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Marching Onto DVD: Intelligently Designed “Penguins”

Movie stars, but are they gay?
One of last summer’s biggest and most surprising success stories at the box office was a movie that had no special effects and no movie stars--just a bunch of penguins. The documentary “March of the Penguins” was released on DVD this week. The film's poetic-yet-gritty depiction of Emperor penguins surviving the hazards of life in the Antarctic became the second highest grossing documentary ever (behind “Farenheit 9/11”)--while also becoming a discussion point in the debate over Intelligent Design. Conservative Christians in particular latched onto the film’s portrayal of the penguins' complex and fragile mating rituals, which include marching on a 70-mile trek and sheltering an egg under unbelievably harsh conditions. Details such as these, the argument goes, must be an affirmation that a Supreme Being, not natural selection, is behind it all.

Of course soon after such claims were made by the religious right, others began to challenge the absurdity of attaching values such as monogamy and self-sacrifice to animals. One article went so far as to point out that some penguins who live in captivity are gay, which would not fit with the religious right’s version of family values. Even the director of the film has said in interviews he supports evolution and did not like his film being used as an argument for acknowledgment of some kind of creator.

When I watched the movie the first time, I observed in total fascination the journey of these unique creatures, as they choose a partner, give birth, protect their young, and live in community with other penguins for survival against the elements. I couldn’t fathom how anyone would think these animals’ lives are a random accident. If you believe Darwin’s theory of adaptive radiation, it takes considerable time for species to adapt to ecological niches. So operating from that theory and considering the brutal conditions of the Antarctic, Emperor penguins would have become extinct many years ago before natural selection could have kicked in.

Surfacing from “Syriana”

This is one of those films that I knew I really wanted to see, though I was not looking forward to it, due to its painful themes. But a movie like “Syriana,” in light of the world’s spotlight on the Middle East, should be seen. Flaws and all, it really should be seen.

It’s difficult viewing, for its complex, crisscrossing storylines, numerous characters, and heavy geo-political subject matter. Basically, you’ve got five subplots that explosively converge. Four are quite compelling for their theme of corruption robbing people of belief.

First there’s reform-minded Arab leader, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who is groomed to take over his country and has awarded a key drilling contract to Chinese bidders. The U.S. is not happy and plots to assassinate Nasir to make way for his younger U.S.-loving brother.

Then there’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an aging Middle East CIA operative who’s worked undercover his whole life on assignments that he wholeheartedly believes will better his country. Assigned to assassinate Nasir, the job goes horribly wrong and Bob is hung out to dry.

At the same time, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) faces tragedy when his elder son dies in a pool accident at a lavish party thrown by Prince Nasir’s father. Bryan throws himself into work and ends up latching on to Nasir to help him with his reform ideas. He thinks he is doing a greater good while ignoring his grief.

And finally, of most interest to me, is the story of young Wasim, a Pakistani migrant worker in Nasir’s country, who works for Connex and gets laid off. He is disillusioned and angry at his situation and finds solace in a madrassa. He faces the ultimate decision when befriended by a charming Egyptian, whose religious preaching draws Wasim into a suicidal mission.

Confused? It is a lot to digest. And the film is very careful to avoid stereotypes--perhaps too careful. I appreciated the meticulous approach to detail, but in doing so lot of belief issues are glazed over. The characters of Wasim, Bob, Bryan and Nasir are losing their hold on their beliefs--faith in country, God, and family. And when corruption viciously strips them of whatever belief they have left, they make crucial, individual choices that shake the world around them.

But this intriguing state of affairs is marginally presented. We are left to fill in the gaps, and that doesn’t always work well. I see why Wasim is frustrated and why he is drawn to the Egyptian, but what ultimately makes him choose a suicide “martyr” mission? The Egyptian’s words are not really radical--he speaks of things that many Muslims are taught--but most Muslims don’t choose such an ending for themselves.

It’s one story of many that “Syriana” ambitiously addresses. How do we humanly hold on to beliefs when faced with corruption? The book has been opened, now let’s read deeper.


Some Christians already see Festivus--the holiday "for the rest of us" founded by Frank Costanza, a fictional character on "Seinfeld," and catching on in the real world--as a threat to Christmas. Now marketers from Virgin Mobile, British mogul Richard Branson’s cell phone service, are desperately trying to blow life into Christmahanukwanzakah, a sort of Frankenstein holiday that aims to recognize today’s diverse religious landscape: "What other holiday features a gay elf and Hindu Santa?" asks a press release. It also apparently hopes to extend shopping mania to all parts of said landscape: By calling 1-800-ELF-POOP, shoppers can find out what to buy a Pagan, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Muslim for Christmahanukwanzakah. For more, seek out, where you can hear the Hindu Santa and a couple of Hasidic Jews sing "classic" Christmahanukwanzakah carols. For those interested in adopting Christmahanukwanzakah as their festival of choice, it falls on Dec. 13.