“During World War II Hollywood churned out combat pictures and home-front melodramas with the speed and efficiency that characterized so much war-time production. Those movies reflected a consensus that it was also their purpose to promote. The best of them were more than simple propaganda, but they tended to share a sense of clarity and purpose in their narrative structure as well as in their themes.”
So wrote A.O. Scott in a New York Times Arts and Leisure feature on October 28, “A War on Every Screen: New Films Pegged to Iraq and Other Flash Points Are Awash in Ambiguity.” After presenting brief synopses of several recent and forthcoming movies about the Iraq war and terrorism – most of them, to judge by his descriptions, viciously anti-American in theme and content – Scott concludes that they are “ambiguous,” and semi-wistfully contrasts them with films produced during World War II. By “ambiguous” one can only suppose that he means they do not overtly condemn the U.S.
In that sense, they lack the “clarity and purpose” with which most World War II-era produced films were imbued.
Scott does, however, answer some of his own questions, and in the process identifies why, to him, at least, the films are “ambiguous.”
“What is missing in nearly every case is a sense of catharsis or illumination. This is hardly the fault of the filmmakers. Disorientation, ambivalence, a lack of clarity – these are surely part of the collective experience they are trying to examine. How can you bring an individual story to a satisfying conclusion when nobody has any idea what the end of the larger story will look like?”
Much the same could be said about President Bush’s Iraq policy. It is disoriented in its aims, now that it is a certainty that “democracy” will not work in a country whose citizens will continue to vote the straight Islamic ticket. It is ambivalent, measured by a purely emotional criterion. And, the policy lacks clarity, because the “insurgency” will never end if its promoters and paymasters remain untouched by American military might. That is the “larger” story whose resolution no one can as yet predict.
Although Scott’s article rambles on in search of answers, he does make an occasional true observation.
“…[T]he public may well succeed in avoiding them [the films discussed by Scott]….Public indifference…may bolster the ideologically convenient notion that Hollywood is out of touch with the American people, and also the economically convenient idea that people go to the movies to escape the problems of the world rather than to confront them.”
I do not think the idea that Hollywood is out of touch with the American people needs bolstering or that it is “convenient,” unless the term is Scott’s substitute for “logical.” Ever since the mid-1960’s Hollywood has waged a campaign of hate of the U.S. and has left few left-wing or collectivist issues untouched or un-dramatized. Nor is the idea that people go to the movies to be inspired or at least “entertained” an illogical one, either. Both ideas are true.
“What is notable about this new crop of war movies is not their earnestness or their didacticism – traits many of them undoubtedly display – but rather their determination to embrace confusion, complexity, and ambiguity.”
The new crop of movies are that way because it is their makers’ intent to leave American movie-goers confused about the issues, baffled by their “complexity,” and in doubt about any possible resolution. The ambiguity plays an insidious role. It injects doubt into the issues and into the minds of American viewers. That is their earnest, Existentialist, “didactic” method. The ambiguity is not an accident or a consequence of confusion or an attempt to avoid what Scott calls “finger-wagging” and “sloganeering.” The ambiguity is deliberate, and it is indeed the “fault” of the filmmakers.
Although much of Hollywood during World War II was under the thumb of leftists, they did not dare insult the intelligence of the American public or attack their values or patriotism by offering films that were ambiguous about the nature of the enemy or the enormity of the effort required to defeat him. They did not begin to crawl out into the light until after the war.
Today, the enemy, Islamism or Islamofascism, is not identified as an enemy, and if Islamists are hostile to the U.S., according to Hollywood, it is the fault of the U.S. To Hollywood, the Islamists can slaughter thousands, regardless of their religion or politics, and they remain innocent. They were “conditioned” by circumstances and cannot be blamed for their actions, no matter how horrendous or murderous. Only the U.S. is blameworthy, because it is a giant.
If a handful of American soldiers run amok and commit “crimes” against members of what is (in fact) an enemy population, that deserves feature length attention. If innumerable jihadists plot to detonate bombs in New York and Boston, Hollywood will not deign to dramatize it, but ask, instead: Who can blame them?
Every one of the movies Scott discusses is a multi-million dollar instance of agitprop whose purpose is not to instill or uphold moral values, but to subvert and destroy them by instilling guilt in Americans, to make them doubt the value of being Americans. If a modern war movie is not weepy, whiny, or “grieving,” then it is blatantly nihilistic.
Parenthetically, it is a measure of America’s cultural malaise that weeping, grieving and maudlin commiseration have become the especial foci of news reportage, regardless of the tragedy or catastrophe. “Grief” and “suffering” rank just behind “sacrifice” and “selflessness” as touchstones of moral worth. I date the beginning of this sordid element of national self-pitying back to October 1983, when terrorists killed over two hundred Marines and other U.S. servicemen in their Beirut barracks, an assault that President Ronald Reagan failed to answer. As the stream of flag-draped coffins arrived in the U.S., the news media embarked on an orgy of “grief” and “doubt.” Did any one call for retaliation against the responsible terrorist groups or the state that sponsored them and demand that Reagan take action? I don’t recall.
Scott comes close to grasping the connection between the movies whose “ambiguous” purposes he ponders and the nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
“We have been told from the start, by both the administration and its critics, that this will be a long, complicated, episodic fight. And so attempts to make sense of it piecemeal and in medias res, in discrete narratives with beginnings and ends, are likely to feel incomplete and unsatisfying.”
He comes close, and might have understood the nature of the conflicts, were he not also a pawn of the filmmakers’ purposes, which is to inculcate doubt, confusion, and disgust. Were he able to delve into more fundamental issues, he might have asked the questions:
Are we there to ensure that no Islamic state ever attacks America again? And if we are, what is the best means of accomplishing that end? Or are we there motivated by some Wilsonian notion of spreading “democracy” as a moral duty, to indulge in what Progressive writer Herbert Croly called the “tonic of a moral adventure”? Is there a vital connection between Bush’s Christian policy of warfighting and why the U.S. will continue to expend blood and treasure in a futile campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of a people who prefer to adhere to a Dark Age morality? Is a code of self-sacrifice one of life or of death?
Finally, he might have asked: If Hollywood had turned out these kinds of movies during World War II, might not the filmmakers have been boycotted by the public, or charged with treason, or, at the very least, tarred and feathered and run out of town?
I do not plan to see any of the movies discussed by A.O. Scott in his article. I know what they are about just by watching the morning newscasts for free. My kinds of war movies are the 1939 Four Feathers, and Glory, Hamburger Hill, Gunga Din, Hell is for Heroes, and many others that, among other things, not the least of which is their cleaner, unambiguous esthetics, inspire me to fight my own battles.