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.


Travis McClain said...

Ever since I was a child, I have been made uncomfortable by "patriotic" language, flag-waving and glorification of the military. It reduces our entire society to little more than "go, team, go!" cheerleading.

The problem is that I sincerely do appreciate being an American, I love our flag (far and away the best looking so far as I'm concerned) and I have nothing but respect for the men and women of our armed forces. What I can't abide is being told that if I don't bathe my car in the flag and worship at the altar of the military, that I'm not a "real" American.

It seems most of the talk about "patriotism" and the military comes from right-wingers who use it as bait to bash anyone who doesn't share their specific brand of devotion. Ironically, it seems the most outspoken of these people have only gotten as close as watching a movie to actually serving themselves. Watching Full Metal Jacket doesn't make you any more qualified to lecture about military service than anyone else who hasn't worn the uniform.

I almost composed a blog post today, but to be honest I just don't have anything to say this year that I haven't said in the past. I thought about noting how destructive is the current GOP doctrine of undermining and opposing President Obama at every turn on principle, but I'm burnt out. Because of Crohn's disease, I've been personally invested in the health care reform effort and am exhausted every time I hear my own elected representatives in Congress (Geoff Davis in the House and Rand Paul in the Senate) champion its repeal. I hate being a Kentuckian at times.

All that aside, I had a few thoughts about your list. I haven't seen all of these movies, so I might have more thoughts when I get to them.

Regarding American Carol, have you seen the clip of when Jon Voigt came onto the Mike Huckabee show and read an open letter to all Americans about how President Obama is actively working to destroy us? That was off-the-scales batshit crazy.

As for Armageddon, I'll grant you the fly over was unnecessary. Personally, I just accept this kind of thing with a Michael Bay movie. Though it does beg the question: Is his entire filmography an attempt to atone for not having entered the service?

I think you're just being harsh on Independence Day. I remember after 9/11 we kept hearing how on that day, all Americans became New Yorkers and people across the world became Americans. I took that speech as that kind of all-inclusive remark.

Now, I'll grant you that it posits America at the apex of humanity during that invasion and ignores the fact that other societies had their own leaders giving their own speeches. That, I think, is fine. That president's speech was intended just for the Americans who heard him, and it's what they needed to hear.

Of course, it was really intended for us as an audience and I think that, too, was okay. I believe what makes us great is that we are the proverbial melting pot; America is a microcosm of all humanity. I think it's a good thing for the rest of the world to identify with us, and for us to want to be the kind of society that the rest of the world wants to identify with.

More later. Now, I'm off to grab some grub and go see Super 8.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks as always for the comment Travis. I'm in the same boat as you regarding my wariness at being told I'm not being patriotic in the correct way. Fortunately, I don't take those people's opinions very seriously.

What can I say, I don't really like Independence Day. That speech may function as you say it does, but all I'm going on for this post is how a certain movie made me feel at the time. I thought Independence Day was overly simplistic, and therefore I thought that speech had kind of the "go team go!" attitude that you and I both dislike.

Didn't hear about Jon Voight's crazy open letter. But after An American Carol I did develop a list of all the loathsome Republicans in Hollywood. Did you know that Dennis Hopper had become one? That seems crazy to me.

Interesting observation about Bay's career. I'm sure he's doing a lot of the same things with the military in the Transformers movies, but I didn't notice it like I noticed it in Armageddon. Just not a fan of that movie.

Hope you liked Super 8. I liked it well enough, though probably less so the more I think about it.

Travis McClain said...

I think there are two reasons I was fine with the Independence Day speech. Firstly, even if the ad campaign hadn't told me what kind of a movie it was, by the time Pullman gives that speech it just felt a natural part of that milieu.

Secondly, the film came out in 1996 at a time when the biggest problem with our country and its president was that he was part-rock star with a fondness for groupies. I unashamedly loved Bill Clinton and that goodwill carried over into the theater with me. Had the president in that film been portrayed as ineffective because he was too busy "chasing skirt" as they used to say, I would have been insulted.

Instead, this was a competent, compassionate president. Was it over the top that this guy was a fighter pilot going to lead the troops personally? Of course, but that worked because of the "our existence is on the line" nature of the final battle.

Plus, that was one fine score by David Arnold. Perfect for the tone of the film. ;)

Regarding Super 8, I enjoyed it quite a lot. I certainly agree with the "I've already seen this movie" crowd, but I think a lot of the naysayers have missed the sweet coming-of-age forest for the "I want a monster wrecking trains" trees. For me, the monster/alien was just a manifestation of the unresolved angst in the lives of these characters. Joe's mother is dead; Alice's dad is the town drunk. Their story is practically Shakespearean, and Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning were terrific.

