Executive Order Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Justice
Julien Allen on The New World
A little while I stood,
Breathing with such suppression of the heart
As joy delights in; and, with wise restraint
Voluptuous, fearless of a rival, eyed
The banquet…Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being.
—William Wordsworth, “Nutting”
The prelude to Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung—the echoing dawn of something truly monumental—opens Terrence Malick’s The New World, accompanied by a pleading, incantatory whisper: “Come, spirit… Help us sing the story of our land…” Just as the female voice of Wöglinde interrupts the Vorspiel, so does that of the character of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), here in her adopted language of English. Her entreaty is soaked with context: Pocahontas’s own story has only been told by others, passed down, twisted and bent to match whichever cause it suited. Her use of “sing” instead of “tell” illustrates Malick’s cinematic story-telling philosophy: songs are poems, as his films are (prose) poems. At the same time the filmmaker is calling upon Pocahontas herself to help him tell his story of America, through her eyes. It’s a story of love, of beauty and longing, of language and discovery, of order and disorder, of corporatism and greed, racism, arrogance, hypocrisy and bloody, senseless violence.
President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order 13775 [9 February 2017], on the line of succession to the position of United States’ Attorney General (the most senior lawyer in the United States’ Department of Justice), was a relatively inconsequential piece of stop-gap legislation designed to rapidly reinstate Dana Boente to the position of acting Attorney General. The requirement for this arose because of something more significant: earlier that day, Trump had fired the incumbent, Sally Yates, for instructing her department not to enforce Trump’s previous executive order of January 27th, restricting entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. The barefacedly unconstitutional framing of the “Muslim ban” order, a status immediately recognized by the Washington court that threw it out, would have been obvious to a first-term law student and any attempt to enforce it by Yates’s department would have been illegal: she was fired for having the temerity not only to comprehend but also to carry out the functions of her office. Meanwhile the Trump administration’s favored replacements for Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) and deputy (Rod Rosenstein) required lengthy Senate confirmation processes, so Boente was installed in the interim, as an experienced caretaker. His previous spell in the role had been abruptly terminated by Barack Obama without explanation, days before Obama left office. Boente was unlikely to do anything other than what he was told; in fact, what he was told was to telephone the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys and ask them to tender their resignations (a task which, by all accounts, he performed with some distinction).
The dismissals of Yates and ICE director Daniel Ragsdale, both for—literally—refusing to follow orders, were dubbed by the press the “Monday Night Massacre” by analogy to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, when President Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy resigned rather than implement Nixon’s demand that they fire the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate affair (1). This alarmingly crude shift of power from the judicial branch of government to the executive—treating democratic politics like a playground game without rules—evokes the sanguinary political successions within the British colony of Jamestown in the early 17th century, several of which are depicted in The New World.
As for the Boente statute itself, two things stand out from its frugal 349 words. The first is that it is impeccably drafted. It is an indication of how far the goalposts of expectation have moved that this instinctively feels unusual when set against the relentless blaze of ignorance and incompetence that accompanied the accession of its signatory to the highest office in the land. However, the exactitude of the wording is explained by the fact that it copies verbatim the drafting template of Executive Order 13762 of January 13, 2017 (Obama’s appointment of Channing Phillips in Boente’s place), which it expressly revokes. The second, more resonant observation is the geographical nature of the appointments: the nominees in the order of succession to Attorney General are not referred to by name, but in keeping with tradition, by their legal jurisdiction. Boente’s jurisdiction is the Eastern district of Virginia.
“How much they err, that think everyone which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.”
