Its anti-war films may be aimed at Bush, but what they’re really destroying is storytelling
Hollywood shoots itself in the foot
Its anti-war films may be aimed at Bush, but what they’re really destroying is storytelling
A few months back, Peter Berg attended a test screening of his new film in California— not Malibu or Beverly Hills, but out in farm country. The Kingdom is about FBI agents (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, etc.) investigating a terrorist attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia, and finally, about two hours in, the star talent gets to kill a bunch of jihadists. As Entertainment Weekly described it, “the packed house went completely bonkers, erupting in cheers”—and poor old Berg was distraught. “I was nervous it would be perceived as a jingoistic piece of propaganda, which I certainly didn’t intend,” the director agonized. “I thought, ‘Am I experiencing American bloodlust?’ ”
You really want an answer to that? Okay, here goes: No. It’s not American bloodlust. As they say on Broadway, the audience doesn’t lie, and, when they’re trying to tell you something, it helps not to cover your ears. For all Mr. Berg’s pains, The Kingdom was dismissed by the New York Times as “Syriana for dummies.” That’s to say, instead of explicitly fingering sinister Americans as the bad guys, it merely posited a kind of dull pro forma equivalence between the Yanks and the terrorists. It came out, oh, a week and a half ago and it’s already forgotten in the avalanche of anti-war movies released since. There’s Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah and Redacted—no, wait, Rendition. No, my mistake. There’s aRedacted and ^Rendition—one’s about American soldiers being rapists, one’s about American intelligence officials being torturers. Every Friday night at the multiplex, Mr. and Mrs. America are saying, “Hmm, shall we see the movie where our boys are
the torturers? Or the one where our boys are the rapists? How about the film where the heroic soldier refuses to fight? Or the one where he does fight and the army covers up the truth about his death?” And then they go see Lred Claus, which pulled in three times as much money as Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs on both films’ opening weekend.
As Roger L. Simon of Pajamas Media (and a screenwriter himself) put it: “Hicks Nix Peaceniks’ Pix.” These films tank at the box office, and disappear from the shopping malls before you’ve had time to refill your popcorn, and next Friday there’s a brand new critically acclaimed anti-war movie in its place. The faster they fall, the more Hollywood is convinced of the “courage” of its “dissent.” Tired of hailing pictures no one goes to see, the New York Times’ film critic A. O. Scott now routinely pre-empts accusations that the drearily consistent world view of these works is “anti-American.” Of Rendition, he wrote:
“It has timely issues and serious ambitions, and it also has movie stars—Reese Witherspoon with a huge pregnant belly! Meryl Streep with a Southern accent! Jake Gyllenhaal with sad, sleepy eyes!—as well as young romance, breathless chases and violent explosions. Honestly, what could be more American than that?”
Mr. Scott trembles, albeit accidentally, on the brink of a great insight here. Hollywood assumes that if you have enough beautiful stars making out and getting shot at and running up stairwells and diving through windows and outrunning the fireball, that that is sufficiently “American” (as Mr. Scott puts it) that the absence of a heroic narrative won’t matter. The movies have divorced the form from the content, or, if you prefer,
the telling from the story. You see it most obviously in almost any remake. Take the old 3.10 to Yuma, which chugged in last month, remodelled for the 21st century. The 1957 western was nobody’s idea of a masterpiece but it had a moral seriousness: Van Heflin’s broke and he’ll lose his farm so he agrees to escort a violent felon to meet the train that will take him to prison. He’s doing it for the 200 bucks—or so he thinks. But along the way he comes to understand that he’s doing it for rather more. When a disaffected sibling of one of Glenn Ford’s victims tries to kill him, Heflin prevents him— because, in a civilization as fragile as the young West, he thinks it important that it be the law that dispatches the prisoner.
All that’s gone in the new version, with Christian Bale in the Heflin role and Russell Crowe as Ford. For Bale, it’s just about the money. Now the guy who tries to intercept the prisoner en route is not a vigilante who wishes to shortcut the law but the law itself—a rogue cop as brutal as the man he pursues. Oh, and the 2007 3-10 also gives us a Pinkerton agent who enjoys killing Injuns just for kicks, which even Russell Crowe primly draws the line at. There’s no moral universe, just a rotten state in which wickedness and violence are tempered only by degrees of politically correct squeamishness.
