"A sketchbook is a secret thing, a collection of unfinished and often times abandoned ideas never intended for public consumption—at least not in their current state. It’s a private space for honing one’s craft and workshopping, separating good ideas from those best left unexplored." -Brian Heater at The Daily Cross Hatch.

29 January 2012

Norwegian Ninja: A Review

(click to enlarge)

After I wrote the bulk of this review I found a piece with a similar structure, using an American political figure to illustrate the plot of “Norwegian Ninja”. That piece is here. I debated changing mine, but I believe my analogy is more apt, so I’m keeping it. Enjoy:

Ok. Speaking to my fellow Americans, imagine this for the plot of a movie:

It’s 1985.  Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker, a sailor in a sensitive communications billet for SUBLANT (Submarine Force Atlantic) is being arrested for one of the worst acts of betrayal (if not the worst- and certainly the one with the largest possibility of mass destruction) in American history. For 17 years he has been giving away classified information to the Soviet Union for filthy lucre. Through Walker, the Soviets have gained so much knowledge about our submarine capabilities, they have been able to engineer a new class of boat- able to outfox ours -and as a result, redress the imbalance (skewed towards us) in nuclear warfare capability. They can now sneak around our underwater defenses and put missiles closer to our shores than ever before.

Following me? It’s a movie plot. Stay with me.

Ok. Here’s where the movie gets weird…John Anthony Walker turns out not to be a traitor- but a patriot. For years he has been leading a clandestine force of ninja held in readiness to engage in secret combat against those who would threaten the American way of life. In this case it is a shadow army of villainous men who would dubiously lead us into war to maintain global hegemony. (You caught the part about the secret Ninja force, right?) So, in this movie, why does our "hero" Walker end up in jail? Well…to tell you that would be a spoiler, but it’s a necessary part of the plan.

Got it? Sound like a good flick? Something you’d see?

Well. You can.  Sort of.

Just substitute John Anthony Walker (I spit on the ground at his name!) with real life former Norwegian Labour Party diplomat Arne Treholt and you have Thomas Cappelen Malling’s film “Norwegian Ninja”. Treholt was caught in an act of espionage with the Soviets that was severe enough to put him in prison for 20 years. (He was pardoned after 8).

Enraptured by a trailer I couldn’t understand, I eagerly awaited the film's arrival at my local art-house theater. If it showed up, I missed it. “It’ll be be on Netflix for sure.” I thought. No dice. Why, why, why!? I wondered. Who wouldn’t want to see a Norwegian action flick that bucks the Viking stereotype? The trailer gave me tantalizing glimpses of Ninja commandos clad in amazing knitwear, doing battle amongst picturesque Norwegian fjords...I had to see it.

So, eventually I caved and I bought it. (Who has the money for frivolous DVD purchases in this day and age?) Turns out if I had waited a little longer, I could’ve gotten it on Netflix. Oh well.

But, I think I have an answer as to why it didn’t immediately break big into the American film scene. There is a bit of…how can I say this? “Anti-American Sentiment” in the film. It’s subtle. You have to read between the lines but it’s there. (I’m kidding, it’s actually very obvious.) It was soon very clear that this was not a silly film about Ninjas and spies.  Malling’s Treholt is Noam Chomsky in tabi boots. (with throwing stars and a Mauser, riding a Maiale.)       

In the film, Arne Treholt’s Ninja Force is desperately trying to prevent a CIA-sponsored campaign of propaganda-by-deed/false-flag-terrorism (the alleged “Operation Stay Behind”) intended to draw the Scandinavian countries (Norway in particular) closer to the American bosom and further from their Soviet neighbors. Sound like a good Psy-Op?