—Captain John Smith
Captain Smith’s words serve as an epigraph to the extended cut of The New World. Those of us who have not even been “at Virginia” cannot so err, but there is a dramatic poignancy to the state’s circumstantial appearance in this executive order, given the enormity of Virginia’s documented historical role in shaping the legal and political America of today. As we contemplate, with Trump’s election, the metaphorical death of history, its birth throws up many sobering indicators. Virginia: the “Old Dominion,” the “mother of presidents”; homeland of the blacksmiths of the U.S. Constitution (Washington, Jefferson, Madison); the killing fields of Britain’s entrance (1607, Jamestown, Virginia: the setting of The New World and crucible of British colonialism) and exit (two hundred miles up the coast in Chesapeake Bay, the naval battlefield of its eventual ruin at the hands of the French navy in 1781). Virginia is also the cradle of U.S. jurisprudence: its General Assembly is the oldest law-making body in the United States, supported by the common-law heft of over two centuries of distinguished judicial practice, not least the landmark 1967 civil rights case Loving v Virginia, which overturned Pace v Alabama  and, in one crack of the gavel, obliterated race-based marriage restrictions in the United States. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the first African slaves in North America had landed in Jamestown. The history of the commonwealth of Virginia, named for Elizabeth I (the “Virgin Queen”) is inseverable, for better or worse, from British influence.
Without undue emphasis, Malick’s The New World retains a steadfast sense of historical detail, such that the terrible, irresolvable dichotomy of what the British first brought to America (entrepreneurship and subjugation) is shot through the film like tracer iodine in the bloodstream. Against the background of the first encounters between the apprehensive British settlers and the native Algonquin tribe, the Powhatan (referred to by their guests as “the naturals”), the film dramatizes two chapters in the romantic life of Pocahontas, the favored daughter of Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg): her relationships with a Cornish soldier, John Smith (Colin Farrell) and an East Anglian businessman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Hers is a tale of emotional discovery, mirroring the geographical discovery of the settlers, which together incorporate a giant, collective loss of innocence on the part of all concerned. The Powhatan, who had built up their own empire over thousands of years, had no sense of land ownership before the British came, but it did not take them long to develop one. Pocahontas was taught English and theology by the colonists, but while she had much more to teach the settlers in the way of diplomacy and civics, these lessons—driven by childish instinct and spiritual strength and which could, if heeded, have saved countless lives—fell on deaf ears. Malick arrows in on the human stories, exposing, as he always does, innermost thoughts and feelings through narration (based on the written records of Smith and Rolfe and an invented interior dialogue for Pocahontas), while the tectonic plates of the larger relationships—between the British and Chief Powhatan; between the King and the settlers; between the Powhatan and their sister tribe, the Patawomeck—shift and grate around them.
For until the law, sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
Adopting an approach so openly venal that it is considered unpalatable even today, the Virginia expedition of 1607, coming off the back of a century of catastrophic European attempts to colonize the mainland of North America, was carried out by a private corporation, the Virginia Company of London, sent under Royal Charter to exploit any land it found for the benefit of private investors and stockholders. (Such incursions onto sovereign territory now require political or military justifications, however flimsy, before proceeding.) The degrading treatment of the men by the first expedition’s leader, Captain Christopher Newport (played by Christopher Plummer) in The New World’s first act foreshadows the Company’s use of indentured servitude, which would soon give way to slavery, as its business (principally tobacco) grew in importance. Once Newport leaves the colony to return to England, the power struggle in the fort at Jamestown becomes highly volatile and—given the flimsiness of its quasi-military structure—politically unstable. After the rhapsodic first hour of the film, Captain Smith, having lived amongst the Powhatan and developed a devotion to Pocahontas, returns to Jamestown, whereupon a confrontation with the colony’s leader, Wingfield (David Thewlis), leads to the latter’s murder by an already mutinous mob. Smith is then installed in his place, a position referred to in the script (and in one of the intertitles employed in the film’s extended cut) as “President.” Malick’s emphasis of Smith’s choice of words is a wink to modernity as telling as the blurring of corporate and political terminology. As conditions deteriorate in the camp, Smith later seeks to enforce a “penalty for disobeying an order of the President,” before being himself deposed and tortured. His successor, Argall (strikingly played by a sinister-looking Yorick van Wageningen), then proclaims himself “King of Virginia.” When Newport returns as an envoy of King James (Jonathan Pryce), he politely asks Smith (now indentured) whether he “wishes to press charges against” Argall.
