Op-Eds by Jim

Is Hollywood Pro-Military Now?

March 25, 2002
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

WSJ-melgibsonExcept for the special case of movies about World War II, it has been a long time since we have seen a major film that shows modern American soldiers fighting hard battles with courage, dignity and a sense of purpose. And now we have two. “Black Hawk Down,” directed by the highly-regarded Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”), is set on the chaotic streets of Mogadishu in 1993, and has grossed $110 million since its wide release two months ago. It also snared four Academy Award nominations. “We Were Soldiers,” which tells the story of those who fought America’s first major battle against the North Vietnamese Army in late 1965, stars Mel Gibson and took in $53 million in its first 17 days.

With the recent box-office success of these two films, one is tempted to conclude that mainstream Hollywood has broken new ground in its depiction of American soldiers at war. The simplicity of the plot lines, and the emphasis on the sheer ferocity of the fighting, overrides the usual political implications and internal conflicts that have so characterized post-World War II movies. As a consequence, at their end a viewer is left with the irrefutable conclusion that these were good men, serving their country at considerable cost. In short, they were every bit as good, as brave, as dedicated and as deserving of praise, as their World War II predecessors.

As mundane as it may sound to those who have served, this concept is fresh ground in Hollywood. But the jury is still out as to whether it constitutes a trend.

It is often said that Hollywood studios will “follow the money” when it comes to choosing film topics, but this is only a partial truism. Collectively, Hollywood is still the most politically correct culture in America, and its decision-makers are highly conscious of the power of a film to shape public opinion. A film topic that goes against the grain of liberal orthodoxy is hard-pressed to find a producer, and especially a studio, with the power to work it through the many-headed Hydra called the development process.

And this is especially true of war movies, for a variety of rather complicated reasons. Without the philosophically conservative Mr. Gibson, or the combination of Oscar-winner Mr. Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Top Gun”), it is doubtful that either of these highly successful films would have made it to the marketplace.

Why is it so hard for Hollywood’s decision-makers to make films that honor those who have fought in America’s wars since World War II? There are a variety of reasons. Some are commercial, but many others are not.

First and foremost, for all its international reach, Hollywood’s management culture is largely inbred, and the very notion of voluntary military service is an anomaly to its members. For every person who is hired at a studio or major agency or production office there are probably 10 with the talent and desire to work there. In a business that is intensely relationship-driven, the tendency is to hire those with whom one is most comfortable, both philosophically and in terms of background.

Few in Hollywood’s power structure have served in the military, and it is rare to find someone in that culture who truly comprehends either the pride in serving or the sacrifices that attend it. The military is not only foreign to Hollywood’s elites; for some, it is viewed with disdain and even fear.

On two different occasions over the past several years I have been offered the same spontaneous comment, one by an Oscar-winning director and another by the head of a major studio. While not definitive of Hollywood’s attitudes, it certainly is instructive. “If my son were to tell me that he was going into the military,” both of them said, “I would do everything in my power to keep it from happening.”

Next, movies need heroes and villains. War movies historically have pitted the good guys (ours) against the bad guys. But except for the old standby topics surrounding World War II, the relative morality that accompanies political correctness leaves no room for such judgments in today’s war films.

Rather than externalizing the conflict, the struggle between good and evil in more recent war films has taken place within the American military, usually on issues of corruption or morality. This is especially true with respect to films about the Vietnam War, as for instance “Platoon,” “Casualties of War” and “Apocalypse Now.” Hollywood was the most virulently antiwar culture in our society during that war, and has been reluctant to show American soldiers fighting, and usually defeating, a determined enemy.

The realities of international marketing also argue against so-called patriotic films. Starting about 10 years ago, the revenue flow from foreign sales became larger than domestic sales. This expanded the appeal of high-action, low-dialogue thrillers, and also caused many studios to shy away from topics that would offend foreign moviegoers by showing Americans as overtly nationalistic or politically insensitive. Last year Disney went very soft on the Japanese in “Pearl Harbor,” and even deleted certain scenes from the version shown in Japan rather than risk offending a Japanese audience.

There is also a skeptical unease in Hollywood with topics that might brand a producer or studio as being susceptible to political propaganda. Although one can argue with considerable merit that an unspoken conservative “blacklisting” is alive and well in Hollywood, the culture still resonates with memories of the McCarthy era of 50 years ago.

Further, mainstream America is too often the whipping post in modern films, constituting the “evil” in the traditional Hollywood formula, against which the struggles of “good” — all manner of politically correct agendas — are measured. The much-touted “American Beauty” is the best recent example. Against such a standard, the traditional military, along with its virtues of duty and service to country, is anathema. Witness, for instance, the subtle denigration of its culture in such mega hits as “A Few Good Men.”

With tens of thousands of scripts registered at the Writer’s Guild every year and only some 300 feature films actually being made, it is possible that Hollywood will revert to form once the war on terrorism has abated. But it is also possible that the events of the past six months may help change perceptions there.

For the first time in many years, the country has come to understand that distant and seemingly innocuous events can bring harm to us and to our interests if they are ignored. The average citizen is now following the activities of our military on a daily basis, and has been exposed, however vicariously, to the hardships and sacrifices that characterize military service. And there seems to be, finally, a wide acceptance of the notion that fighting in a far off land at great risk frequently involves courage and even honor. The major networks, losing audiences hand over first in recent years, are set to bring this reality home to TV viewers with several series showing the armed forces in action.
And who knows? Messrs. Gibson and Scott have demonstrated a truth known full well in the hinterlands of America — that the people in this country have always loved their soldiers and their veterans, and will pay to see movies that depict them positively. Their films could not have brought us these reminders at a better time.