What's a war movie supposed to be?

I hesitate to link Matt Taibbi's petulant "review" of "American Sniper"--really a complaint about the dumb audiences who make a movie like this popular--but I will anyway, because I'm interested in some of his notions about the proper narrative of war.  Taibbi's thesis is that we have difficulty coming to dramatic grips with each war for a certain period after it ends.  In the next phase, we make movies about how hard it was on our guys.  In this category, he prefers stories about how it corroded their souls and therefore destroyed their lives with PTSD; he is impatient with a simplistic storyline about how it demanded a terrible sacrifice in what might conceivably have been a good cause.  In the final, mature stage, Taibbi demands movies about the terrible things we did to our enemies, especially if they're couched in devastating criticism of our hypocritical, lying, warmongering leaders.  ("I wanna talk about Rumsfeld!  I wanna talk about Cheney!")  Bonus points if the movie makes clear that everything our enemies did was a direct result of our own provocative crimes.  We could have avoided the whole thing if our politics weren't so shabby.

This is familiar territory; Taibbi is accurately describing most war movies of recent decades, especially the ones that didn't make any money.  Just the fact that a war movie makes money is sure to mean that a lot of unwashed Americans liked it, and you know what that means about the purity of its politics.  It's not what war movies used to be like, though.  Nor am I referring to a Golden Age of rah-rah agitprop.  Our culture used to have no problem generating a whole range of war movies that adopted the full spectrum of judgments about human life in  the midst of a military conflict, from "Casablanca" to "The Longest Day" to "A Bridge Too Far" to "The Great Escape" to "The Bridge on the River Kwai."  Some had straightforward bad guys and heroes.  Generally the bad guys were our military enemies, but they might also be corrupt or cowardly or incompetent REMFs.  Sometimes the heroes were unambiguously successful warriors, like Chuck Norris or John Wayne.  Other heroes were dark or conflicted, but few enjoyed the approval of their directors while identifying outright with with foreign cultures at the expense of their homelands--"Lawrence of Arabia" being an unusual example.

Until quite recently, it was rare for an American film about any war to focus relentlessly on the horror experienced by our enemies in war zones, with the dramatic assumption that the violence meted out by the U.S. was an inexplicable bolt from the blue; offhand I can remember only "Slaughterhouse Five."  Before the Vietnam War, few American movies adopted the position that all wars are equally evil or misguided for all countries concerned, "M.A.S.H." (ostensibly about the Korean War, but really about Vietnam) probably being the first popular offering in that genre.  Once that precedent was set, it would become almost unheard of to make a movie about guys who go off to war in a just cause, sacrifice a great deal, win, and come home.  In part that may be because, once the nuclear age began, we no longer had a cultural assumption that a war could be fought to a decisive conclusion without precipitating global war and the destruction of the Earth.  The wars all seemed to dribble off into an ambiguous standoff, or a withdrawal of U.S. forces followed by a degeneration of the former theater of war into a killing field from which we largely averted our eyes.

I wonder if we'll ever again see a Hollywood offering that takes a clear look at a horrible eruption of human wickedness followed by the determined use of military power to halt it in its tracks and root it out.  At this point, Hollywood can't ever bear to treat the destruction of Nazi Germany without irony.  Would anyone today make a movie like "The African Queen," in which two noncombatants discover their buried patriotism and risk everything to strike a blow against the enemies of their respective countries?


Grim said...

Yes, if their patriotism is for the Ummah.

David Foster said...

There is a German made-for-TV movie, "Dresden," centered around the bombing of that city. I thought it was very well done, and overall quite fair in its portrayal of events and causes.

It was a little disturbing reading the viewer reviews on Amazon and especially on Netflix...many people were finding more moral equivalence in the movie than was actually in it, and were approving of that moral equivalence, along the lines of "it proves neither side was really better than the other"

I reviewed the film here:


Anonymous said...

If he wants to be a screenwriter, he should write and submit. In the meantime, canned scripts meeting his personal checklist have gotten ---- old.

PS. We are involved in a "just war" -- in every sense of the word. We did not ask for it, it predates our emergence on the national scene, and we have done our best to avoid it. Oh, yeah -- and the enemy is not just a competitor, it is an evil ideology bent on bringing worldwide Hell-on-Earth (literally!)


Cass said...

It was a little disturbing reading the viewer reviews on Amazon and especially on Netflix...many people were finding more moral equivalence in the movie than was actually in it, and were approving of that moral equivalence, along the lines of "it proves neither side was really better than the other"

Some people have a really hard time with nuance.

It manifests itself in several ways:

1. People who want to say EVERYONE on the other side is evil/stupid (and conversely, everyone on their side is smart and good). And therefore, you can't ever say that anyone on your team did something bad (or even, is a bad person).

That's just tribalism.

2. People who play the "All conservatives are [worst conservative I can think of]/all liberals are [worst liberal I can think of] game.

Saying that your side is not perfect or that the other side is not uniformly evil isn't at all the same as saying, "Both sides are the same" or "One side's no better than the other", but I agree with David that a lot of folks don't want to think hard enough to grapple with moral distinctions.

I unabashedly and unreservedly think conservatism is better than liberalism. No ifs, ands, or buts.

But if I support that set of principles, I can't selectively apply them - if I see wrong on my side, I'm going to say so and if I see someone on the other team do something laudable or say something sensible, I can admit that without violating the space-time continuum.

There are people in any war who do bad things. To say that the presence of one bad act (or even several) trumps the merits of what either side is fighting for is pretty much a refusal to think.

MikeD said...

I don't find the opinions of a publication as devoid of ethical integrity as Rolling Stone to be particularly compelling. So I could give the south end of a north bound rat what Matt Taibbi thinks about anything.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a greater focus from liberals on what bad people their opponents are, rather than how bad their ideas are. They bring in a lot of ideas to talk about in conjunction with these evaluations, but if you strip it down, you find "ooh, so icky, greedy, hypocritical, and stupid!" to be the main dish.

Conservative also do it a lot, but just aren't in the same league.