In Search of a Truly American Film

A few weeks after Sept. 11, Washington sent an emissary, Karl Rove, to Hollywood to urge producers to make movies that champion American values and enshrine the American spirit. Leaving aside the issue of whether this kind of collaboration between government officials and moviemakers is appropriate, there's another intriguing question to ponder: What would a film bursting with "American values" actually look like?

Probably what the president and his advisors had in mind are films that celebrate patriotism or wholesome attributes such as family togetherness, self-sacrifice and courage under fire. But are any of these upright virtues inherently American? At the risk of inviting the wrath of the flag-wavers, I humbly suggest that America doesn't have a monopoly on any of those qualities. They may represent the ideals to which some Americans aspire, but these lofty goals are just as likely to stir Aussies and Spaniards and Serbs.

In light of this presidential request--although the White House later made clear it wasn't trying to alter movie content--it's tempting to look at a number of year-end movies to determine if any of them discern traits unique to our culture. One obvious place to start is with recent gung-ho war movies, such as "Black Hawk Down" and "Behind Enemy Lines," that would probably be right at the top of the government's wish list for suitably inspirational films in perilous times.

"Black Hawk Down" actually chronicles a less than triumphant U.S. military mission--the U.S. involvement in the savage civil war in Somalia in 1993 that included the deaths of 18 American servicemen during a chaotic commando raid. The movie is particularly timely right now, as it vividly conveys the disorientation of American soldiers in a foreign terrain that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible.

Although it recognizes the horrors of modern warfare, it aims to eulogize the courage and solidarity of the American fighting man. These soldiers bravely thrust themselves into danger to rescue their fallen comrades. Their fortitude is admirable, but is there anything quintessentially American about the heroism that they exhibit? You could probably find the same courage and loyalty among many other people at war--the British and the Russians during World War II, the Israelis, the Pushtun fighters in Afghanistan, just to name a few. None of the Army Rangers in "Black Hawk Down" emerges as a distinctly American hero, which is partly a failing of the script. Because the individual soldiers are barely characterized and completely undifferentiated, one searches in vain for any specifically American traits.

The Navy navigator played by Owen Wilson in "Behind Enemy Lines" comes a little closer to filling the bill. He is sharply drawn in the script as a slightly cynical, wisecracking maverick who thumbs his nose at authority. His gumption serves him well under pressure; he demonstrates a Yank's pragmatic resourcefulness when he's forced to use his wits to survive the civil war in Bosnia.

Both of these films mean to stir patriotic fervor. "The Majestic" peddles a less bellicose brand of Americana. Set in the 1950s, much of it takes place in an idyllic small town reminiscent of Bedford Falls, the town immortalized in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." Director Frank Darabont wants to stir our nostalgia for the fraternal, unselfish sense of community that sprouts in these all-American enclaves.

Is comradeship, however, a strictly American value? Small towns where neighbors share each other's joys and sorrows can be found all over the globe, and many foreign films, including Fellini's "Amarcord," Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home" and the Irish comedy "Waking Ned Devine" have focused on the same kinds of cohesive communities that "The Majestic" glorifies.

The last section of "The Majestic" shifts gears as it thrusts the hero (Jim Carrey) back into Hollywood, where he is forced to testify before a special session of the House Un-American Activities Committee about his alleged Communist sympathies. His stay in Smalltown USA has toughened his moral fiber, and the once sycophantic screenwriter finds the pluck to stand up to the witch hunters and champion the 1st Amendment. In the end, the movie advocates principle over expediency, but this mealy-mouthed message is the most blandly universal statement imaginable. "A Man for All Seasons" told a similar story of a man defending conscience over compromise, and it was set in England about 200 years before the American Revolution.

"Black Hawk Down" and "The Majestic" are two insistently "American" movies that end up telling us surprisingly little about our unique spirit. If you dig a little deeper, you can find a couple of current films that discover more penetrating truths about American values.

The critical prize-winner "In the Bedroom" is a very dark movie unlikely to warm the cockles of a patriot's heart, but I think it presents an indubitably American cautionary tale. Its sense of locale--a sleepy Maine fishing village--is perfectly rendered, and it captures the subtle class distinctions that infect our ostensibly classless society.

The story highlights the tension between an upper-middle-class couple, the Fowlers (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), and the working-class woman (Marisa Tomei) having an affair with their son. Part of the boy's reason for pursuing this liaison is to rankle his parents, particularly his mom, who distrusts people outside their refined universe. The couple's worst fears are realized when a violent tragedy befalls their son.

The film takes a disturbing turn in its final third. (Warning: The following reveals some key plot elements.) The grieving, angry parents, frustrated by the legal system, hatch a revenge plot that mends their marriage. In the film's biting twist on a favorite American maxim, the family that kills together stays together. It's significant that in a key scene after their mission is accomplished, director Todd Field makes a point of focusing on the American flag in the couple's garage.

Some viewers may argue with his thesis, but I think Field makes a persuasive and terrifying case for the notion that vigilantism is an irrepressible American impulse. We have long sanctified frontier justice, and this is the credo the Fowlers uphold.

No doubt this acerbic vision of our American heritage wasn't what Rove had in mind when he came calling in Hollywood, but "In the Bedroom" dramatizes some of the darkest strains in our culture, and its vision is too potent to dismiss. I would prefer, however, to conclude this survey of enduring American values on a somewhat more positive note.

"The Royal Tenenbaums," Wes Anderson's sprightly comedy about a clan of failed geniuses, probably isn't the kind of uplifting American hymn that Washington envisioned. It centers, after all, on a ragingly dysfunctional family. Nevertheless, the movie touched me because it made me think about the precious qualities of our society that might well be threatened by terrorist attacks as well as by governmental overreaction.

The Tenenbaums are a family of eccentrics--wackos, weirdos, loners, con men and rogues. The film requests our indulgence and our affection for this motley group, and I would propose that such open-mindedness epitomizes America at its best. Anderson's picture is a valentine to defiant, unregenerate individuality.

Extremist, fundamentalist regimes want to create societies where everyone is a clone or a drone marching to the same insistent drummer. Such regimes mandate sameness, and I think what they hate about America is that we are such a dizzyingly diverse population--a society of lunatics and lovers of every persuasion. In the spirit of this polyglot, polymorphously perverse ethos, Anderson makes room for almost every sexual and ethnic possibility within the extended Tenenbaum clan. An African American, an Indian (from Calcutta), an angry Jewish paranoiac, a woman who's dabbled in bisexuality, even a quasi-incestuous couple all reside under the same roof.

Despite their conflicts and neuroses, the Tenenbaums and their consorts ultimately arrive at a state of understanding and harmony. They display solidarity amid astonishing diversity, and I came out of this film feeling grateful that I live in a society that could tolerate this much antic nonconformity. "The Royal Tenenbaums" doesn't have a political bone in its body, but in its unassuming way, it may contain the truest and most heartening embodiment of the messy, vital American spirit that you can find on movie screens today.


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