Death Race 2008

09/01/2008 By Shawn Burns

The original Death Race 2000 (1975) is a bit of a classic dystopian critique: future America is a financial wasteland, run by a fascist government that sponsors gladiatorial games, in this case a violent car race in which the drivers kill each other and bystanders for the entertainment of the inured public.

Death Race (2008) shifts the political critique. As a sign of the times the dystopian backdrop painted in this updated version is one in which corporations run much of the public infrastructure, including the penal system. It joins Robocop and The Running Man in that particular genre of futuristic cautionary tales. The government is weak enough, or incompetent enough, to have permitted the financial collapse of the country and although it behaves fascistically, sending riot police in to stomp on riots that don’t happen until the police show up to inspire them, the real villains are the amoral corporations. Running prisons and selling death to the unemployed public, the corporations at one and the same time distract the public from their plight and inspire them to spend their paltry incomes on corporate products.

The goals of the protagonists in the two films are also different. In the original, the "hero" has as his goal the destruction of the political structure of the country. In the remake, the hero’s only goal is to reclaim his infant daughter from the people she has been fostered with after he is framed for murdering his wife: attacking the villain, the corporation, doesn’t serve this end at all so his method of achieving his end is to escape.

At one point Joan Allen, the warden of the prison and face of the corporation for the purposes of the film, asks the hero if he is sure that his daughter isn’t better off with her foster family than with him, a twice (now) incarcerated dreg whose wife was the only one who saw any good in him. She suggests that by giving his daughter up (and staying to race for the corporation) he would be performing one of the greatest, most selfless acts of love she can imagine. He rejects this without any notable conflict, remarking at the end of the film that since no one could love his daughter more than he does he is obviously the right person to raise her. Even if it’s in a junkyard in Mexico.

Ignoring for the moment that I, once again went to see a movie on my own in which the main character is separated from his family (I’m such an idiot), I want to say a little self-consciously that I have a hard time agreeing with the hero about his decision.

I want it to be the case that love alone can inspire parents to be parents, and to raise children who are happy and healthy. But I find myself siding with the evil, corporate warden on this one: certainly there are cases in which the greater act of love is to give your child over into the care of someone else.

Like, perhaps, your mother.

A lot has been said in the last day and a half about Sarah Palin’s fifth child, and the rumour that he is in fact her grandson, born to her seventeen year old daughter Bristol four months ago. And a lot has been said today about the announcement that Bristol is herself, currently, five months pregnant (which, if true, would mean that Trig, the infant, could not possibly be hers).

Cynics, myself included, await the announcement at some point in the future that Bristol has mysteriously ‘lost’ the baby (because we not-so-secretly believe that she isn’t pregnant now).

But I am not so hardened that I think, as some seem to, that Palin is unequivocally stealing something from her daughter by (allegedly) raising her grandson as her son. Because the decision to keep a baby or give him up cannot be an easy one. Supportive parents, willing to step in and step up, ought to be lauded. And children in crisis shouldn’t be exposed to the sneers of the jaded. I have no idea what the dynamic is in the Palin household. But I am willing to assume that if Palin has been raising her grandson that this decision was made out of love, and not out of political ambition. Further, I am willing to extend to Bristol Palin the benefit of the doubt and assume that her decisions, too, are made out of love. And to note that no matter what she shouldn’t be used as a political tool by anybody.

It will be pointed out, and rightly, I think, that no matter what’s been said above that doesn’t change the fact that someone’s judgment can be called into question about something, and that can be referenced in political discussions. For instance, McCain’s decision to nominate Palin without knowing (or caring) about the effect these rumours would have on her candidacy and his run for the White House, can be examined and criticized. But Bristol’s decisions about her life, and about her child or children, are not on the table. Not unless there is some definitive evidence that Sarah Palin herself has been strong-arming her daughter for her own political gain. And I’m enough of a parent that I can’t make that kind of leap just because I don’t like politicians.

So back off of Bristol, and if you must talk about Sarah Palin as a mother then be careful to not confuse the relevant with the irrelevant: flying with leaking amniotic fluid and selecting an inferior care center in which to give birth is poor judgment, the kind of judgment that becomes an issue if she ever holds the office of Vice President. Lying about being pregnant is questionable, but what it says about her character is ambiguous, and might not be relevant at all politically: a lie to protect her daughter says good things about her character; a lie to protect her career says some pretty sinister things about her character.

I think that sacrifice is heroic. And unlike the protagonist of Death Race I do not think that love alone makes one a superior guardian for a child. Sometimes love requires a very difficult choice. Like the choice to lie, or the choice to give up a child.

Or to vote Green in November.