A decade or so back at some confab at Paramount, I met Lionel Chetwynd, a writer and producer who was raised in Montreal and in his pre-showbiz days served in the Black Watch (the Royal Highland Regiment), in the course of which he met several Canadian veterans of the Dieppe raid. After recounting their story one night at a party in Malibu, he was invited to pitch it as a project to some network honcho. He laid out the bones of the plot—a suicidal dry run for D-Day against a heavily fortified European port.
“Who’s the enemy?” asked the network exec.
“Hitler,” said Chetwynd. “The Nazis.”
“No, no, no,” she pressed. “Who’s the real enemy?”
“It was the first time I realized,” Chetwynd later told Cathy Seipp, “that for many people, evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves.” Who’s the real enemy? Ike. Churchill. The Imperial General Staff. Us.
Ed Driscoll, who’s been scanning the shrivelled horizon of an ever more parochial movie industry for some years now, likes to cite that anecdote as a kind of shorthand for the Hollywood aesthetic: who’s the real enemy? In this season’s crop of movies, the enemy is never al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Baathists... Sure, they’re out there somewhere at the fringe of events, but they’re just Hitchcock’s MacGuffin—the pretext for the real story. And that means the heroes can never be, say, a bunch of U.S. Marines who leap from their Humvee on the outskirts of Ramadi because something goofy’s going on. No, the heroes have to be dogged journalists or crusading lawyers or obstinate wives who refuse to swallow the official explanation. And the real enemy are renegade government officials, covert agencies, right-wing senators, Halliburton. And, unsurprisingly, despite the unpopularity of Bush and the Iraq war, the public simply doesn’t buy the idea of their country as a 24/7 cover-up for rape, torture and war profiteering.
Which brings us back to those yelps of delight when the Americans clobbered the jihadists two hours into the test screening of The Kingdom. Pace Peter Berg, it’s not “bloodlust”: if you want that, you’re best to stick to the amoral fetishization of violence in the 3-10 remake. What the preview crowd were telling Berg is, hey, we’d love to see one film where our guys kick serious terrorist butt— and there isn’t one, and there hasn’t been one for six long years. If you buy the argu-
ment that Hollywood’s anti-Americanism derives necessarily from its role as purveyor of entertainment to the entire planet, well, so what? Terrorists killed a bunch of people in Bali, Madrid, London. Alongside the kickass Americans, sign Hugh Grant as an MI6 agent and Penélope Cruz as his Spanish dolly bird and Cate Blanchett as the head of the Australian SAS and Russell Crowe as her Kiwi bit of rough. As long as the enemy’s the enemy, and not a Dick Cheney subsidiary. It’s fine to show the American war machine warts and all, but Hollywood is showing only the warts— and, even if you stick perky little Reese Witherspoon in the middle of it, it’s still just another pustulating carbuncle.
And, if Hollywood made just one war film where America gets to be—what’s the phrase?— the good guys, that would be swell not just for blood-lusting redneck warmongers but also for Hollywood liberals. After all, one reason why Rendition and Lions for Lambs and Co. bomb on a weekly basis is because it’s hard to have a functioning counterculture when the culture you were countering no longer exists.
In the 2005 film The Constant Gardener, there’s a shot where Ralph Fiennes is thinking about his late wife, a passionate antiglobalization activist whose death may or may not be connected with a pharmaceutical scandal she was about to expose. Fiennes is doing his usual thing, staring elliptically into the distance damp-eyed, when the camera pulls back to show us where he is: on the street, outside the corporate HQ of a megamultinational pharmaceutical company, its bland anonymous corporate sheen dwarfing him like the stick insect he is. Message: the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans next to the Globocorp Himalayan vastness of Pills R Us.
The Constant Gardener was distributed by Universal Pictures. Are they some sort of mom ’n’ pop operation out of a converted barn at the back of the hemp commune in
Vermont? Or do they perchance have a big office, too? And if you framed li’l Ralph Fiennes outside the corporate HQ of Universal might he not look even smaller and more insignificant? Big Hollywood is, after all, as big as Big Pharma. That’s why it can afford to launder all the red ink bled by its anti-war movies through the great churning trough of DVD revenue and cable licensing and overseas sales to Turkmenistani TV networks.
But at some point reality will reassert itself. Hollywood, for complex psychological reasons, is waging war not on Bush and Cheney but on its core business, on the very art of storytelling. If you were of a conspiratorial bent, you might make a thriller about it. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.