The cold and snow has moved my running to a treadmill lately. To break up the monotony of watching numbers tick slowly higher, I’ve been watching action movies on Netflix while I run. So far, I’ve enjoyed such classics as Jack Reacher, Olympus Has Fallen, The Expendables 2, The Last Stand and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. They’re fast paced, don’t require close attention, and I can view them in 35 minute pieces over a period of days without having to keep track of an intricate plot. Good idea, huh?
I’m finding them kind of upsetting.
It’s not the obvious things, like the racial stereotypes. Yes, very few of the East Asian men I’ve met have genius level intelligence, martial arts mastery and a unbearable grudge against the United States. Usually it’s just one of those. I’ve found, too, that East Asian women are also not martial arts masters, nor are they leather clad dominatrices with ice in their veins. I suppose it’s possible that I’m meeting the wrong sorts of Asians. But I didn’t marry the wrong sort of woman – my wife has agency, an identity free of mine, and common sense. That is, my wife would be a terrible action movie wife. But I think I’m used to the gender problems in action movies. Let’s face it: these films not only fail the Bechdel test, they don’t even sit for the exam.
The graphic violence isn’t helping, both the violence itself and violence packaged as entertainment. I don’t think that movies or video games motivate violent behavior. I recognize that these movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. They’re entertainment for 15 year old boys. But there’s some evidence that if movies don’t shape our behavior, they do seem to shape our view of the real world. The films show violence as a means to an end, and I can think of at least two examples where that’s impacted actual events. First, an an actual general publicly worried about the influence that 24 was having on troops respect for the rule of law and the usefulness of torture. Second, intelligent, rational people – and Alan Dershowitz – believe in a ripped-from-the-screen “ticking time bomb” scenario to justify torture, in spite of the fact that both the likelihood of the scenario occurring and the likelihood of the torture working are both pretty close to nil.
Is it entertainment to watch innocent people get blown to bits in a film world that’s supposed to plausibly resemble our own?In Olympus Has Fallen, terrorists fly a gunship over Washington, indiscriminately firing on pedestrians and motorists prior to attacking the White House. This sequence was incredibly difficult to watch. If I were the 15 year old target audience, scenes of national monuments under attack and planes crashing into DC wouldn’t trigger any memories of 9/11. But I’m not, and I wondered what sort of nutjob would make a movie that resonates 9/11 so much.
Then I realized: that’s the point.
In action movies like Olympus Has Fallen and Jack Ryan, Americans – really, American men – are the smartest, strongest, and most clever beings in the world. The heroes are free of lingering doubts from the recent wars America hasn’t won and the terrorist plots we haven’t stopped. In the movies, the North Koreans and Iranian regimes are bumbling ideologues, undone by their monomaniacal fixation on revenge. In the real world, North Korea and Iran developed sophisticated nuclear programs right under our noses, undermine regional stability and threaten our allies. The fictional Jack Ryan figures out an elaborate Russian scheme to bring the US economy to its knees, but his real world CIA counterparts couldn’t forecast Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year or his ability to pull the rug out from under Obama on Syria the year before that. The closest reality came to action movies in the last few years was the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. As a movie, this would have been the climax. As history, it will be a footnote in describing the declining role of al Qaeda and the metastatic spread of the uberviolent nihilists of ISIS and Boko Haram.
These movies are escapist fantasies, perpetuating an illusion of America that’s faded precipitously over the last 15 years. I suppose I could’ve figured this all out on my own. As fate would have it, though, while I was incrementally watching these movies on the treadmill, I was incrementally reading James Fallows’ piece, The Tragedy of the American Military, in the bathroom. Fallows describes an American public and their elected officials tragically detached from and uncritical of their military. In his words, the military benefits from “(O)verblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money.”
Are the movies really useful in sustaining a myth of American might, righteousness, and indestructibility? The Pentagon hopes so, carefully checking scripts for maximum PR value before deciding whether to cooperate. A quick search of the IMDB page of the Hollywood liaison during the Bush Administration shows the kind of movies that passed muster: The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Among the Pentagon-approved films was also Saving Jessica Lynch, based on the “true story” of the 19-year old private captured in Iraq in 2003. Yes, the Pentagon prefers to have the military fight in cartoonish disaster films and, when possible, cartoonish “true” stories in which the truth is something it engineered in the first place.
One could argue that the Pentagon could have made actual great strides for American might and indestructibility if they had put more effort into providing adequate body armor, supplying properly equpped Humvees, and a ensuring a functional Veterans Administration. But there wouldn’t be any glamor, giant robots, or aliens in that.
Since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been plenty of action movies – some more successful than others. There have also been movies about the wars, almost all of them unsuccessful (the exception is The Hurt Locker). That is, until now, with the success of American Sniper. We now have a movie that takes the action movie highlights – the stoic, driven, supremely talented tough guy hero and purports to place him in a “true” story. People focused on pre-beatification Chris Kyle see the film as heavy handed propaganda. The population that is already inclined to unconditionally celebrate the American military finally gets the lightly fictionalized war movie they wanted, with the rough edges of the Iraq war and Kyle sanded away. I haven’t seen the movie myself, and I don’t think I want to. I much prefer to get my propaganda wholly fictionalized.