Sunday, November 11, 2007
Hollywood's Losing War on America
In many ways it's simplistic to tie Hollywood's antagonism to America and to patriotism as something that is purely the product of the current generation. While many people look back nostalgically at WW2 Hollywood films that were patriotic, it's rather easy to overlook the volume of films that were made before and after WW2 that were quite anti-war.
In the late 30's British and American studios churned out movies that warned of the dangers of war. From H.G. Wells' "Things To Come" in 1936 which featured the start of WW2 and mass airplane bombing raids leading to Europe being thrown back to medieval times and a plague of zombies wandering the earth only to be redeemed by a global airplane based government to The Grand Illusion (1937) or All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) often used the devastating senseless of WW1 and the populist pacifism in the intellectual and artistic circles to warn against war.
Certainly once WW2 commenced, the movies became straightforwardly pro-war. Once the war ended though, Hollywood movies centered on the aftermath and the occupation of Nazi Germany did not differ too much from what Hollywood churns out today. The characters were anti-heroic and often slimy. Consider Stalag 17 in 1953 that treats American POW's as cornered rats turning on each other or A Foreign Affair (1948) with the smoke still fresh in the air, that depicts the American occupation of Germany as corrupt and corrupting. The black market is a common theme in these movies and the involvement of the American soldier in them, as well as characters who were at best despicable.
By 1964 we had The Americanization of Emily which is more anti-war and anti-American than anything your average Hollywood liberal can produce today, depicting the war as a senseless affair driven by money and greed, the military on down as corrupt, Americans as marauders in England and its main character as a coward and a thief who dies, wrongly depicted as a war hero. Clint Eastwood's weak effort at historical revisionism in Flags of Our Fathers had nothing on The Americanization of Emily when it came to determinedly defiling anything of heroism at Omaha Beach.
By contrast modern Hollywood's weak anti-war offerings land like thuds. The latest, Lions for Lambs, a vanity project by Tom Cruise after Paramount showed him the door, and another in a series of movies by Robert Redford that no one will ever see, lacks either arresting images or a strong story.
Viewers coming in expecting to see a story about the war, instead are treated to two thirds of a story that basically involves Robert Redford as a college professor doing his best to indoctrinate his students with rants about the war. One third involves the indoctrination, one third involves two wounded soldiers having flashbacks to Redford's ramblings (a working definition of hell could consist of flashbacks to your most boring college professor which really suggests that third of Lions for Lambs could really be a remake of Jacob's Ladder) and a final third involves Tom Cruise playing Senator Tom Cruise while doing an interview with Meryl Streep about the war. It's tedious stuff and it's not hard to see why audiences are passing it up.
Hollywood's anti-war movies have become non-threatening because Hollywood has lost the ability to tell stories. Movies today are adaptations of books, cartoons and video games more than anything else. When an anti-war movie is released, it's inevitable a soporific lecture like Lions for Lambs or so vague it misses the point entirely. Hollywood's War on America has become a losing war on America because its anti-war movies carry with them the same indulgent self-righteousness as Lions for Lambs. If Robert Redford had been honest about the movie he wanted to make, he would have simply gotten up in front of a bunch of pie charts, Al Gore style, and ranted at the audience. The result would have cost less and made more money.
From Jarhead to The Kingdom to Rendition, fictional critiques of the War on Terror go nowhere. But to be fair movies about the War on Terror go nowhere too. From Black Hawk Down to United 93 to World Trade Center to Rain on Me, it's pretty clear that audiences aren't interested in Hollywood's take on what's going on period. And that's really not surprising. When people go to the movies, they usually go to escape rather than to be taught and Hollywood has generally lost the ability to hit that sweet center between entertaining audiences while making a point. It's not entirely gone, 24's success testifies to that. But on film, Hollywood's efforts at lecturing America go nowhere. Like Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs they wind up lecturing to an empty house.