The history of the American War Film is the same conflict played over and over again: anti-war film versus “apolitical” pro-war/propaganda film. For every All Quiet on the Western Front there’s a Birth of a Nation, every Deer Hunter a Green Berets. This dialectic has produced some of the best and most important cinema in the span of the 20th century, but as the War on Terror trudges on, we’re still figuring out how to make war films about our war.
The old narratives of heroism don’t convincingly map onto the War on Terror, not they ever did justice to the truths of war in the first place. But, it’s quite apparent that these narratives remain popular. Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor has been declared the most successful war film of the War on Terror era. Salon’s in-house film critic, Andrew O’Hehir, found the film to be painfully racist and jingoistic, indulging in caricatures of both Taliban fighters and American soldiers, as well as playing fast and loose with historical facts. Though the film is undeniably problematic (understatement), O’Hehir found it to be a more-than-competent thriller in its own right.
Lone Survivor’s financial success has caused no small amount of anxiety on the Left, and that anxiety has provoked no shortage of vitriol from the Right. The battle is one of cultural heritage: who gets to make the final artistic statement on the War on Terror? The box office numbers indicate those that side with power have this one sewn up. While that is undeniably true in the short term, only time will tell.
In 1968, John Wayne produced and starred in the aforementioned Green Berets. Spurred on by an all-American hatred of the anti-war movement, The Duke intentionally churned out a sickeningly simplistic and racist piece of propaganda (a Vietnam movie so inaccurate, my Vietnam-vet uncle can watch it without anxiety), and released it to relative financial success. Almost 40-odd years on, when we talk about Vietnam War films, or even John Wayne, how often is The Green Berets mentioned?
Lone Survivor’s financial success can be explained by the above images. What images would the viewing public rather see in the moment? Simple, violent, perversely comforting displays of traditional American masculinity in a morally clear environment, or the labyrinthine and shadowy world presented by Zero Dark Thirty. Men nobly suffering, or women sobbing in anguish?
The films worth talking about will be talked about for a long time. The ones that provide visceral thrills based on flawed premises will always enjoy success, but are doomed to become cultural punchlines.