It seems the only reactions online have been:

"Nothing original"
"monster design was crap"
"enough with the lens flares!"
"Abrams still can't give a decent ending to a story"

I'm increasingly convinced that the people who discuss movies online only see movies so they can complain about them. I thought the monster/alien was fine; it made my wife and cousin squeamish. The lens flares didn't particularly bother me and I only really have one complaint about the conclusion of the film.

Much of the information that explains how Joe was able to persuade the monster/alien to just leave was conveyed to us through their investigation and the film footage of Dr. Woodward. Abrams left it to us to process that information and deduce for ourselves that Joe told him he understood what happened, felt sorry for him, etc., and I think a lot of people are conditioned to see this play out more like this:

Joe makes direct contact with monster/alien
Montage of everything Joe knows flashes over image of the two of them, reminding us how Joe perceives things
Tanks cease firing on the town; military personnel respond with apprehension
Monster/alien demonstrably changes its attitude, perhaps nods or smiles

It was either bold or lazy of Abrams to not go that route, and I think a lot of the reserved reaction to the film can be attributed to this more than anything else.

Anonymous said...

A great post.

I really dug Swing Vote, was a nice, offbeat film ! Not enough people saw it.

Vancetastic said...

Travis, there is a definite Mr. Crankypants attitude among film bloggers, myself included (sometimes). However, I think that's partly because it is inherently easier to say mean things about a movie than nice things -- the words just leap to mind more easily when you're trying to be dismissive than when you're trying to praise. However, I thought you might be interested to know that I in particular (I know you were not accusing me) like more than two-thirds of the movies I see. I keep a spreadsheet of all the movies I've ever seen, and also whether I give the movie thumbs down or thumbs up. As of right now, the the thumbs ups lead the thumbs downs by a 2-1 margin, pretty much exactly 66% for movies I liked. A true movie snob might be closer to 50%, but they probably aren't enjoying life as much as you and I are. (My percentage would be significantly higher if I didn't see a bunch of bad films just to review them.)

I also think that making negative comments, even about movies they like, make people who wish they were in the movie industry feel like part of the creative process. It's like you're giving notes after the fact.

5plitreel, welcome and thanks for the compliment! I think Swing Vote got dismissed because of the Costner Factor. I don't know where that guy got such a terrible reputation, but he's really made some good films over the years.

Vancetastic said...

Clarification: I *do* know where Costner got his bad reputation, but I don't think a couple massive flops should impact an entire career this much.

Travis McClain said...

We rented Swing Vote from Redbox, having passed on it during its theatrical release. It just looked simplistic and generic, and it really was. However, I was thoroughly impressed by Madeline Carroll. I thought Costner was fine (I'm a fan of his in general), but I have to admit I kept thinking this was a movie that Kurt Russell would have absolutely owned ~20 years ago.

It struck me that Swing Vote wanted to make a political satire, but wasn't sure how far it could go before losing mainstream audiences. The real story was about the relationship between Bud and Molly (which was very accessible and touching), and it's unfortunate that the political story is all anyone seemed to review.

As for focusing on negative remarks, I do think there's something to your notion about feeling "connected." We as a society have a poor grasp of criticism as a concept, with many believing that "to criticize" means "to nitpick or berate."

Last year I read James Lipton's Inside "Inside" and he shared an anecdote of Jane Fonda's. She was young and had seen a movie with her dad (who, of course, actually was connected with the industry) and when it was over he asked what she thought. She immediately began listing things she didn't like, and her dad stopped her.

He told her anyone could just focus on things they didn't like, but that ignores all the good things. It's a lazy form of reaction, essentially, and she told Lipton that had really opened her eyes to the importance of beginning with praise for what is done well before filing complaints for what falls short.

The funny thing about your remark (about enjoying life) is that I have been dealing with depression most of my life, going back to my childhood, really, though I've only been treated for it in the last decade or so. The last year has been particularly rough, especially since about October. Believe me, I'm not enjoying life and rarely have!

My views about movies are fairly simple, actually. Growing up, we didn't have a theater in my entire county and had to go to Louisville to see a movie on the big screen. We didn't have much money so most of the movies we saw were second run at the $1 theaters. Furthermore, mom dislikes movies in general and only took us to movies she suspected were kid-friendly. I was almost in my teens before I ever saw an Indiana Jones movie, and that was on VHS.

Consequently, I still think of movies as something special, rather than a default way of zoning out and killing a couple of hours. I hate the very idea of a movie or TV playing as "background," and I think that behavior only encourages the sort of reductive, pass/fail ("FTW"/"fail") reactions that I find so useless.