Parable of politics in The Prestige

The great rivalry between stage magicians Alfred Borden and Robert Angier to engineer the best version of Transported Man generates amazement in the eyes of the people who watch The Prestige. This film strikes me as a representation of politics.

There are three major points in The Prestige that I think is relatable to political reality, namely the three parts of a magic trick, internalization of an act, and a critical eye.

The three parts of magic trick

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”

That is a monologue by John Cutter, a stage engineer, that starts the film. Cutter explains the three parts of a magic trick. He demonstrates the explanation with a popular bird trick to Jess, Borden’s daughter.

Politics also consists of these three parts. Consider, for example, American President Donald Trump and his run in the 2016 United States Presidential Election.

The first part, The Pledge, is where Trump laid out his plan during the campaign in 2016. Take his plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, by then, move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. It seemed to be just as ordinary as another campaign promise the Election has seen — in fact, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made a similar promise.

The Turn, which is the second part, is when Trump was elected President of the United States and doubled down his commitment. President Trump declared the United States’s foreign policy change toward the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict on December 6, 2017. He remarked:

I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. […] That is why consistent with the Jerusalem embassy act, I am also directing the State Department to begin preparation to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This will immediately begin the process of hiring architects, engineers and planners so that a new embassy, when completed, will be a magnificent tribute to peace.

The Prestige is the part in which President Trump realizes the plan. It’s not enough to publicly announce the follow-up plan to move the Embassy. It takes a tangible measure. That is, to really move the Embassy to Jerusalem.

This, as Cutter would say, the hardest part of President Trump’s trick. Lest we forget about the sacrifice Borden has to make for his Transported Man. Put in the context of President Trump, it may be peace itself or, like Borden, friendship and people’s lives.

Live the act

Borden and Angier initially work together for stage magician Milton. Cutter, as Milton’s then engineer, orders the boys to go to a show by Chinese stage magician Chung Ling Soo. The task is to find the secret behind Soo’s drum and fishbowl trick.

They sit together until the show ends. Afterward they both go out of the theatre and find Soo leave with two assistants who help him with his infirmity. Borden comments on the observation.

“This is the trick. This is the performance,” he tells Angier. “This is why no one can detect his method — total devotion to his art.”

Borden’s comment emphasizes the point. That is, to create such a trick requires one to live the act. In other words, it requires internalization of the performance of one’s trick into one’s daily basis.

It’s the reason why Soo needs two assistants to help him get in to the coach. Hence, Soo’s audience will not question whether he pretends his infirmity on the stage.

Politics requires the equal amount of stagecraft to bolster performance. The case in point is Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Many regard and praise him as the man of the people, in large part because he engulfs his personality with modesty — the soul of his performance.

Blusukan (or impromptu visit) is President Jokowi’s typical way to approach the people and observe the problem they face. How President Jokowi conducts his blusukan makes the presidency seems close to the people. His tendency to prefer less protocols during the visit amplifies the message of his modest image (see, among many, his blusukan to Sinabung).

President Jokowi extends his modesty to his daily basis. In Janurary 2017, he ordered a fried rice from a street food vendor whose gerobak (or cart) was stationed near Bogor Presidential Palace. In addition, the President’s white-colored shirt reportedly costs under Rp 150,000 or roughly $11.00.

The popular term among Indonesians for this phenomenon is pencitraan (or image building). And the way in which President Jokowi internalizes his modesty renders his performance of pencitraan pretty much natural—just like Soo and his infirmity on stage.

A critical eye

It’s the show of a bird trick by Virgil, another stage magician. Members of audience sitting in the front row are Sarah and her nephew, Anthony DeMarco.

At first, this boy seems to be just another member of the audience who seeks joy in a magic trick. But he’s not.

When Virgil performs his second part of the trick, where he crushes the birdcage under a cloth to the table, DeMarco cries and groans.

“He killed it!”

Although Virgil concludes his trick with The Prestige part that makes a bird reappears, the boy cries nonetheless.

Then Borden, in his capacity as Virgil’s then assistant, approaches DeMarco to appease him. He brings a cage with a bird inside, and tells the boy, “See? He’s alright. He’s fine.”

“But where’s the brother?” the boy replies.

This is the interesting scene in this film, which offers quite a different message. It encourages the audience to have a critical eye and make use of it even in the face of a simple trick. As The Nerdwriter would say, this easily missed scene invites a probing eye that looks into the trick.

Politics is no different. People need to look into politics just as the boy looks into the bird trick.

The case of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may serve the descriptive purpose. President Duterte’s pledge was to eliminate the country’s drug problem. After he was elected President, he began to deliver the promise through his so-called War on Drugs.

It only took four days until a story broke out and revealed the police had killed thirty drug dealers and seized nearly $20 million worth of narcotics. Moreover, it only took two months for the police to declare dramatic reduction of drug supply: “fell by 80 to 90 percent last September [2016].”

The critical eye, however, would look into the policy and its consequences. Consider, among others, the drawback for human rights. President Duterte’s drug policy was allegedly incompatible with ethics and legal procedures.

Human Rights Watch released a report that reveals the policy’s flaws. None were investigated or prosecuted. Eyewitness accounts portrayed that the killings targeted drug suspects who were unarmed. It was the police itself who placed guns next to the victims’ bodies to support their claims in the official reports. Furthermore, the report states, “Duterte’s outspoken endorsement of the campaign implicates him and other senior officials in possible incitement to violence, instigation of murder, and in command responsibility for crimes against humanity.”

To question the efficiency of the policy, to question the consequences and to ask why it’s even necessary are the ways in which the critical eye observes a magic trick, even the third part.

The Prestige

[Alexander] Wendt […] believes that ‘epistemological issues are relatively uninteresting’ because ‘the point is to explain the world, not to argue how we can know it’.

The Prestige has meaningful, various messages. But this depends on how the audience interprets the film and captures its essence. For me, it doesn’t matter whether The Prestige has a particular political motive, or built upon selected political events. It nevertheless relatable to politics.

At least until I’ve finished writing this piece, The Prestige remains the best in my view. It helps me develop my work of imagination to understand the world and to explain it better.

Layman’s musings