Act of Valor and The Death of the Contemporary War Movie
February 27, 2012
I just came home from seeing Act of Valor. I liked it, and it is chock full of action, but the hype around the movie, and how it features actual SEALs, really got me thinking. I just mentioned the 1966 western The Professionals in a blog post, and how every single one of the principals in that movie was a World War II vet. How things have changed. We have witnessed the death of the contemporary war movie in our time.
I define "war movie" as a film where the central characters are soldiers, trigger pullers, and whether there is a lot of action or not (Battleground anyone?) it is set in a combat zone, and the plot has to do with fighting and winning the war, or the battle, or just surviving the day. The recent Battle: Los Angeles was a war movie. I consider Platoon a "war movie", but not Patton. By "contemporary" I mean set in a theater of combat where our troops are still fighting. Act of Valor is a war movie'¦..but a contemporary one? Not quite.
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Our troops have been in combat for over nine years, over twice the length of time we fought in World War II. In that time, how many war movies have been made about the fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan? I would argue NONE, including Act of Valor, and there is a very specific reason for this, and it's political.
While there have always been those who we now label as liberals involved in the arts, it's only in recent history that they have filtered everything they produce through the lens of their politics. During World War II dozens of war movies were made while the war was still going on. Hollywood's best and brightest wrote and acted in classics of cinema that extolled the virtue of the American fighting man and the U.S. in general. And they didn't just talk the talk, they walked the walk—William Wyler, the director of the Academy Award-winning Mrs. Miniver (which I could argue is a war movie in its own right, focusing on the home front) couldn't make the awards ceremony because he was on a bombing run over Germany'¦..
While the Vietnam War was politically unpopular, and many anti-war movies were made while the war was still going on, Vietnam "war movies" were made, both during (The Green Berets) and immediately after the fighting ended.
Iraq, or Afghanistan? Nothing. After nine years.
Sure, there have been documentaries about the war (Restrepo), but no fictional war movies. Hollywood instead has given us Green Zone, a very well made but delusional anti-American propaganda piece. It sprang from the liberal worldview that in part believes:
1. Our government is bad, and
2. We went to war for a fabricated reason (WMDs)'¦never mind the fact that Saddam Hussein used WMDs in the war with Iran (and good intelligence shows that he shipped them out to Lebanon or Syria months before we invaded). While Matt Damon played a soldier in a combat zone, this was not a war movie.
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Hollywood has offered us Stop Loss, a lovely drama about soldiers refusing to go back to combat, and Brothers, which helps our troops wonder who might be having sex with their girl while they're in the combat zone. The Hurt Locker was critically acclaimed, but that is not a war movie, it is a personality-driven character piece set in a war zone. Body of Lies and Traitor were both well done, but they weren't war movies, and neither could be accused of excessive flag waving. That goes triple for Syriana. The closest thing we've seen to an Iraq/Afghanistan war movie is The Kingdom, an excellent procedural thriller featuring FBI agents, set in... Saudi Arabia.
So why no contemporary war movies? I can find no other reason than politics.
Modern Hollywood liberals are against war in general, and rabidly against any war "started" by a conservative president. On top of that, they're not big fans of the military (to put it mildly), and many of them have problems with the U.S. being a leader in the world. A realistic war movie set in Iraq or Afghanistan, depicting American soldiers as the good guys, goes against almost everything many of them believe in.
As insulated and out of touch with reality as a lot of Hollywood is, even they know that making an openly anti-American war movie, or an anti-war movie about a conflict our troops are still embroiled in, is a lose-lose proposition. Most of the above movies I mentioned (specifically Green Zone) lost money. In fact, I would argue that Hollywood knows that huge numbers of Americans are eagerly waiting to pay good money to see a war movie, and money is almost as important as politics with the glitterati. So what can they do? I can hear the conversation now'¦.
"Well, we can't have it set in the Middle East, because they we'd have to portray Muslims as the bad guys. I mean, heck, we made The Sum of All Fears and replaced Tom Clancy's Islamic terrorists with neo-Nazis. So, who can we make the bad guys, without offending anyone? I know, aliens!"
Actually, in modern cinema, it's not just aliens, its zombies and vampires who are the antagonists in action movies. Why? You won't offend most of the left-of-center crowd if you have your on-screen heroes killing aliens or the undead (except for those who think any depiction of firearms is evil). World War Z (based on the bestselling book) is currently in production right now, with none other than Brad Pitt taking the lead role as the reporter collecting personal stories about the worldwide zombie apocalypse.
Hollywood waited eight years to bring Black Hawk Down to the big screen. It was an excellent movie, helmed by one of the most well-known directors around, and still the vast majority of critics HATED it, even though Bill Clinton was the President in charge of the military at the time of the event. How could they hate it even though it was practically a reenactment of a highly documented historical event? Let us count the ways—
1. Showed the U.S. Military in a good light
2. Came out when George W. Bush was President
3. Portrayed citizens of the Middle East as the bad guys.
This does not conform to their worldview where the U.S. is a prime source of evil in the world. I honestly wish I was wrong about this, but I have yet to find another explanation. Reading reviews of the movie told me much more about the critics' political views than they did the movie itself.
So what does this mean for movie lovers? I wish I was wrong, but I don't expect to see a "war movie" set in modern day Iraq or Afghanistan, portraying our soldiers in a positive light, for years, if not decades. But wait! What about Act of Valor?
The fact of the matter is that Hollywood knows the public wants to see war movies, and after the SEALs took out Bin Ladin, everyone in Hollywood was scrambling to find a way to cash in on this. Act of Valor, however, is not the product of a Hollywood studio. The Bandito Brothers filmed it on a shoestring budget, and it was only after the Bin Ladin raid that the major studios engaged in a bidding war to distribute it.
And while it is a "war movie", which features smugglers, drug cartels, and yes, Islamic extremists as the bad guys, none of them are of Middle Eastern descent, and none of the movie takes place in the Middle East. You'll see Africa, the Philippines, South America, even Mexico, but not Iraq or Afghanistan. In other words, neither the places in nor the people against which the SEALs have most actively been engaged in combat against for the better part of a decade.
Even if you want to argue that Act of Valor meets the criteria of the contemporary war movie, that brings the total of such movies in the past nine years up to...1. Sigh.
Yes, former SEAL Marcus Luttrell's book Lone Survivor is, as I write this, in pre-production in Tinseltown, but this will be more a character profile or depiction of one man's suffering (aka Hurt Locker or 127 Hours) than a war movie. The people in Hollywood have too much invested in believing things that just aren't so. It's only when our current wars become historical events that they will find their way up onto the big screen.