THE STATE WITHIN
This is another edition of my 491 part series on the relationship between the UK and the US, a subject that has fascinated me since I first laid eyes on Monty Python's Flying Circus.
What roused my curiosity this time was a viewing of the 6 hour mini-series (7.5 hours if you have to watch the commercials, thank you TiVo!) The State Within on BBC America. It is a rule in our household that any British mini-series broadcast in the US will be viewed by someone living under our roof. Almost without exception, that someone is Julie. But this time, the show was set in Washington DC and it involved skulduggery inside the US defense community and all sorts of nastiness, so I was prevailed upon to watch... just this once.
Before we go any further, you should know that I enjoyed the show quite a bit. It wasn't perfect (first 2 hours were a bit slow), but I was happy to go along for the ride and found myself thoroughly entertained. Second, there will be spoilers galore in this post, so if you've got it sitting on your TiVo and you're waiting for a snowy weekend to watch it, stop reading right now.
You didn't stop reading, did you? Alright, then, we'll move on.
The State Within details an elaborate plot hatched between a Halliburton-like company and highly placed Defense Department officials to start a war with a post-Soviet Central Asian state. The show begins with a jumbo-jet blowing up just after taking off from Dulles International Airport. It's a dramatic scene that shows the British Ambassador to the US heroically attempting to save people before narrowly escaping the crash scene with his life.
The ambassador slowly unravels the plot through a series of twists and turns and double-crosses and a even a few political assassinations thrown in for good measure.
As an American there were moments that had me alternately scratching my head and giggling.
First, there were the accents. All the lead roles were played by Brits, and while Limeys are supposedly famous for being able to do spot-on American accents, well... not everyone is Helen Miren. Let's just say some people overdid it. I had always wondered what the US equivalent of the bad British accent sounded like. Now I know:
"I neeed to speeek with yourrrrrr Brrrritish Ambaserrrrderrrr right now, misterrrr!"
There were also some small misunderstandings about how American government works. The US Defense Secretary was shown making public comments in support of law enforcement techniques employed by a state governor. The implication was that, if she wanted, the Defense Secretary could have shut down a domestic law enforcement action. In fact, the Defense Secretary can't do jack squat on American soil. (Unless that American soil is located in Cuba, but that's another story.)
But apart from accents and plots, the most interesting thing about The State Within is what it tells us about the British self image.
One can see the American self image on display in just about any Hollywood thriller. It usually involves someone at the fringes of his organization, a rebel, a guy who makes his own rules. He's been on the force/agency/bureau/organized crime family for a long time, and his co-workers tolerate his ticks. But when disaster strikes (often in the form of a foreign plot) the maverick is brought to center stage due to some sort of specialized knowledge of the enemy. In the end, the maverick's unorthodox methods provide the key element, and he emerges the hero.
(There's a sports version of this movie, where some mean team owner decides to assemble the worst sports team in the world--because he needs to lose money for tax reasons or something like that. So the owner gets the outcasts from every other team in the league and puts them together. But guess what? That rag-tag bunch of losers finds a way to pull together and prove that they're really winners. They eventually beat the best team in the league. Rah, rah!)
The State Within portrays Britain as the conscience of America. The Ambassador is constantly trying to find ways to keep America's unbridled power in check. At one point, he single-handedly tries to broker a peace deal. By the time the show is over, Mr. Brit Ambassador is in the office of the US Secretary of Defense. He's basically blackmailing the Secretary into doing the right thing and turning back American bombers before they start ANOTHER war under false pretenses.
In the world of The State Within, the only thing that can save America from itself is a healthy dose of British common sense.
On the other side of the coin, it's fascinating to see how the Americans are portrayed. They are, with one small exception, bad guys to the core. They're renegade cowboys with little in the way of morals, restraint, or even manners. The best example is the rogue Secretary of Defense. She's just a few notches away from being a live-action version of Yosemite Sam. She's a rootin', tootin', itchin' for a fight, live wire... and she has access to the most powerful army in the world. Be afraid, Brits, be very afraid.
It's possible that the exaggerated accents and cartoonish buffoonery of the American characters is just a little payback. I've heard numerous complaints that villains in American films tend to have British accents. Even in space, the bad guys speak the Queen's English. So perhaps it's time we Yanks have to sit through a drama where all the villains speak with "R"s so hard you could cut diamonds with them.
Fair enough. But next time, let's make a movie where all the bad guys have Scottish accents. They make me giggle.