Hollywood shoots itself in the foot
Its anti-war films may be aimed at Bush, but what they're really destroying is storytelling
MARK STEYN | November 15, 2007 |
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 a Redacted and a 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 Fred 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.