Of Choice and Other Human Predicaments



15.17 TO PARIS

The precision indicated in the title is the structuring device of the film.

A thorough recording of the schedule of the three Americans up to the climactic moment of the attack

The same precision informs the first part of the movie devoted to the early years of the trio of heroes to be

A documentary quality, with the characters playing their own roles

Providing a sense of immediacy and authenticity


Eastwood anatomizes the notion of heroism

What makes a hero?

When/how were these heroes born?

Out of ordinariness can surge extraordinary deeds



The question of choice and what you do with your circumstances

The question of human agency in the face of fear and terror

The adversity created by prejudices and biases

The power of a life-giving faith, and love


The portrayal of their lives as teenagers shows their defeats, struggles and disappointments

Their early fascination with weapons and war

The male bonding over fighting for play

The call to ‘serve’ and ‘save lives’

Whereas society and its institutions make the feel like ‘losers’.


Their supportive mothers who continue to believe in them

And nurture their sense of purpose

Their loving mothers dismissed by some as ‘single mothers in the statistics’

One is denied further custody of her son.


The enduring friendship across racial lines

Their individual paths

Their respective resilience

Experiencing ‘real’ war/war for real

As a soldier fighting far away

In an uncanny land

Negotiating conflict and tension

Putting your life at risk

And the life of others too.


The European tour

Life propelling them forward

The call to do something

The recitation of Saint Francis’s prayer.

Discovering European greatness and awe-inspiring monuments

Its ruins and legacies of violence

And also decadence and excess.


The unlikely trip

The journey that almost did not happen

Going to Paris as if on a second thought

A whim

The last minute boarding

The change of cars in search of a better Wifi connection

Their sitting close to the restroom

Their awareness

Their response

Their undaunted readiness and unflagging willingness

Heroes in action.


The staging of the terrorist

On the move, like clockwork,

Filmed from the back, in a technique used by Gus Van Sant in Elephant.

His suitcases and confident walk

His boarding the train too.

Later, we get a glimpse of half of his face in the mirror

In the washroom, preparing himself for the assault,

And then a full view as he storms into the coach car

A killing machine on the go.


Three people at the right time and place

Against all odds

They rose to the occasion


The miracles that life provides.




The pace and commotion of journalism

The long discussions and squeaky denouements

The sense of drama

The tension

The loneliness of the individual decision that must be made

Its imperative and urgency.

The personal journey, the affirmation of agency

What are the real motivations for the work we do?

The collusion between the personal and the professional

The intoxication of power, the sense of secrecy.


Individual heroism: Daniel Ellsberg and Katharine Graham: two sides of the same coin?

The pressures: financial, personal, moral.

The risk-taking and the departure from previous patterns

“The choicefulness of life” in the words of Masha Gessen


Katharine chooses her loyalties:

The long-term friend who has betrayed her trust,

Or the commitment to her father and husband’s vision?

Performing or being?

The editing establishes the contrast between the world of the lavish parties and the beehive of the newsroom.

The pace of the movie also works on a counterpoint: the speed of the overall life in the newsroom, and the occasional pauses—dramatic moments when choices have to be made, when time swells and seems to come to a standstill.

Bergson’s duration.

The clockwork of human emotions at sync –or not—with the mechanics of the printing machine and the delivery process

Katharine visiting the printing room, observing the patient work of the type setter.

She has left the cocoon of her domestic life as the ‘daughter’ of, or the ‘wife’ of:

A declaration of Independence! A true daughter to the Founding Fathers.


There is always a certain quality of light to a Spielberg movie

A sort of chiaroscuro

A contrast of colors performing emotional conflicts and moral dilemmas.

Spielberg’s particular talent for using the concrete of realistic moments to endow them with symbolic overtones:

The dangerous crossing of the busy NY street by the delivery boy and the intern The sense of jeopardy and risk-taking

Accidents happen and threaten the course of things

Yet there is no avoiding going across roads and avenues.


The cultural work performed by Spielberg’s film

The tradition of the press as a form of counter power

And more.

In an era of post truth, how do we define it today?