What these chaotic legal and political machinations demonstrate is the insecurity of Jamestown’s constitution, by overt comparison to the settled system the natives had in place: contrast the settled rituals and robust chain of command of the Powhatan, in the scenes where Smith is living up-river. Within a few decades, the British would have established legal and administrative principles of governance in Virginia which, developing in parallel to English law, would form the basis of the U.S. political system of today. While the great men of Virginia who forged the Constitution of 1787 retained English common law principles as a basis for government, the introduction of revolutionary philosophy (Paine, Rousseau) would create considerable improvements in self-governance and (at least a basis for) civil liberties, culminating in what is now a tripartite legal system in the United States: federal law, state law, and native American legislation. The requirements for judges and attorneys-general to be elected or retained (a quest for accountability whose principal side-effect is a politicization of the judicial system, so that you get “Republican judges”) goes even further, democratically speaking, than the English system ever did. The rule of law as Malick depicts it in Jamestown, though, is closer to that of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now or the Genco Pura Olive Oil Company in The Godfather Part II. Like so many seismic historical power shifts, savagery and bloodshed played their parts. The constitutional history of the United States is in many respects one long and painful attempt at repairing this initial damage. Trump’s filthy record on minority rights (special mention for his own combustive history with the Native American community who threatened the dominance of his casino business) and the authoritarian leanings of his administration indicate that the stitches are now being picked at.
By contrast, the great political disruptor of the 17th century was Pocahontas. More than just a metaphorical bridge between the two sides, she is shown in The New World as both native and immigrant (she sets sail to make her life in England with Rolfe). Her decisions—to plead for Smith’s life when he is captured and condemned by Powhatan; to befriend Smith; to lead a splinter delegation to bring food to Jamestown in the dead of winter when the colonists were close to starvation (according to Smith’s account, saving the entire colony from elimination); to stay in Jamestown once Smith has chosen to leave for the East Indies; to marry Rolfe and go to England on a diplomatic mission—are all anathema to the instincts of her tribal upbringing and in some respects baffling to the English, too. Her willfulness and bravery are inspirational in hindsight but laced with profound tragedy. She died of smallpox before her ship back to Virginia had set sail; her martyrdom was in vain, if not counterproductive. She had been used as a poster girl for Native Americans in England and was exploited by the Company as living proof of the educational and spiritual benefits of colonialism, but neither the British nor the Powhatan, for that matter, followed her example in the years that followed her death. Her instincts for conciliation were swiftly discarded and within a few decades, Britain’s exponential colonial growth had led to massacres, war, and the displacement of all but a small handful of the Powhatan people. Malick sees a quiet glory in her selfless adventure—she is presented throughout as a child of Grace, of the kind later to be alluded to in The Tree of Life—but he never completely elides the futility of it. Her morose, hesitant steps in Elizabethan dress in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace and the final, rending sequence with her young son Thomas in the garden of her home, contrast firmly with the first act, in which she exists—like the succession of women who compete for Christian Bale’s affections in Malick’s Knight of Cups—as a free spirit gazed upon by men and toying with them. By the end, although married, she is alone, a sacrificial figure pining for lost love, an icon of melancholy, a Mona Lisa.
For The New World is a tale of two missed opportunities. At its heart, it presents Pocahontas’s own life as a powerful romance defined by regret. But on a wider scale it represents a broken dream of a second chance at Eden. If The Thin Red Line was a war within and against Nature, The New World is its chronological and ideological precursor: one where Nature is first manifested, then abused, exploited, or ignored. The infinite sublimity of the natural world, a theme common to all of Malick but whose depiction in this film’s first hour may never have been surpassed, should have been a utopia within which cohabitation—of beliefs, ideas, skills, and cultures—could thrive. Instead, the corporatist British, believing themselves educators, governed by notions of authoritarian occupation and control, rather than by any American dream worthy of the name, tore it down.
I found that Malick’s vision had rendered our world drab and cheap—as if Newport’s warnings to his fellow settlers in the film had fallen on deaf ears, allowing America to grow up stunted, deformed, tainted, and gross. In short, into the world we inhabit today.
