Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Good patriotism, bad patriotism
I'm not a particularly patriotic person.
I do love living in the United States and enjoy the freedoms we have here. But I don't believe that means I have to support every initiative Americans pursue in international affairs, especially when some of them have been massively wrong-headed. "America, love it or leave it" is what the most jingoistic Americans tell us, which disregards the third option of trying to refashion America according to the ideals you can imagine for it.
But I'm not immune to patriotism either. It's kind of funny how we always think that Republicans are the ones who characterize themselves as patriots, while we Democrats are more ready and willing to admit to doubts about America's foreign policy and how we represent ourselves in the international community -- to acknowledge occasionally feeling shame on behalf of the United States. But really, isn't patriotism mostly a function of which party is in office? I feel plenty patriotic when I see that my fellow countrymen have elected Barack Obama president, and the Republicans who are committed to making him a "one-term president" (as they are fond of saying) might be considered something other than patriotic as they refuse to raise the debt ceiling, in the hopes of seeing the country derailed while a Democrat is at the wheel.
And so I didn't want to just write today about movies that make me sick to my stomach with their overt love for God and country. I also wanted to write about the movies that have really gotten to me, made me feel American pride perhaps even in spite of myself.
Before we get started, let me just lay some groundwork. I don't necessarily love all the movies in one category nor hate all those in the other -- I'm concentrating specifically on the use of patriotism in those movies. And I'm not talking about movies that make me loathe being an American, because that can be a very valid artistic goal. It's manipulative uses of patriotism vs. those that aren't.
So without further ado, here are ten examples of good American patriotism at the movies -- and ten examples that aren't nearly so good. Let's start with the bad, because that's more fun. (Also, it'll allow us to end on a positive note.)
1) An American Carol (2008, David Zucker). Appropriate that we start with a movie that deals with the 4th of July itself. An American Carol is not such much a parody, even with David Zucker in the directing chair, as a hateful screed against liberals, in which a documentarian based on Michael Moore (named Michael Malone) is trying to push through his agenda to banish Independence Day. He's the butt of the film's nominal jokes as it takes on the loose format of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Pure Republican propaganda -- really unusual for a film starring recognizable Hollywood actors (Kelsey Grammer, James Woods, Jon Voight) -- the film wears its troop love on its sleeve, including several lingering shots on lines of men in uniform. Remember, it's not the message itself, but how it's being delivered to me -- in a movie that disavows the very usefulness of documentaries and people who want to uncover corruption.
2) Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay). The film that made me think of this blog topic in the first place. There's an undercurrent of jingoism in Bay's film, as a team of blue collar workers tell each other "Gentlemen, time to save the world," with a uniquely American kind of machismo. But the thing that's supposed to really make you weep with national pride is when the jets fly over at the end, after the aforementioned world has been saved. I still hold onto this as the primary reason I don't like this film, though there are surely plenty of others.
3) Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith). This one is almost too easy to include, but it's also from such a different time that it's almost cheating. One of the most groundbreaking films of all time is also one of the most loathsome, as the third act events you're supposed to cheer are the Ku Klux Klan coming in on horseback to vanquish the slaves. Or something like that. I'm reminded of it for this piece primarily because of its patriotic-sounding name, and in truth, Griffith does seem to be trying to get us swept up by his racist ideals for the country.
4) Delta Farce (2007, C.B. Harding). A trio of mistaken military reservists (led by Larry the Cable Guy) are accidentally dropped in Mexico, which they mistake for Iraq. Not only do the main guys have to be pretty stupid to make this mistake -- some representation of American intuitive powers -- but they actually take a can-do conservative approach when they end up with a real battle against a Mexican warlord, refusing to "cut and run" (those words are actually in the dialogue, as an attempt to echo a conservative catchphrase used to deride the values of anyone who sought to end the conflict in Iraq).
5) G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009, Stephen Sommers). It's American military types turned into a private army out to fight villains (specifically Cobra), but don't be confused by that into overlooking the message about the role of American military in world conflict. I just really dislike this movie so I saw this as an opportunity to get in another jab.
6) Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich). If there's a Michael Bay movie on this list there should also be a Roland Emmerich movie, and this is an obvious choice. I should have been super excited for humans (read: Americans) to defeat the alien scourge, but I remember feeling nothing but manipulated by the "This is our independence day!" speech by Bill Pullman as the American president. I also think that this movie prizes American sass as the only way to fight the aliens, typified by Will Smith shouting "Welcome to Earth!" and punching an alien in the face.
