So I was watching Three Days of the Condor, and it got me thinking about virtue…
As tends to be the case with political thrillers, the movie’s plot centers on, well, a plot. A CIA code-breaker cell discreetly placed in metropolitan New York is wiped out by an anonymous, sub-machine gun-wielding crew. Joe Turner, codename Condor, happens to be the lone survivor, taking it upon himself to uncover the truth of the assassinations as he simultaneously fights to survive a game of cat-and-mouse with a series of hitmen.
Over the course of the film, Condor discovers that the hit on his unit was ordered from within the CIA after he himself had begun to crack a code indicating that the CIA was actively exploring scenarios in which they might overthrow oil-rich countries in order to secure the valuable resource for the U.S.’ own benefit.
At the end of the film, Condor confronts a CIA operative with his findings. The operative offers justification for these clandestine murders of Condor’s coworkers and friends, as well as others like it, including those of foreign political leaders conducted expressly to destabilize countries and reap the reward:
Higgins: […] It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them.
Higgins: Not now — then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em!
Of course, as justifications go, this one is shallow, reductive, and cynical. But taken at face value, it does afford us the opportunity to engage a particular question about ourselves: What kind of person will I be when faced with hardship?
It’s a question we’ve likely all asked ourselves at various points, but have maybe never had to ask in the middle of high-pressure conditions. What could a war, a famine, or a natural disaster do to corrode my sense of responsibility to my neighbor? Writing in the midst of a global pandemic, on the heels of a period where resources at the very least felt scarce, when grocery aisles that had always been stuffed to the brim with an overwhelming array of food stuffs were nearly bare and now looking down the barrel of economic collapse and projected windfalls of unemployment and homelessness, have we asked, Who will I be? Will I be the person who hoards what’s left for myself at the expense of my neighbor? What will I resort to when I am scared? Will the hospitality and peacefulness to which I’ve committed be turned in an instant to pure self-preservation? Will I prove the cynics right, that I would ultimately trade my neighbor’s suffering for my own material security? Will I allow harsh conditions to determine how much of a Christian I can afford to be?
TW: There is a “romantic” subplot that comes across as fundamentally coercive.
Theophany’s mission to bring God to light in film has another branch: a YouTube channel of video essays. Check them out, and don’t forget to like and subscribe while you’re there.