And how does it get defined?




A Wolf of Wall Street quality

The microcosm of the poker world as illustrative of the mechanics and ways of the/a larger world

Like a theatrical stage


The individual’s reaction

A striking line from The Crucible hovering above Molly’s passionate plea about the “goodness of her name”: her name, the only thing she has left.

The world of cheating and fraud: another play by Arthur Miller comes to mind …

And Miller himself, who refused to give names and cooperate in the witch-hunt.

His filmic double, perhaps: the lawyer’s commitment to a higher goal


To a pawn on a board

A card to be played

In a deck of other cards

Whether it is the property of the FBI or of the Russian mafia makes little difference

In the end.


The father-daughter jigsaw puzzle

His guilt at being a fraud

His shame at her knowing it.

She is a reminder of the gaze that has seen too much.

Iron-clad will bent to shape by his harsh and demanding love.

Learning the hard way

The physical toll

And the emotional one.

Control over powerful men as a form of revenge?

A pattern that cannot be broken.

Yet, his sudden and unexpected sincerity commits her to his name—and hers.


The redemptive dimension of honesty

Becoming a role model to the little girl Stella

To hold your line

Not to give the information voluntarily

But instead preserve your self-worth and dignity.


Her getting up after the ski fall

From the snow-covered ground which had almost been her shroud

And the TV announcer’s oracle:

“We will see her again”


A book is now in the cards

Her own

Her game indeed

And for her to play (with).




A multi-faceted reality:

The gothic script/the thriller

The psychological exploration

The sociocultural dimension of village life.


A movie structured like a short story

A series of little scenes, characters caught in medias res, an open-ended finale


The material of tragedy:

Mother and daughter

Mother and son

Guilt and anger.

To take matters into your own hands

To draw attention to the individual in a world that has lost compassion.


How we form judgments about others

Only to realize how wrong we are/were


The intruder in the shop trying to intimidate her?


An open question: is he the rapist/murderer?

Is someone covering up for him because he was involved in a dangerous (‘classified’) mission?


Old South/new South nemesis, and a history of racial/gender violence.

Resentment, retribution, revenge.

Hypocrisy, self-rigtheousness, fear.

The intertextuality with Flannery O’Connor’s collection of stories A Good Man is Hard to Find (and the eponymous story read by one of the characters)

Who is the Misfit in this story?


A gallery of grotesques

(F. O’Connor’s intuition that “to the hard of hearing you must shout, to the blind you must draw large and startling figures”—her short stories as billboards, perhaps…)

The ex-husband coming to terms with loss in his own way

The sheriff and his illness

Dixon and the loss of his father/taking care of his mother

The midget and his tragic loneliness

Mildred and her revengeful mourning

Her son and his unarticulated questions

The lost daughter Angela: guilt at having caused her death by not lending her the car and taunting her: “Yes, I wish you would get raped”.

How we utter words recklessly

(Taunting fate)

Indifferent to their true meaning and resonance.

If only we could take them back

And shape them into something else…


The surrounding nature and its pristine beauty

The deer scene: Mildred projects some meaning on to the appearance of the deer

Yet the deer goes about its way.

The silent and aloof wilderness closing in on both of them.


The role of the media: one story one week, another story the following week.

The treadmill of ready-made scripts

Compassion and pity as commodities.


Willoughby delivering ultima verba to the world

Three letters, his own trio of billboards,

And postings of a different order:

To his wife—leaving her after a beautiful day of love and family bliss

To Mildred—paying for the billboards, a “chess move”

To Dixon—reestablishing his sense of worth, delivering him from the prison of anger.

“To be calm and love”: the only response not to be destructive to self and others.


The restaurant scene:

The midget holding a mirror to Mildred’s own flaws.

Later, Mildred’s peaceful offering to Charley and his girlfriend Penelope with words of kindness: “take good care of her”.

Coming to terms with jealousy.

Stepping out of the frame of the billboard.



Lines like operatic arias

‘Do you want to kill this guy?’