7) The Kingdom (2007, Peter Berg). While I didn't object to this movie in total, it did a hell of a job making Americans look like loose cannons and arrogant bastards in the guise of celebrating their take-no-bullshit method of solving problems. The problem in question is a green zone bombing in Saudi Arabia, and as the Americans clash with the Saudis on their method of investigating, they strut and swear and offend local culture in all the ways imaginable. An absurdly protracted firefight at the end, in which they are taking out bad Saudis to save good Saudis, doesn't do much to wipe the taste out of your mouth.
8) Man of the Year (2006, Barry Levinson). We are supposed to be filled with a rush of pride about democracy running on all cylinders when a late-night talk show host (someone like Steven Colbert) parlays a bunch of lame one-liners into getting elected for president. It would be one thing if the movie treated this topic as farce, like the Chris Rock vehicle Head of State (which is also terrible and which I considered including on this list), but it's more like ill-considered Frank Capra stuff, and Robin Williams is just annoying as hell. And then it strangely changes into a thriller.
9) The Patriot (2000, Roland Emmerich). Entry #2 for Roland Emmerich. I'm from New England and the American Revolution was something I grew up in and around, so if you really want to tap into my dormant sense of patriotism, it's through my Lexington heritage. Except if you're this movie, which includes Mel Gibson in lone vigilante mode, taking out British soldiers like an action hero, and probably the most exaggerated villain you are like to see on screen (Jason Isaacs' Colonel William Tavington), who's the caricature he is in order to leave zero doubt about our rooting interests and zero doubt that the Brits were depraved sadists.
10) Tears of the Sun (2003, Antoine Fuqua). I don't remember much about this movie except that a group of exceedingly brave Navy SEALs go into some sort of war-torn African nation, on a suicide mission to save a bunch of locals. Every American is unfailingly brave and Bruce Willis does a lot of stoical squinting. It almost felt like propaganda.
And now the good, some of which are admittedly guilty pleasures:
1) Air Force One (1997, Wolfgang Petersen). Call me crazy, but damned if I didn't feel a little rush of pride seeing "my president" (Harrison Ford in this case) defend his private jet against a bunch of Soviet terrorists. I suppose the line "Get off my plane!" could have gone in the other category as easily as this one, but there's something sort of thrilling about seeing a political figure of this stature involved in physical altercations, instead of just altercations of state. I also felt the tension in the scenes where the terrorists manhandle him and his family. What can I say, it suckered me.
2) Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard). Another battle against the Russians in the form of the space race, Apollo 13 is not overtly about American patriotism or even Americans at all -- it's about brave people with the grim determination to do what's needed. And they don't even have an altruistic mission, per se -- they are just trying to save themselves. However, there's something consummately American about this film, filled as it with NASA pride, and just a bunch of role players at all levels, buckling down to solve an almost impossible problem. I like to think that that's the core of what it means to be American.
3) Dave (1993, Ivan Reitman). Another movie about believing in your president, and this time it's Capra done right. Kevin Kline is wonderful in the role of a regular guy who's a doppelganger for the president, and secretly steps into the president's shoes when the president has a stroke under scandalous circumstances. It's interesting how a movie that is essentially founded on a corruption of the constitution can also have such optimism about American politics. The earnest changes Dave tries to make in the government, as well as admitting to "his" wrongdoing (it's actually the wrongdoing of his predecessor), gives us all hope about what we can accomplish within the political system -- and once he's back to his regular life, Dave intends to do it all again, this time honestly, by starting a grass roots campaign to run for local office.
4) Deep Impact (1997, Mimi Leder). A chance to bash on Armageddon again in the form of putting its rival in the "right" (not politically but morally) group of American patriotism. By couching the survival of the human race not in American terms but human terms, Morgan Freeman's President Tom Beck showcases American determination without calling attention to it, thereby making it seem all the more wise and enlightened. It's amazing that two such similar movies could be handled so differently and create such a divergent impression in us.
