26 August 2007

Hollywood notices Iraq

A long article in The Guardian, a British newspaper that editorially positions itself on the liberal left, attempts to illustrate the thesis that Hollywood has been unable to tackle the War in Iraq until the 2006 Congressional elections gave a green light to release some nervously pessimistic films. The key passage appears over halfway through the article:
Since the onset of war in Iraq, many movies have fallen into a similar category. The Eastwood movies, Jarhead, the HBO prelude-to-Vietnam movie Path to War, Mel Gibson's Vietnam battlefield movie We Were Soldiers: these all wanted to be Iraq movies, but they didn't quite dare.

Ya think? I can't agree. I sense the wishful thinking of the politically powerless, a kind of projection on the film-makers of what the article's author, John Patterson, would like to believe.

Current conflicts have a way of leading to a reinterpretation of past ones, and I think that's what's going on in the movies listed. We Were Soldiers in particular is an attempt to retrieve the reputation of the U.S. Army from the mire of Vietnam, where the ugly mess of Apocalypse Now is the more common interpretation in the popular mind. Gibson's character is the model of the virtuous soldier. His politics are so deeply muted as to be almost imperceptible. His focus is on the technical requirements of fighting a battle, including applying a newfangled technology to battles that ultimately rely on the traditional tactical lessons that have been relevant since Marathon. The context of American intervention is irrelevant because the movie is about soldiers in battle, which is an existential subject. Combat is a moment when "why" is irrelevant. Only once the combat ends and the dead must be buried and remembered can we safely ask why; or else we join them in the earth.

War films released in time of war are a valid opportunity to reinterpret the past using the context of the present. This is not the same thing as wanting to be about the present. For your average U.S. army officer sent to Vietnam in 1965, I would guess that Gibson's portrayal accurately captures how they saw themselves approaching their new mission. It is not the portrait of a villain.

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