattaca (1997)), Niccol apparently doesn’t realize that his underlying point in Lord of War is uncontroversial—gun traffickers put guns in the hands of people who do bad things with them. It’s also overkill because, as Jack Valentine’s pursuit of him makes plain, Yuri sells arms in contravention of law. (In other words, Niccol didn’t need to make the movie to keep us from running out and selling guns to African dictators.) At the same time, Niccol shows too much for the good of this point. When Yuri sells guns to some heinous African militia that intends to massacre refugees, the sale takes place just over the hill from the refugee camp so we will know what’s coming—we see militia members whack a small boy and his mother with machetes. Which establishes both that they shouldn’t be sold guns but also that guns aren’t the source of the problem. If one has no choice but to be massacred, wouldn’t guns be preferable?

The Constant Gardener and Lord of War don’t begin to give the situations that they fictionalize their due, though The Constant Gardener is infinitely more skillful than Lord of War, which is both a mess and dull. Le Carré is a bigger cultural player than Niccol, of course, but there appears to be no difference for him between reality and a melodramatically compressed version of reality. Both le Carré and Niccol slight the issues but nonetheless pride themselves for their political “passion,” which in the form it’s given in these movies is even more recreational, even more useless, than Tessa Quayle’s “speaking up.”

For a real-life version of the left-wing heroic romance of fighting the pharmaceutical companies in Africa, see this 1 May 2001 Salon.com article about my fellow Yale Law School graduate, and friend, Amy Kapczynski.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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