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Movies for the Resistance: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every week.)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Running time: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2009

 

One of the subtler points of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories concerned the triumph of knowledge over superstition. The tales appeared as science was moving forward in leaps and bounds, with new discoveries arriving at a heretofore unmatched pace. At the same time, interest in the occult was growing exponentially, and secret societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn flourished throughout the supposedly level-headed Western World. Among his other qualities, Sherlock Holmes served as a bulwark of reason against suspicion and fear. Every case, no matter how baffling, had some rational basis in fact. Even those involving supposedly supernatural monsters ultimately revealed themselves as cunning frauds.

One of the beautiful things about Guy Ritchie’s 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes is how well it captures that notion – and a number of Doyle’s other touches – while resolutely remaining its own beast. The question of the supernatural looms large from the opening scene, which finds Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) on racing to stop the aptly named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) from sacrificing a girl to the Devil. They save the day, but Blackwood vows to return from the dead to effect dark changes for the Empire. Lo and behold, he reappears after Watson himself pronounced him well and truly executed, prompting a race to stop him before his mad scheme come to fruition.

Of course there’s a rational reason behind it all – something suitably exotic yet eminently plausible – and of course Holmes sniffs it all out long before anyone else even recognizes the mystery. The film’s gorgeous montages (courtesy of editor James Herbert) flash back during the reveals to us the details previously hidden in plain sight. The technique helps the film stay fresh and vibrant, and a uniquely cinematic way of tipping the hat to the character’s origins.

Underneath all the swashbuckling, the same battle between knowledge and fear feels no less powerful. Blackwood’s plot involves taking control of the government via active demagoguery: using clever devices to emulate black magic and trust those not already under his sway to bend their knee in response. It comes dangerously close to working, though our heroes once again foil the plot in the nick of time.

Eight years ago, it felt like appropriately pulpy popcorn fancy. And yet now here we sit, poised once again between rationality and fear, as an ostensibly powerful political body rolls over in absolute supplication before a brazen phone. Trump’s differs little from Blackwood’s. He just dresses it up in different clothes and calls it different names. Take away the details, and the emotions they prey upon are no different.

It’s fear. Fear of what we don’t understand. Fear that someone may possess strength that we don’t. Fear of Oz the Great and Powerful.

The Republican Party has surrendered to that fear full score. For whatever reason and despite all rational logic, they have abandoned any notion of responsibility to their country. With the release of the Nunes memo last week – and the right-wing media in full froth over the vast conspiracy that it supposedly reveals – it’s clear that none of them will cross their mad king. With quislings like Nunes chiming in and Sean Hannity braying like Lord Haw Haw about the absolute proof of vast secretive cabals now moving against the justly serving President, his vaunted base accepts no other version of events.

Fear is powerful. Fear is easy. Fear makes rational people do insane fucking things.

The difference of course, comes in effort. Blackwood is a Machiavellian genius, employing borderline steampunk technology with jeweled precision to sow the seeds of madness and panic. All Trump needed was to spout a few racist epitaphs and 60 million Americans flocked eagerly to his side.

Including the party he now commands.

Including the ones who could have stopped this long ago.

The GOP fears its base. Its base fears anyone who isn’t like them. Trump need only bash the former with the latter, and they fall in line. Blackwood had to work so much harder.

Of course, therein lies the means to fighting back. Trump isn’t a sinister genius, just a glorified snake oil peddler who sampled too much of his own product. And the more desperate his lies become – the more his lackeys echo his rants – the simpler they are to refute.

Of course there’s no Deep State conspiracy.

Of course there’s no vast plot to frame the President.

It’s just a bad liar trying not to get caught, and his enablers unable to acknowledge their cowardice.

You can believe that the federal justice system is lying, that the Democrats are lying, that the literally thousands of lawsuits against Trump are lying, that the media is lying, that Robert “I am a Republican appointed by Republicans” Mueller is lying, that James “I am a Republican who investigated Bill Clinton” Comey is lying, that Rod “for fuck’s sake I am a Republican appointed by TRUMP” Rosenstein is lying.

Or you can believe that Donald Trump and his cronies are lying. Because they certainly haven’t told thousands of crude, obvious, easily disproven lies before.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out.

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