Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Great Scottish Oil Wars

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Eight
Bill Forsyth (writer/director), Local Hero

Houston businessman “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) has everything early-Eighties yuppie affluence brings: a penthouse condominium, sleek car, frosted-glass office in a prestigious high-rise. His company, Knox Oil, taps him to conduct a sensitive negotiation to acquire strategic land in Scotland, mostly because his name sounds Scottish. More comfortable with machines, Mac demurs, but has no choice. He arrives to find a pristine fishing village largely untouched since World War II.

Audiences too young to remember the 1980s might not understand how important North Sea oil really was. Alongside a strike in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, several Scottish oil strikes, beginning in 1978, helped break the second OPEC oil embargo, overturning that decade’s economic malaise. Getting valuable British-controlled petroleum to landside refineries became a global security imperative. Texas oilmen like T. Boone Pickens became global folk heroes.

Mac meets his local liaison, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi, in one of his earliest roles), a slick-suited Glaswegian who’s as uncomfortable in rural Ferness, Scotland, as Mac. Neither likes face-to-face negotiations; both prefer phone negotiations and teleconferencing, then becoming the big thing. But they gamely soldier on, meeting Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson, Star Wars), the village’s publican, innkeeper, accountant, and general business professional. Did we mention it’s a small town?

On its surface, this movie appears a typical fish-out-of-water comedy. Mac and Oldsen, thoroughly modern technocratic professionals, must negotiate with an entire community where most residents share one public phone. Mac commands more money than Ferness has ever seen, and wields it with brazen abandon. But the humor of their interactions conceals deep inner violence, because Knox Oil intends to raze the village, replacing it altogether with a refinery.

Peter Capaldi (left) and Peter Riegert in Local Hero

Not only will this end generations of village history, as area marine biologist Marina reveals, any pipeline into Ferness will devastate wildlife. Thus Knox promises to destroy not only the village, but also any chance of future on-site rebuilding. The villagers, surprisingly, don’t mind: immune to myths of rural simplicity, they want out, and oil money offers their ticket into modernity. Though they feign indifference, hoping to increase the offer.

But to Mac’s surprise, as he adjusts to village rhythms, he no longer shares their desire for modernity. Mac and the villagers each have what the other wants. Though the villagers envy Mac’s car, condo, and money, he finds them empty—especially has he falls in love with Gordon’s wife Stella (Jennifer Black). He covets their face-to-face interaction, humane pace, and physical purity, the very qualities the villagers would escape.

Negotiations stall as one villager doesn’t want to leave. Due to intricacies of late-medieval land law, local beachcomber Ben apparently owns most of the beach Knox needs for its refinery. As villagers form feuding camps over their future, Mac sees the community he loves slipping away. We, however, see a deeper rift made explicit. Modernity is very lonely, and cripples its staunchest devotees, but the alternative is very arduous and uninviting.

We also see the violence people do their most sacred beliefs because they cannot see themselves clearly. Victor, captain of a Soviet fishing trawler that often moors off Ferness, has stashed his secret offshore accounts with Gordon, turning the perks of Communist standing into capitalist wealth. Gordon seems ready to sell everything, including the business that gives him community standing, knowing nothing awaits him after he closes the sale.

And Mac himself loves Stella so deeply, he’s willing to trade his entire career for her, but he never speaks with her. That embodies everything wrong with himself. Money has shrivelled his humanity so completely that, when exposed to rural simplicity for mere days, he’d chuck everything, not knowing what he’s committing to. He could lose it all, and eventually does, without ever really understanding what he hopes to gain.

Though critically acclaimed, with a rare 100% fresh rating on, this movie has never had much market traction. It went almost unnoticed upon release, and has had cult viewership at best. Much better received was its soundtrack, the first composed by Mark Knopfler. It employs the moody, synth-driven textures he’d later expand in The Princess Bride, and which others would appropriate, usually with less success, for years to come.

Someone once said, comedy works best when it tells the truth. That’s what this movie does. Stuffing absurd characters into an entirely too plausible situation, it reflects its insights back onto its audience, because it’s finally about us. Reality makes us choose between wealth and simplicity, between tradition and modernity. It’s funny because it’s painfully accurate.

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