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FIELD NOTES: War on ice

On February 15, 1978, Leon Spinks shocked the sports world, beating defending heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali in a nationally-televised fight. Although Ali was entering the twilight of his career and Spinks had won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, no one gave the young fighter much of a chance against the man considered "The Greatest." Most saw it as a warm-up fight for Ali as he prepared to take on the top-ranked contender, Ken Norton. So, it was perhaps a little surprising that more than one-third (34.4 TV rating) of Americans tuned in to CBS to watch the contest. Our household was one of those, even though none of us was a huge boxing fan. Just a few days earlier, though, my whole family, along with millions of others in the Midwest, had spent nearly a week trapped in our house without electricity due to the Blizzard of '78; millions suffering from a bad case of cabin fever and desperately needing the distraction. 

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, people were similarly faced with the bleak prospect of days or weeks or months (who knew?) of sitting at home, a little frightened, a little unsure, and a lot bored. Understandably, many turned to television and online streaming for respite, specifically to the story of a weird man, his tigers, and his shady nemesis. In retrospect, "Tiger King" had all the legitimacy of a poorly-conceived National Enquirer feature, but it hit the national psyche at precisely the right time with exactly the bonkers tone the country needed. "Yeah, this virus is scary, but at least my wife isn't cutting me up and feeding me to her tigers." I'm not sure "Tiger King" would have become a viral (no pun intended) sensation in a normal year. 

I thought about that timing as I watched another Netflix drama this weekend. "Black Crab" is a Swedish action-thriller in which a group of skating commandos - yep, skating commandos - must deliver two top-secret canisters across miles of sea ice to a remote research station behind enemy lines during an apocalyptic military conflict. The parallels to real-world current events could not be more on-the-nose as bedraggled refugees stream out of devastated cities with occasional bomb blasts ripping into high-rise buildings in the background. 

When the film began production, I am sure that the idea a modern European country could face such a conflict was a thing of fanciful fiction, and the writers went out of their way to make the conflict as vague as possible. The enemy is only ever referred to as "the enemy," and they are dressed in plain white parkas and pants without flags or insignia. Even the helicopters that chase the commandos lack any identification and are filmed from an angle that makes it challenging to identify the type. A radio broadcast overheard near the beginning of the film references a "civil war," but a Swedish civil war... really? One only needs to look at a map of Europe to determine who "the enemy" invading from the north is, most likely. And that's pretty chilling given the geopolitical circumstances.

Unfortunately, the vagueness of the conflict and the utter absurdity of the premise gut the film of the emotional impact it might otherwise have. The Hollywood trope of a group of special forces on a mission behind enemy lines is subverted here by putting them on ice skates. Scenes of them gliding silently across a vast expanse of frozen sea as missiles fly across the horizon, or the faces of hundreds of corpses staring up through the ice have an undeniable visual impact. But too many plot elements make no sense whatsoever, and the central conceit is so obviously and ham-handedly telegraphed that it is difficult to take it all seriously. 

The soldiers, for instance, are given two containers about the size of 20-ounce cans and told that delivering them to the research facility will immediately end the war. Yet, they are appalled to learn later that they have been transporting biological weapons. Seriously, what did they think was in those cans, magic bullets? Although it's never explicitly noted, I think even the  code name reveals the true nature of their mission, as the symbol for a biological hazard could reasonably be referred to as a "black crab." 

In the shadow of real-world events, "Black Crab" comes off as facile and trite, but it does cast light on a fundamental and timely question: What are these people fighting over?      


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