Under the Radar

Defining Leadership in 'Ender's Game'

The novel Ender's Game came out in 1985 and, after nearly three decades of starts and stops, a movie based on the book finally arrives in theaters this weekend. The story chronicles Ender Wiggin's military education at Battle School and Command School as he prepares to fight an alien invasion.

Ender displays unique strategic and leadership talents and he's eventually asked to lead the planet's military forces. Ender and his fellow trainees are all in their early teens. They may seem young, but the movie characters are a lot more believable than the six-year-olds portrayed in the novel.

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Director and screenwriter Gavin Hood talked to Military.com about his own experiences in the South African military and how that service informed his approach to making his film version of the sci-fi classic.

So people have been waiting for this movie for a long time, and to the book, and I know there were a lot of attempts to get it made, so talk about how you got involved and why you think that you were the guy who finally got the book onto the screen?

Well, it's a great question.  I was sent the book by my agent about five years ago and I had not read it before.  As a veteran myself, I found myself very moved about the themes of leadership, of the way we have as individuals the great capacity for kindness and compassion. We also have a capacity for real violence and aggression as a species.  And how do we find that balance, especially in a military context?

And I thought there was also an opportunity as a director to create some fantastic visuals.  So you’ve got this wonderful opportunity to do something really cinematic with this great battle room.  It's really exciting.  The simulation room was really beautiful to realize visually. But, at its heart, Ender’s Game is a story of a character who is at war, if you like, with his own nature and struggling to find his own moral compass in a difficult time.

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I thought this was very interesting theme for a book that’s about a young person.  So many books are just about “good guy gets wronged by bad guy and then he goes after the bad guy and he beats up the bad guy and sets the world right.”  And this book is more complicated than that.

For those of us who have been in the military, questions about what makes a good leader and when to question authority and leadership are important questions. I thought it would be an opportunity to have fun making a really big, exciting movie that would also be a movie that people might be able to have a bit of a conversation about after they'd seen it.

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Talk about your service, where you served, and how you got from being in the military to being a film director.

I'm 50 years old now. I was drafted at 17 into the South African Military in 1981.  Supported by CIA officers, we fought a very hot war in Angola, Mozambique and much of Southern Africa over natural resources like diamonds and oil wells.  The Soviets and the Cubans were backing certain rebel groups and the South Africans (with the passive support of Thatcher and Reagan) were backing other groups. It was a particularly tumultuous and confusing time.

I was drafted into the Navy and the Marines and I lost one of my friends.  I wasn’t with him when he was killed in Angola.  He was shot down by a Cuban missile in his helicopter.  He was a paratrooper.  And I opened the newspaper one morning and read that he'd died.  And it caused me to ask a lot of questions about the nature of the battle we were fighting and what I was doing there.  When many recruiters recruit you, it's all about how you will go to college or what you'll learn or how you'll become a hero. They don’t tell you much about how you might suffer PTSD and lose a friend.

I don’t know if things are better now, but, in those days, there were no real support structures that you use, no psychologist you could go tell how you were feeling. So you dealt with it yourself and sometimes not so well. I had another guy with me who put his foot up on the table and blew a hole in his foot with a 9mm so he could get out. Those are kind of things are disturbing when you're 17 and don’t quite know how to talk about them to anybody.

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What was good about that time was that it made me realize that I had to take responsibility for my decisions about what I thought was good leadership and what I thought was bad leadership, and that I couldn’t rely on my society or authority figures to make moral choices for me.  I ultimately had to make my own choices and take responsibility for my choices and the way I was going to live my life.

I think many of us will understand that feeling of going in when you're young, thinking you're immortal, and coming out realizing that you're not.  And processing that is not always easy and I don’t have any glib or simple answer for that.  It's merely what my experience was.

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I’m sure you know that there are branches of the US Military who use the novel in officer training. How much do you emphasize those training elements in the actual film that you made versus what's in the novel?

I have no idea because I haven't been in an American military institution, so I don’t know exactly how the novel is used in teaching here.  So I can't speak to what aspects of the novel are used by military instructors here. For me, the novel generates an interesting discussion about leadership.  On a simple level, it's about what makes a good leader.  Is it someone who once he has his stripes or is it someone who just simply demands respect? We've all seen that kind of leadership that yells and screams and expects people to follow orders merely because you have the rank. Or is it someone who is better at bringing out the best in the people that serve under them?