Malling does a good job of integrating real terrorist events (and other suspicious looking calamities) into the plot of his film. Did the CIA blow up the Bologna train station and the Alexander L. Kielland drilling rig in 1980? I doubt it. It may have been the Cold War, with a lot of intelligence agencies doing nutso stuff out there in Europe, but I don’t think that the CIA would have gone to those lengths to turn the Norwegians (or Italians) away from the Soviets. Certainly, we wouldn’t have wanted Soviet sub bases in Norway. However I doubt that Norway was a strategic priority that would have necessitated measures of that severity.  (Can I see the CIA asking Norwegian citizens like Hans Otto Meyer, to cache weapons for a “stay-behind” guerilla force in case of actual Soviet occupation? Yes, I can. )

 The premise of the film raises an unpleasant specter for Americans. Do we secretly sponsor terrorism to achieve our national security aims? Was the scene where a "Stay Behind" pilot aims his plane at Oslo's two-towered City Hall Malling’s way of saying that 9-11 was an “inside job”? I have always rejected that theory and its inclusion in the film deeply soured it for me. It's easy to embrace conspiracy theories when you're predisposed to do so. I mean, by that same logic, one could connect the dots and work out a theory that Anders Behring Breivik conducted his massacre at the bidding of a secret cabal of left wing Norweigan politicians, in order to create an atmosphere of empathy that would be conducive to pushing legislation through for looser immigration laws. It makes total sense, right? (For the record, I don't really believe that.) Truth is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

I can understand where Malling is coming from though. Remember those submarines with nuclear missiles we were talking about at the beginning of the review? During the Cold War their patrol areas skirted Norway. Neighboring Finland was, for all intents and purposes, a dormant Soviet satellite. The potential threat of invasion to Norway was as real as anywhere in Europe.  I can understand why Arne Treholt (the Ninja version) would want to balance with the Soviets, instead of against them. In America, protected by two oceans, a Soviet invasion would have been impossible (despite Hollywood's attempt to convince us otherwise) and accorded us a certain degree of emotional insulation. The fear and paranoia in 1980's Norway must've been palpable.

What comes through in this film is a strong sense of Norwegian pride and independence. They can afford to have it- they aren’t dependent on anyone for oil and only 2% of their population is non-European, which allows them to emotionally disengage from the world to a certain degree. The standard of living for Norwegians is good, due to an equitable distribution of tax rates. They aren’t a member of the EU and apparently they are incredibly self-sufficient. This, primarily, is why the threat of being suborned by the CIA  is anathema to (Ninja) Treholt. After a long history of occupation (first the Danes, then the Swedes, zen ze Germans) it’s no wonder that (Ninja) Treholt puts his life on the line to "beat the shit out of those who [would] mess with the Norwegian way of life”.

So, aside from the conspiratorial insinuations, I enjoyed the film. Stylistically, I loved it. At first, coupled with soft lighting and faux-80’s aging, it had the feel of Megaforce (Deeds not Words!) meets the Royal Tennenbaums. Treholt’s top-secret Ninja commandos train on a peaceful island (Grassy Island in Oslo Fjord) protected by a Feng Shui force field. In lieu of the Megaforce’s flying motorcycles, they have maiali and amphibious cars. Each member of the team has a specialty- from sharpshooting to combat driving to pacifism. (And, believe it or not, the pacifist ninja plays a key role). King Olav V (The People's King) is also a character in the film. He is often seen relaxing at Grassy Island and conferring with Treholt.

In terms of “action”, there’s enough of it, though I wouldn't classify this an "action film". There's an intense “selection” scene, where two apprentice ninjas vie for full membership in the Ninjatroppen (which also makes you wonder what selection for Norwegian SF must be like- skip ahead to 3:01)There are plenty of fight scenes, especially when Operation Saga Night really begins. But I don’t want to ruin too much. (If you rent the DVD, make sure you watch the extras for how they filmed the squirrel suit footage.)

Once I put aside my feelings about the anti-American tone of the film, I was able to enjoy it.  (It's always instructive to know how the world views us). It was exceedingly well done for a movie that probably had access to an infinitesimal fraction of a Hollywood budget. And, I'm always a sucker for labors of love that come to fruition. Despite my mixed feelings, Malling's Norwegian Ninja is a fantastic entry into the genre of Cold War films.

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