—Jeff Reichert on The New World, January 2006
Ironically, since the release of The Thin Red Line in 1998, a swathe of popular critical reaction to Malick’s cinema (the kind which derides shots of “women dancing in cornfields” and describes the majesty of his visual vocabulary as “empty”) has evolved into as good a contemporary illustration of this distrust of beauty as one can find. The spectacle of rational critics dismantling a Malick film recalls Wordsworth’s poem “Nutting,” where the poet, on his walk, encounters a sylvan nook of radiant, untouched grace, luxuriates in it, then succumbs to a primal urge and violates it. The fear of losing intellectual control, in a world colonized by a concept of reason so narrow that it prevents us from recognizing our own destructive tendencies, is a powerful demotivator. That control is most effectively exhibited by rebuffing the magnificence of what is before your very eyes and savaging it completely.
Meanwhile, a further degree of critical opprobrium was heaped upon Malick’s refusal to politicize The New World—rather than dramatizing the full horror of British colonization, he treats only certain of its early events as vivid but startlingly matter-of-fact historical plot progressions, in counterpoint to the beatific romance of Pocahontas’s story. This is most likely because Malick doesn’t see the perpetual struggle between Man and Nature as a question of taking sides, but as the defined order of things, a small but significant part of a much larger cosmic battle. His more recent films—in particular To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, which are stylistically wholly of a piece with The New World but thematically something of a departure—have raised the most critical ire. Malick has in fact, since Jeff Reichert’s 2006 bout of ecstatic melancholia, turned his camera chiefly toward the “world we inhabit today.” And by refusing to turn his back on Man (a creature of Nature, after all, if one follows the formula laid down in The Tree of Life), by finding beauty in bleak highways, gray rubble piles, Hollywood “sleb” parties, titty bars, and blank strip malls, Malick has apparently gone too far. So perhaps we should ignore that he has always taken a holistic approach to the landscapes he films: that for him, beauty and ugliness have never been warring forces, just different colors on his palette, mingling and merging to create an ever-expanding and complex picture of the universe.
Malick would return to The New World’s territory of geographical, historical, and spiritual inquiry with 2016’s Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. Indeed, Cate Blanchett’s narrated invocation: “Mother. What brought me here? Where are you leading me? Who am I to you? Will we always be together? Where are you? Mother, does your goodness never fail? Will you abandon me?” directly recalls and builds on Pocahontas’s own words: “Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The Sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign.” He offers clues as to how his films fit together: they advocate for the discovery of beauty and the beauty of discovery. And where the primacy of humankind screams out from the cinema of a Tsai Ming-liang, a Pialat, or a Chaplin, the humans in Malick’s films, be they from the 16th century or the 21st, be they ordinary or extraordinary, still constitute tiny, resonant particles of a much bigger picture.
The New World’s tale of Pocahontas complements Fassbinder’s famous aphorism that “the more real something seems, the more mythological it becomes.” By presenting a child as a child, driven by base impulses greater than reason, he detoxifies a myth; and creates another, stronger and more beautiful one in its place. A deep irony blooms when one considers the mythical example of leadership and grace exhibited by the 12-year-old Pocahontas and celebrated in The New World, against the regressive, infantile behavior of Donald Trump, an indulged child who refuses to grow up because in today’s world he simply doesn’t need to. And what of Virginia today? In 2016, the state held out against Trump, putting its thirteen electoral college votes behind his opponent, Hilary Clinton—the only blue marginal state to increase its Democrat vote from 2012 (as others—Florida, Ohio—went in the other direction). A little footnote of independence, a matter of pride: wholly in vain. On May 14th, 2017 a pro-confederate rally, bearing torches descended on the little town of Charlottesville, Virginia (home town of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe), protesting at the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E Lee. The stunt was organized by Richard Spencer, the Trump cheerleader credited with donating to the world the expression “alt-right.” He wasn’t that interested in Robert E. Lee, but he admitted to having seen an opportunity to provoke, to keep himself and his friends in the news. So he organized a KKK rally in a place where he might get noticed. Another historical footnote, desperate to be included on the page. To those whose instinct in the face of Trump’s elevation is to give up hope, you could do worse than turn to Malick’s cinema to realize the wheel will always keep turning.
NOTE: (1) This comparison became obsolete within three months: in May 2017, President Trump (who seems more than comfortable with his White House team’s strategy of downgrading constitutional outrages by simply replacing them with worse ones) served up a more vivid Nixonian parallel by dismissing the Director of the FBI, James Comey, during an investigation by the Bureau into the Trump presidential campaign’s links with Russia.