‘Not really’

‘We will decide on the way’

Vigilante violence leads nowhere

But to more loss

Mildred may have realized that she is about to abandon her son the way she had let her daughter down.


The gothic dimension: the chase, the bullies and the female victim, the hermeneutic quest for knowledge, the moral questions, the haunted billboards (black lettering against the red color, like the scarlet letter, the branding of guilt and accusation).

And, as we hear it in the opening sequence of In the Electric Mist, “souls are wandering … the dead hover … their claims on the earth as tenacious as ours”…



A psychological inquiry, or as a supernatural story?

Terror masquerading as horror.


The opening scene: the flesh, the throbbing of life

The importance of the body, the sacrificial dimension of the flesh

The religious dimension suggested in the title: the ancient idea that a sacrifice could be offered to save the community.


The early discussion about the watch

The issue of time (see Faulkner’s use of it in The Sound and the Fury with the character Quentin)

Can the clock be reversed? Can we go back to the prelapsarian state of innocence before the medical malpractice?

The clock is ticking for the doctor and his family

Time as the pendulum of Poe’s story “The pit and the pendulum”: time catches up with him, his past comes back to destroy him.


The uncanny character of the boy who insinuates himself in the life of the family members

Moving from extreme kindness, shyness and withdrawal

To anger, violence and threat.

A gothic script with a bully and victims

And a chase—physical and psychological.


The lie, the cover-up: what the doctor did wrong in the past comes back to haunt him.

He has to face the consequences of his being a fraud

No deer but a killing

The father ready to sacrifice one of his children

The world of Greek tragedy

Cruel gods in the modern world of professional flaws.


Manipulation, retribution, and revenge

The children fall prey to the boy, and fulfil his dark prophecies.

Do they in fact somatise fear and anxiety?

The wife refuses to surrender to the bullying and foreboding

And is spared from the physical curse.

Do we need the supernatural to explain away the facts suggested by the film?

If we do, what does it signify?

Like the deer suggested in the title, the true meaning of the movie remains elusive.



SF with an agenda: cellular reduction

With a very real topic—the misuse and mishandling of science

The scientist is haunted by the way his discovery is instrumentalized by dictators to suppress radicalism, resistance and activism

Whereas he had introduced it to voice opposition to global economics and capitalism

To help the planet

Not add to its imperfections and lapses.

How to preserve the original vision?

How to retrieve the original impetus?


The fairy tale dimension and comic features

The moral issues

The literary reference to Swift and his world of Lilliputians.

The biblical motif of Noah’s Ark


|The idea seems so far fetched that at first we are tempted to dismiss the film as pure comedy

Yet gradually we understand the questions raised by the script—directly or not.

The environmental crisis

The urgency of operating a radical life change

The power of individual choices and actions.


The gated community reproduces on a mini scale all the evils and ills of the larger world

Paul realizes that behind the rosy picture there is enslaved labor

So the system in itself does not present heal or fix the world

But how you live it makes a difference

Paul and his gradual awareness

What can he do today to change his part of the world?

His radical decision to contribute to the collective good by catering to the needs of others, weaker and vulnerable, but no less human.

Compassion and mercy as the ultimate ego reduction.


A moral call to be attentive to one’s surrounding, be it natural or human.



In lieu of closure:


“Presently we are returning to the primordial community of the universe, the earth, and all living beings. Each has its own voice, its role, its power over the whole. But, most important, each has its special symbolism. The excitement of life is in the numinous experience wherein we are given to each other in that larger celebration of existence in which all things attain their highest expression, for the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event”.

Thomas Berry (Dream of the Earth 5)


“I wish I could finish on a hopeful note, by saying something like: If only we insist on making choices, we will succeed in keeping darkness at bay. I’m not convinced that that’s the case. But I do think that making choices and, more important, imagining other, better choices, will give us the best chance possible of coming out of the darkness better than we were when we went in. It’s a bit like emigrating that way: the choice we make rarely feels free, but choices we make about inhabiting new landscapes (or changed bodies) demand an imagination”. Masha Gessen (New York Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2018, p. 6)



Marie Lienard-Yeterian