Training Day

Training Day

Like Father, Like Son?

Denzel Washington stars as George Herbert Walker Bush discovering the consequences of training your son to be the world’s traffic cop.

Tommy Viola

A wise son heareth his father’s instruction. —Proverbs 13:1

It’s ironic that Denzel Washington’s recent Best Actor Oscar—only the second such Academy Award given to an African-American—comes for his portrayal of the quintessential white man: George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States (known from here on out as “Poppa”). For the film Training Day, also starring Ethan Hawke as George Walker Bush, the 43rd President of the United States (henceforth “Junior”), is in fact about the “training” of Junior by Poppa in the ways and wiles of playing the world’s traffic cop—make that the world’s bad-ass, shoot-first, ask-questions-much-later, drug-slinging traffic cop who is neck deep in the corruption of the diseased situation he is ostensibly trying to heal.

‘to catch a wolf you have to be a wolf’

Poppa has been around the block and has a lot to teach. Luckily, Junior has a lot to learn. For starters, Poppa makes it clear to Junior by word and deed that by-the-book truth-and-justice crime fighting is as impotent as that hundred-year-old billionaire that Anna Nicole Smith married; anyone who is truly serious about bringing positive change to this corrupt world has no choice but to become corrupt themselves.

“To catch a wolf you have to be a wolf,” Poppa tells a naïve Junior in their first day on the job, a quote confirmed in the political world by Dick Cheney’s post-September 11 comment concerning the United States intelligence policy: “You have to have on payroll some very unsavory characters. This is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business. We have to operate in that arena.”

Obviously Poppa has employed this dictum for quite some time: in the film he is in bed (at one point, literally) with many of the “nasty, dangerous, dirty” gangsters in the film, rewarding them with two-bit gifts (appliances, petty cash) in exchange for information and support in his mission. On that side of the screen we see this happening in the introduction where Junior asks pensively if Poppa “trusts” the dope dealer that rats out the college kids who come to him for marijuana. “#@$% yeah, I trust, ’em,” Poppa exclaims. And in exchange for that trust, the dope dealer gets protection and loot as he goes about his business—as long as it doesn’t conflict with Poppa’s ends.

On this side of the screen we saw this happen as Reagan and Bush armed the Mujaheddin (Muslim holy warriors) in Afghanistan to the teeth when they were aiming their rocket launchers at planes with hammers and sickles on the tail. Recently they’ve been aiming them at our planes: We are thus now arming to the teeth some new tribal warlords (“the Northern Alliance”) and turning them loose on the Mujaheddin (who, after focus groups indicated that Mujaheddin was too hard to say, changed their name to Taliban).

the sheep bite back

In the film, Poppa believes himself to be loved by those in the ghetto, but in fact their “love” is simply a function of their own survival. At several points we see that the sheep are all too happy to turn on their brutal shepherd, as when Poppa loots the house of a drug lord (the Sandman) in order to pilfer the cash stashed within. The Sandman’s wife (a spooky Macy Gray) calls their bluff, discovers that Poppa’s search warrant is actually a Chinese take-out menu, and immediately screams for the armed gangsters outside the house to let loose on Poppa and Junior as they flee the scene.

Think also of the two crackheads whom Poppa brutally beats up and humiliates early in the movie after Junior has stopped their rape of a school girl in an alley by a dumpster: “You’ll never see us coming!” yells one of them as Junior walks away. We don’t see or hear from them during the rest of the film, but the message is clear. The chickens, as Malcolm X (played by you-know-who) reminds us, will be coming home to roost.

This aspect of the plot has direct parallels with the foreign policy of the United States—the U.S. in bed with al-Qaeda (to name one such terrorist group), funding and encouraging them when the benefits are coming our way. If and when the seed bears bad fruit and we find bullets, bombs, or commercial jetliners heading our way, everyone suddenly wants answers and nobody wants to hear the answer.

what lies beneath

But it runs deeper. Poppa must be a wolf to catch the wolves, and his aim is to indoctrinate Junior into the same sort of lifestyle in order to carry out Poppa’s ends. But Poppa’s training of Junior must not only sully him so that there is no turning back—before a half-hour has elapsed in the movie, Poppa has thrust a pipe full of angel dust into Junior’s mouth; before it’s finished, Poppa has thrust a literal smoking gun into Junior’s hands—he must do it in such a way to ensure that any of Poppa’s unfinished business will be satisfactorily completed by Junior, willing or otherwise.

What unfinished business does Poppa have? On the far side of the screen, it is a million dollar debt Poppa owes to the Russian mob, to be taken out on his head if he doesn’t pay up by midnight of “training day.” On this side of the screen the unfinished business is the Gulf War. It’s a war that we “won” (since our Middle Eastern oil flowed uninhibited), but is quickly threatening to become un-won since Saddam Hussein has remained in power and now looms likely (or already has) to exert his muscle on American interests. Both of these storylines coalesce when Poppa and Junior visit Roger (played by Scott Glenn) for the second, fatal time.

Roger’s character, a shady, one-time friend of Poppa’s (see the CIA’s contacts with a young Hussein in the Ba-ath Party’s American-supported overthrow of the Iraqi government in 1963) has now been deemed expendable. The reason for Roger’s fall from grace is simple: he has something valuable hidden beneath his kitchen floor. In the film it’s a few million dollars cash; in the real world it’s oil, the principal means to Bush family wealth. Roger is Saddam Hussein and Poppa and Junior have arrived to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

To make sure that Junior has a vested interest in the plot, Poppa places the aforementioned murder weapon in Junior’s hands, leaving Junior no choice but to claim that he is the one who has done the job. Though he is obviously suspicious as to what’s going on, even reluctant, he is swept up in the strength of the tide that is bigger than both Poppa and Junior.

Like any Daddy’s boy, Junior is a pretty easy case. He’s so eager to please Poppa (“Give me that pipe,” he grumbles after Poppa threatens to leave him behind if he doesn’t partake) that it’s only too easy for Poppa to coach Junior fully into the “wolf” way of life. He’s coached so fully, in fact, that he has no choice but to act when the action begins. Poppa’s war has become Junior’s war—just as after September 11, 2001, Junior has had no choice but to continue the war begun by Poppa on January 16, 1991.

Politically speaking, this movie is not just about the Bushes. Bill Clinton was himself an eager trainee and successful wolf, dropping more bombs than any peacetime president in history, specifically on the countries of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan (all of which are the allegorical ghettos of Training Day.) What is mostly revealed in Training Day is not the dark side of conservative American politics, but the dark side of American culture in general, a culture that has, in one way or another, methodically tread upon the lower echelons of the world.

The reasons for said treading are many, I guess—desire to maintain our standard of living, desire to exercise power, desire to watch war on TV—but the moral is that sooner or later, it’s going to come around and bite the wolf in the ass. If it can be stated so glibly, that’s what happened on September 11. In Training Day, that’s definitely what happens to Poppa when he fails to meet the deadline set for him by the two-bit gangsters to whom he owes money.

Junior is left with blood-spattered clothes and a head full of indecision as to where he goes from here. Should he continue on down the path blazed by Poppa? Junior wants to do what’s right—he wants the bad guys locked up and out of sight. Maybe it’s true, maybe you do have to be a wolf to catch a wolf. That’s why he is talking even now (I’m writing this on April 15, 2002) of going into Iraq and acting out the scene at Roger’s house.

Maybe there’s some other way to go about things. How the movie ends remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: intermission is long over.

posted by editor ::: April 15, 2002 ::: philms :::