5) Glory (1989, Edward Zwick). An answer to Birth of a Nation 75 years later? No Civil War movie has a more profound appreciation for the stoic righteousness of the North than Glory, Edward Zwick's masterpiece (most of his other films are not even in the same ballpark). Denzel Washington and the aforementioned Freeman are both terrific, but it's the selfless sacrifices of Matthew Broderick's Robert Gould Shaw that really stick with me. Perhaps this film is just singularly effective on me because of my white guilt, but Glory reminds us that the fight to abolish slavery was in some cases taken as personally by whites, who did not specifically stand to benefit from it, as by blacks. Equality among men was what the United States was founded on, a philosophy worth dying for.
6) Red Dawn (1984, John Milius). Another guilty pleasure here, and another involving the Russians. Perhaps it's just proof that the extent to which we feel patriotism is the extent to which the enemy seems truly evil, but back in 1984, it seemed very real to me that the Russians could invade and occupy the U.S. Therefore, this group of brat packers who were hiding out and attacking, to defend our country against its occupying army, really resonated with me.
7) Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg). Americans again going up against impossible odds, without calling attention to themselves and just doing their duty. There are so many things Spielberg's film does right that I barely think of it as a film that caused me to feel patriotism, specifically -- perhaps it's just a sign of Spielberg's success at getting us to care about his characters that makes me feel so much pride when they achieve their mission, even if it does feel like a hollow victory to them. More than anything, there's got to be one movie in here where we get to hate Nazis, and Saving Private Ryan is a perfect movie to honor on Independence Day.
8) Swing Vote (2008, Joshua Michael Stern). I'm not sure how well this underdog movie fits the list, but I felt compelled to include it mostly to shine some light on it. You may recall that it's founded on a very unlikely scenario, that a single man in a single voting district (Kevin Costner) gets a chance to cast a vote that will determine the American presidency. The admittedly exaggerated setup works, however -- both as a chance to poke mild fun at the lengths to which politicians will go for victory, but ultimately, to focus attention on the idea that every vote counts. Americans' civic duty to vote is always a valuable lesson, and Swing Vote goes about this lesson the right way -- in addition to being pretty funny in spots.
9) Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell). Another odd choice here, as this film deals primarily with opportunistic soldiers in Iraq who want to steal some gold. However, I'm including it a) because it's really good, and b) because Russell gives his characters souls as the narrative moves on, as they make the decision to become involved rather than walk away when innocent Iraqis are killed by Saddam Hussein's goons. I don't suppose it's anything outside the realm of typical hero stuff, where the protagonists have to do the right thing in order for us to root for them. But it doesn't change the fact that I feel a rush of pride and emotion during that scene where the Iraqi played by Cliff Curtis, along with his group of refugees who have just been led to safety, stare at the American soldiers as they're being dragged away, raising a hand to wave. This solemn gesture of gratitude speaks far more than words. Even if it's a manufactured moment out of pure fiction, the moment makes me feel that ideal America has such a hard time attaining -- actually helping a native population with its presence, rather than just complicating the situation.
10) United 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass). And we end on the other film (in addition to Armageddon) that inspired this piece. The most patriotic I have ever felt in my life was the weeks after September 11th, when I waved flags on several occasions and participated in several candlelight vigils. It was like all my sense of irony had been temporarily tucked away. The only film version of the events of 9/11 that has made me feel that way again is United 93. For most of the running time I'm just marveling over Greengrass' naturalistic recreation of the events, so naturalistic that it almost seems like a documentary (a feeling supported by the fact that some of the air traffic controllers played themselves). But the tensions of the final 20 minutes of the film truly level me, specifically when the passengers of the doomed airplane rise up to overwhelm the terrorists holding them hostage. The scene fills me with adrenaline and pride -- not specifically because these are Americans defending their country, but because they're people doing the right thing.
And that's a good summary of this piece on the whole. True patriotism comes from a pride over people doing the right thing, not over showy displays of the red, white and blue.
But people doing the right thing can be from any country, and perhaps that's why I don't consider myself a patriot per se -- I don't feel like Americans are inherently more likely to rise to the seriousness of the occasion than people elsewhere. Being American alone does not mean you are more likely to behave morally in a grave situation.
But because I'm an American, I do have a bias toward seeing Americans doing the right thing. It's like when I hear that the star of my hometown sports team has done something charitable -- I believe it reflects on the team, and likewise, on me, even if it's just his own individual act of goodness, the kind of which any human is capable.
So on this 4th of July, let's just all try to be good humans. It's probably the most patriotic thing we can do.
And, it will reflect well on our team.