Saturday, March 13, 2010

The American War Movie

All the wars America has been embroiled in, have brought pain, profit and global influence to a nation that does not seem to get enough. From the war against the natives of this land, the Civil War to the present Iraq and Afghanistan war, conflict has defined and wounded the soul of this nation for more than two centuries. Yet America cannot relent. Always finding new ways to further its power and influence across the planet through the compelling use of its military might.

Wars have scarred the psyche of this nation by sacrificing its youth. The same wars have brought back huge profits to the military industrial complex, the bedrock of its economy. Another contribution the wars have made, is provide rich material for writers to spawn an impressive volume of books, movies, music, video games and television shows which have captivated the minds of a global audience. Cinema for one through its century long existence has shaped how the world sees America's wars and how America sees its men and women engaged in the act of war.

Movies made on the subject of war have brought us stories of heroism, horror, histrionics and angst in vivid detail. If one were to count the number of movies made in Hollywood on the subject of war since the silent era, the list would be grand. War contributes to the full range of human experience, from life unto death and all that comes in between. War brings out the monster and the hero in its participants. Therefore the "theater of war" is an obvious place to go to find stories that can sear the human imagination. But it is always the hero that is given more credence as it is complicated to confront the monster.

Charlie Chaplin's silent short film "Shoulder Arms" (1918) set in France during World War I is one of the earliest films to deal with the subject of war as a theme. From that to the recent Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker" the subject has been tackled in every incarnation possible. From comedy, drama, graphic horror to science fiction America's wars have rewarded film makers with rich material to make statements about the human condition and the insanity of its actions. Since the 1930 classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" movies about war have often been handsomely rewarded with Oscars, underscoring the importance given to movies about war and by creating a genre of its own.

Off all the wars, The Second World war and the Vietnam war have been the favorites of the Hollywood establishment. Partly because of their dramatic outcomes. The second world war was the "just war" which America won and saved the world from annihilation. The Vietnam war brought home the horrors that were much too real to bear and unpopular for the reasons we all know today. While films made on the Vietnam war by far more honest and potent in their depiction ("Full Metal Jacket", "Apocalypse Now", "The Deer Hunter", "Platoon", "Tigerland") the ones made on the Second World War in general seemed embellished ("Casablanca", "The Longest Day", "Kelly's Heroes", "Where Eagles Dare") even though the horrors were no different. As a result the second world war is still being milked for stories by filmmakers like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as they feel it was never explained in all its dimensions. Their latest epic television installment "The Pacific"- similar to their earlier contributions "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan"- tries to set the record straight once again by showing the horror juxtaposed with heroism. The message here, lest you forget wars were and are a gruesome enterprise. There are heroes, but they are mostly dead ones and the ones who survive to tell the story become one by default.

While other warring nations such as Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Japan have made considerable number of films dealing with the subject of war they come nowhere close to America's obsession. In the last two years alone there were more than a dozen big and small films made dealing with the subject of war. Quinten Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" set during the second world war and Katharine Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" set in Iraq, grabbed the most attention this year.

Almost all American films about their wars are always from an American point of view. And in most cases from the point of view of the white male soldier on the front line who is bearing the brunt of America's heroic or unjust dirty excursion. In any case the boot on the ground is most often the hero even if he is tormented by the dirty business he has to engage in to stay alive. If there is any villainy it is always attributed to secondary characters who are jealous or are plain evil and are trying to bring the good man down. The enemy most often is primitive or caricatured or is always the shadow we don't quite understand and simply don't care to. There are only a handful of films that have tried to see the war from the non-western point of view. "Letters from Iwo Jima" by Clint Eastwood, is one recent film set during the second world war that sees the war from the eyes of the Japanese. It was even made in the Japanese language.

The rationale for this is simple. It is the Americans who are making the films about their war so obviously it is going to be from their point of view, as it is only their point of view that is reported and therefore that is what they understand. But when these films drop on the rest of the world like a juggernaut, they seem to skew the way the world views America's wars. And there in lies the problem.

The recent academy award winning film "The Hurt Locker" attempts to a look at the Iraq war from a very personal American point of view but still succumbs to some conventional Hollywood cliches. It was clear right from the start that a decision was made by the storytellers to make subtle comments on the politics of war, by only focusing on its human toll. "The Hurt Locker" is the story of a soldier who's job is to disarm roadside bombs before they detonate and kill American soldiers and innocent Iraqis. So marches in our American hero putting his life on the line for the greater good of humanity. And he does it with no less flare than Rambo or Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He is macho, brash, fearless, determined, obstinate and damn right good at what he does. He has disarmed over eight hundred bombs in his short career. And that is what heroic Americans do in times of war, they put their life at risk to save the world and only they know how to do it best. And much like Rambo our bomb squad hero cannot function in the sane world so he must return to the insanity of war to get his adrenaline fix. As usual the enemy is a shadowy entity, every Iraqi on the street is suspect and no one can be trusted. While the film does capture the precariousness and unpredictability American soldiers face in Iraq, as they are an occupying force, the Iraqis just form an ever threatening backdrop. Much like Iraq and Afghanistan in reality has become to most Americans, a mere backdrop.

In many ways like the films that came before it, "The Hurt Locker" tries to capture the psychological toll wars take on its executors but falls way short in its impact. Films like "Full Metal Jacket", "Apocalypse Now" and the 2006 French film "Indigénes" did a far better job in capturing the damaging nature of war. "The Hurt Locker" has a thin plot and fails to justify adequately some of the motivations of its characters. Other than the fact that we get an exciting documentary style look into the world of a bomb squad on the front line. Gender politics aside, then why the critical acclaim? Is it another case of a movie being given credence as it embodies the angst of a war weary nation or was it just time to award a "war movie" to punctuate this generation while the wars are deeply unpopular and still in progress. As if there was ever a "popular" war.

It is a known fact that the military has always seen Hollywood as its propaganda partner. At the same time it has known to be less cooperative with films that are critical of the military establishment as in the case of the recent film "In the Valley of Elah". The military has always embraced Hollywood where it seemed fit by providing unfettered access to its hardware to be used as sets. The film"Top Gun" had a full airplane carrier at its disposal through the shoot. In 1999 Steven Spielberg received the military's highest civilian honor from the Pentagon for making "Saving Private Ryan". The very establishment that orchestrates the wars gave an award to a filmmaker who claims to make anti-war films. Can there be anything more ironic?

Wars will always be a treasure trove of subject matter. Stories of human suffering always make good entertainment, the only thing that deters Hollywood is the box office. "The Hurt Locker" was the lowest grossing Oscar winner ever. Hopefully one day in that treasure trove there will be a movie where the Americans will play the role of the backdrop and the misery and brutalization of the so called "enemy" will be the forefront. Only to show there is no such thing as a "just war" all there is, is just violence, death and mayhem. And I hope that film wins an Oscar and not in the foreign film category. It is what it is.