Why Hollywood Can’t Make a Good Movie About the War on Terror
It’s all about distance and context
It is easy for the writer and director of a war film to fall into the trap of creating either a jingoist exploitation piece … or an overwrought anti-war drama that audiences quickly forget. Does anyone recall The Green Zone, In the Valley of Ellah or Stop-Loss with fondness?
That doesn’t mean great art can’t be made about conflicts while they’re extant. But great art about war needs distance and context. Speculative fiction—westerns, horror films, science fiction, fantasy—are perfect for this.
In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, two youth archetypes tear-assing across the South. The end, when the two are graphicly gunned down, shocked audiences already numbed by horrific reporting from the Vietnam war.
Director Arthur Pen delivered imagery that spoke to the times—a picture of youth destroyed by state violence. The film won Academy Awards and cleaned up at the box office. It resonated because it talked about an ongoing American conflict in a way Americans could stand.
Smart social commentary is the duty of speculative fiction. 1957’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers illustrated Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism. John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing is remembered not just for being a great monster movie, but as a metaphor for AIDS, a new blood-born disease that people barely understood at the time.
It’s the same now. Today’s best movies aren’t overt.
Going the distance
Last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness is all about the war on terror. The above picture is the very last frame in the film.
The acknowledgment isn’t necessary. The movie’s true subject is obvious throughout. The Federation, having taken a hawkish turn after the events of the first Trek reboot movie, seeks justification for war with the Klingons. A conflict it sees as inevitable.
Enter Khan, a monster made for war. The Federation uses his knowledge of combat and technology to ensure victory against the Klingons. But Khan turns on the Federation, becoming a terrorist.
To say that the American government has employed similar tactics—and with similar results—is a grand understatement.
Filmmakers in 2013 did not shy away from exploiting the memory of 9/11, but none did it with quite the same flair as J.J. Abrams in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Even after 10 years, it’s still hard for Americans to watch footage of the Twin Towers collapsing. But destroy a Federation building in a Star Trek movie or crash a mighty spaceship into a city, invoking the memory of 9/11, and you’ve got box office gold.
We all want to talk about it. But we want to talk about it at a remove.
George W. Batman
That’s one reason why these movies are so popular. They’re a comfortable way to talk about uncomfortable subjects.
People are afraid of drones. But they root for them, too—and in their heart of hearts, they’re happy that human beings are at less risk in combat. The hero of Iron Man 3 is not—in the end—the weary and PTSD-suffering Tony Stark, but the robots he created.
Dozens come to save him from the biological terror of Mandarin. Tony barely lifts a finger in that movie, save to activate his drones.
Ender’s Game warns of the effects of protracted war and the video-gamification of warfare. Pacific Rim and World War Z are film depictions of multinational coalitions facing down relentless enemies.
Then there’s The Dark Knight, in which Batman uses invasive surveillance and vaguely legal rendition to face down a hard-to-find ideological terrorist.
In the end, the public hates the hero for his efforts. Will there ever be a better story of the George W. Bush years than this?
Yes, there will be. But we still need time and context. The first great film about the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, came five years after the United States ended its involvement in that conflict. Full Metal Jacket followed in 1987.
The war in Afghanistan continues. The war in Iraq is still fresh in the minds of the soldiers who fought it. The war on terror seems far from over. Good war movies will be made about these conflicts, but only after they’re long over.
Until then, speculative fiction allows storytellers to talk about the conflicts in a way that incompetent “realistic” crap like Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker just can’t.