When I served, I know that we certainly had officers in positions of rank who ran the gamut of that.  We had some who were very good at generating any credible loyalty from their people who served under them and others who you would happily have removed.  So I think that there are characters in the movie who shout and scream in order to get things done, and there's the notion that maybe you get things done better if you get more collaboration out of the folks under you. Yet, at some point you also have to be able to give an order and have it followed.

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The more complicated question that comes out of that is, “What do you do when you think that leadership is giving you an immoral order?”  And we've seen this in things like Abu Ghraib.  When do I, as an individual person or soldier, have to make a moral choice that a person senior to me may see differently?  And this is a complicated thing because in a sense you're saying we should teach ethics.  At some level, we're in a dilemma as soldiers.  We're expected to follow orders, but we're also held accountable when, in following an apparently illegal order, we do something bad, whether it be My Lai or Abu Ghraib.

I don’t want to get too heavy about it because “Ender’s Game” is a movie aimed at younger people, but I do think that it raises questions about how do you as an individual take responsibility for the way you interact with other people in the world, whether you be in the military or whether you be a civilian?  Ultimately, we can't blame others for the actions we take.  We have to take responsibility and be comfortable with whatever there is.  And it's not for me to tell someone else how they should react or behave.  It's up to us to define our moral position in the world.  And that’s easy to say and hard to do.  But in the end of Ender's Game, Ender wins a game, what he thinks is a game, using pretty extreme violence and then (now, I'm giving the movie away) finds out that this isn't a game.

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He's very angry at himself for being duped, but in a way he has been duped by his superior officer into doing certain things, but at the same time his ego's need to win allowed him to be duped, and so there's an anger at himself as well.

And the other question that’s raised by the film is: Is winning everything or does the way we win matter?  Clearly, in a video game the game ends.  It's a closed environment.  There's no consequence to the way you win.  You either win or you lose.  In the real world, the way we win matters because war doesn’t stop at the end of that action.  It continues and if we in certain ways, we gain a certain reputation for the way we fight.  And if we act in an immoral way, we gain a different reputation.  And our reputation influences the way the enemy responds to us.

Our reputation matters and I think this is something we've all been talking about a lot over the last ten years. There’s no simple answer, but it is clear that, to use a cliché, winning hearts and minds matters because you simply can't shoot the problem away. And that’s a very complicated question for all of us who are or have been in the military.

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This is really the first science fiction movie that Harrison Ford has made in 30 years, since 'Blade Runner.' How did you get him to come back to the genre?

I wish I could give you some amazing story, but it's really this simple. I wrote the script and went through a number of drafts with my producers and got it to a place where everybody was happy and I felt like it was strong.  And then we send it out.  With actors of Harrison's stature, you don’t call him in for an audition.  That’s not going to happen.  In a way, he auditions you. You send the script to his agent and you wait because he's sent a lot of material. I don’t think we waited that long, maybe four weeks, and he read it and he said he would like to meet me.

I was thrilled and I thought, wow, there's a shot he might do this movie.  He doesn’t want to meet unless he's interested.  So I go along to meet him and I realized he's actually auditioning me to see if he thinks I'm going to be the guy he wants to spend time with making a movie and he thinks I know what I'm doing.

So he asks me a lot of questions about the themes and ideas that you and I have been talking and what I expected from him, especially given the fact that he is supporting a very young lead in the form of Asa Butterfield, who plays this young character, Ender Wiggin, who is this young, child soldier that falls under his command.

And I was worried he was going to ask for a bigger role or something, you know, and he didn’t.  And he said, I just want to be clear that my job in this story is to support this young man and make him as good as he can be.  And that’s what is so great about working with Harrison.  He absolutely gave, with great generosity, to these young actors that were also in the movie.  Because, you know, each actor is only as good as the actor they play against.  It's like a game of tennis.  You need a good player to play well, you know, otherwise the whole thing just falls apart.

So he came onboard.  He happens to have a 12 year old son and he liked the idea of making a film that would be really fun for kids to watch with the battle room and the Zero G and all these cool images, but would also, somewhere at its heart, be about a real character who is complicated, who is not good or bad, but he's a kid trying to find his way.

We hoped that would generate some conversation about the pressures that young people face in the military today with drone warfare and what's it like to fly drones.  It almost feels like you're playing a game and yet you're not.  And all of these ideas are in the movie and yet hopefully in a way that you have fun watching it.  I don’t want to make this too heavy.  It's a big, fun movie, but it also, I hope, leaves you with a few questions to talk about or a few ideas to talk about after.

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