Hollywood’s Patriot Games
In this year’s two doomsday pics, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” the U.S. government is both good guy and bad guy, stonewalling the public and then sending heroes to intercept meteors on a collision course with Earth. In both movies, America ultimately saves the world--with a little help from our friends, of course.
“Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” are patriotic in their own way, though patriotism is mainly presented as a dramatic device (good guys versus meteors), wish fulfillment (government enterprise that actually works) or occasionally complicated reality (tight-lipped officials who may or may not be acting in the public interest).
With the fall of communism and the sometimes mindlessly partisan behavior of our politicians, there may be little reason to rally around the flag, but Hollywood always finds a way to haul it out and wave it around. How responsibly it does so is a matter of debate.
In “Armageddon,” patriotic images are pushed in the audience’s face. One character, played by Liv Tyler, views the goings-on while framed by the flag. Another, played by Bruce Willis, is compared along with his colleagues to the famed image of American soldiers struggling to raise the Stars and Stripes. Sepia-lit Americans listen to the president on stylishly retro radios that suggest a Norman Rockwell past.
“Deep Impact,” on the other hand, doesn’t traffic as much in these kinds of loaded images, but it does deal with issues of leadership and responsibility.
“I think in terms of ‘Deep Impact’ we have a president who’s trying to lead the country,” says Mimi Leder, director of the hit film. “He’s also held information from the country.
“I think we constantly have to question our government, but we have to be a participant so that we can really have something to say in our society.”
Despite recent examples of patriotism on parade, Dale Dye, a former Marine captain who worked as a military consultant on such films as Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming World War II drama, “Saving Private Ryan,” thinks that the film industry has a liberal bias.
“Here’s the thing that everybody has to realize about Hollywood: The folks who are behind the movies tend to come from a very liberal stable politically,” Dye says. “Hollywood tends to look at patriotism much more in terms of people than in terms of nation.”
In other words, he says, “what is seen as heroic is sacrificing yourself for another individual. What’s seen as stupid in many cases--I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here--is sacrificing yourself for the greater good of a cause.”
According to screenwriter Patrick Duncan (“Courage Under Fire”), who, like Dye, served in Vietnam, that’s exactly how many soldiers viewed that war.
“Patriotism was never talked about,” he says. “Everything you did, you did for your buddy. If you have a guy who’s been wounded and is lying in some grass and he’s going to get killed and two or three guys go to save him, do you think they’re doing it for God and country? I don’t.
“I think they’re doing it because he’s a guy in their squad. Most people in the front lines are poor. Poor people have no politics. They just try and get through from one day to another.”
With their cynicism and heroics, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” try to have it both ways. Dye thinks the same thing is done in “Saving Private Ryan,” although both views are presented in a far more realistic manner in “Ryan.”
“Ryan” celebrates the flag and the individual, because the members of a platoon led by Tom Hanks are serving their country and at the same time rescuing a soldier who has lost his brothers in the war.
“It hits both nails with the same hammer,” Dye says. “In the one case, if you look at it in the large scenario, these guys are heroic for what they’re going through for the good of a cause, the cause of freeing the oppressed people of Europe, of stopping Nazi tyranny. At the same time, they’re embarked on this special mission to save one person.”
Heroics are a little easier to come by when the enemy is a Nazi. In the post-Cold War world, enemies are a little harder to find. This may be one reason why the movies turn to, or on, the government, particularly the military (although in “The X Files” it’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Dye believes that Hollywood finds it convenient to dehumanize American military personnel in much the same way it does the country’s external enemies.
“When you start lumping and stereotyping and saying that everybody who wears a uniform and has stars on his shoulders is obviously a horrible person, that’s not true,” Dye says. “We’ve got some of the most intelligent human beings in our nation wearing a uniform. And the most free-thinking. Try telling that to a writer in Hollywood.”
Duncan sees this attitude less as a reflection of the pieties of Hollywood liberals and more as a narrative convenience.
“It’s like big business is always demonized,” Duncan says. “You need antagonists, the bigger the better. Also, most of our films are about one lone underdog triumphing over a system of some kind. And so you need as easily identifiable a system as possible.”
For Andrew Marlowe, who wrote the screenplay for “Air Force One,” last summer’s blockbuster hit in which Harrison Ford starred as a heroic president, it’s not so much government that is the enemy as some of the people running it. He says that audiences share this cynicism and that filmmakers have to take it into account.
For example, in “A Clear and Present Danger,” a character has the president (Donald Moffat) sign a “get out of jail free card” just in case his illegal covert activities wind up in a congressional hearing room. He says that the appeal of Ford’s characters in “A Clear and Present Danger” and “Air Force One” is that they do not act out of this kind of expediency and self-interest.
“When I created the movie, I started from the point of view of what sort of president would I want to see, because during the course of my life I’ve been fairly disillusioned by the people who end up being president,” Marlowe says.
Having established this sterling character, Marlowe had to come up with equally compelling opponents--aside from the government, that is. These days, screenwriters have to find them either up there (“Independence Day,” “Deep Impact,” “Armageddon”) or down here. In Ed Zwick’s “Against All Enemies,” to be released this fall, the enemies are everywhere (except up there).
The premise is that the measures employed to combat terrorism--law enforcement agencies, the Army, anti-terrorist laws--may undermine the very freedoms they are supposed to protect.
While attacks on our constitutional rights are not typical Hollywood fare, Zwick’s choice of terrorists is (though in this case he was limited to a group that had been trained by the CIA). Dye calls Arab terrorists the “target du jour.”
Marlowe, who says he stayed away from “caricatured Arab terrorists because I thought it was hackneyed, cliche and pretty unfair,” picked “something out of the new world order.” He made up a rogue Russian general who is being prosecuted for ethnic cleansing, and he brought in Gary Oldman’s character to hijack Air Force One to effect the general’s release.
Other recent films have also drawn their villains from the world’s seemingly endless supply of rabid nationalists, religious fanatics and all-around troublemakers. In “A Clear and Present Danger,” it was a Colombian drug cartel. In last year’s “The Peacemaker,” it was Serbs.
“I wasn’t consciously trying to spout patriotism,” says Leder, who also directed “The Peacemaker.” “In dealing with the character of the terrorist, he lost his morality because his family was murdered. He was going to blow up New York City, and what interested me was how someone loses their humanity.
“There were other characters, George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, trying to stop this nuclear terrorist. If that’s patriotic, then I’m for it.”
Marlowe is the first to admit that despite the topicality of his film’s premise, it is really about “Harrison Ford kicking terrorist butt. You have to pick the agenda. Ultimately the agenda isn’t nearly as important as the characters you have and the people who are playing those roles.”
Duncan would agree. In fact, he says that, like soldiers on the line, audiences don’t really care about the politics of the situation.
“Take a look at ‘Star Wars,’ ” he says. “It’s a war movie. Whose side are we on? We’re on the side of our hero, and we don’t know the politics. We just know that the other side is bad.”
In other words, Hollywood is neither patriotic nor unpatriotic. It owes its allegiance to the bottom line.