Inspired by: 12 Strong (trailer), The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow is the only female to have ever won an Oscar for Best Director. Since 1929, the first year the Oscars ran, only four women have even been nominated (Italian director Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, New Zealand director Jane Campion in 1994 for The Piano, Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker) and from those four, Bigelow was the only one to have actually been awarded the Oscar. But here’s the thing: I am 100% certain that Bigelow would not have been awarded an Oscar if her film had been about literally anything other than war.
Oscar nominations for Best Picture often feature a war movie: Hacksaw Ridge in 2017, American Sniper in 2015, Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, The Hurt Locker in 2010, and so on and so forth. There were also the lesser war-centric nominations of Bridge of Spies in 2016, The Imitation Game in 2015, and War Horse in 2012. This year, Christopher Nolan’s WWII film Dunkirk is up for Best Picture and Nolan received a nomination for Best Director. The very first Oscars ceremony ever saw Wings win Best Picture, which goes to show that the academy has always adored and honored war movies. No less than sixteen war movies have won Oscar awards for Best Picture, and over five times that many have won Oscars in various other categories.
Now that some background is out of the way, prepare yourself for the incoming unpopular opinion.
My senior year of high school, my friend had me sit through Act of Valor. I felt appalled by what I was watching– I was sick to my stomach with the intensity and violence and fear of it all, bothered by the glorification and theatricality of the entire scenario, and guilty for feeling that way at all. Two years later, my college boyfriend tried to convince me to see American Sniper with him. By this point I was starting to come to terms with hating war movies, even if I couldn’t completely put my finger on why I hated them. It’s a complex thing to feel this way about this specific genre. I couldn’t really understand why I had so much trouble sitting through Saving Private Ryan, or why Black Hawk Down left a bitter taste in my mouth for weeks.
Experiencing negative feelings over the form of entertainment heralded as the pinnacle of patriotism wasn’t something I really knew how to handle, much less verbalize. I grew up with four brothers and a hyper-republican father so war movies were commonplace– Lawrence of Arabia was the very first movie I have memories of watching at home. By the time I started my second year of college, friends I had known for years were in all the branches of the military: Marco in the Marines, JP and Anthony in the Air Force, Carlo and Vivian in the Navy, Ryan and Lindsey in the Army. How do you express your opposition to war movies (and war in general) without coming off as being opposed to soldiers and veterans?
Over time, as I grew increasingly aware of current events and my surroundings, I stopped feeling guilty for disliking the genre. I realized that it isn’t a question of whether or not the depicted situations were difficult for American soldiers– of course they were (and are). It’s more a question of what other stories we’re leaving out in order to tell how hard it is on American soldiers.
The criticism here isn’t against soldiers. The criticism is against a military machine, glorified and propagated through the films we’ve been surrounded by for generations. The leadership of this industry has allowed misinformation and praise to be spread to the point that it’s painted in black and white: if you don’t support war you’re unpatriotic; to die for your country is the greatest honor imaginable. George Elerick says that “somehow patriotism, nationalism and identity have seemingly come together in such a way that most Americans don’t know how to separate themselves from these ideas. There is a religious zeal to American nationalism and its relationship to foreign policy.”
Recent war movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and the upcoming 12 Strong have a feel of moral justness. There is an overarching theme to them that the portrayed Americans made the right choices, were justified in what they did, and were even noble in their actions– despite being the invading forces in a foreign country. I can’t help but worry about the influence of the military industrial complex on American viewers. It is undeniably profitable to always have an enemy, which seems to lead to the dramatization of certain threats– even if that comes at the expense of peace. Elerick also states that “Consciously or not, these movies are teaching us that all behavior is justified under the guise of nationalism. […] Movies play a role in presenting back to us our own fears, wants, desires, dreams and nightmares. Whether they are given to us on our own is the question we should be exploring.”
In his think piece on Dunkirk, writer and filmmaker John Ott outlines it like this: “War is by its very nature a high-drama enterprise. The stakes are not only life and death, but the fate of nations. It is natural for filmmakers to be drawn to stories set during war.” These stories are packaged to be entertaining, and maybe that’s because we’re so eager to be entertained by them. But that’s not the whole story, and it never will be.
This is why films like the documentary The White Helmets are so imperative– because we need truthful accounts to show us the utter devastation and havoc that we help to wreak, to show us the real effects of scenarios that are glorified in movies like 12 Strong and American Sniper. To show that our involvement in foreign countries has led to mass destruction, hundreds of thousands of deaths, humanitarian crises, widespread diseases due to a lack of sanitation, and political radicalization that continues to inflict terror on innocents. To show us the other side of the story.
This is why films like Eye in the Sky are important– because we need to be shown how much of the “boots on the ground” image we’re fed is just kids following orders from up the chain. To be shown how that chain of command leads to men in suits in their ivory towers, ordering things– oftentimes without truly seeing the whole picture.
This is why films like Atonement are so rare– because finally, we bear witness to the pain of war rather than the glorification of it. Because even in movies that attempt to show the reality of war, they are still painting soldiers as heroes worthy of endless idolization.
But herein lies the issue: none of those three films are American. The White Helmets has a British director and a British producer. Eye in the Sky features a South African director and a British screenplay writer. Atonement was directed by an Englishman. American war movies aren’t like the ones listed above. Not only are Americans not being told the whole story in our gun-touting, explosion-blasting, shoot ’em up films, but the films that do tell the whole story often don’t even make it across our radar. And there’s a reason why.
Remember at the beginning of this post when I was talking about the Oscars and mentioned Wings being the first ever Best Picture? It just so happens that it was made with hands-on support from the U.S. military. In fact, a lot of American war movies were. Medium’s must-read exclusive article, written by Insurge Intelligence, outlines the documents that revealed the full scope of the relationship between the Department of Defense and Hollywood.
“When we first looked at the relationship between politics, film and television at the turn of the 21st century, we accepted the consensus opinion that a small office at the Pentagon had, on request, assisted the production of around 200 movies throughout the history of modern media, with minimal input on the scripts. How ignorant we were. These documents for the first time demonstrate that the US government has worked behind the scenes on over 800 major movies and more than 1,000 TV titles.”
-Tom Secker and Matthew Alford
From Top Gun (which was paired with Navy recruiting booths in cinema lobbies after showings and led to a reported 400% increase in Navy recruitment) to Transformers (aimed at a young audience and filled with thrilling action and civic duty turned splendid heroism), these movies are shoving pro-war messages down the throats of viewers. While arrangements like these mean that production costs go down for filmmakers, it also means that the Department of Defense gets to veto creative choices, scripts, and portrayals if they feel it doesn’t paint the military in a positive enough light.
“Our desire is that the military are portrayed as good people trying to do the right thing the right way,”
–Philip Strub, Director of Entertainment Media at the US Department of Defense
Medium & Insurge explain: “When a writer or producer approaches the Pentagon and asks for access to military assets to help make their film, they have to submit their script to the entertainment liaison offices for vetting. Ultimately, the man with the final say is Phil Strub, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) chief Hollywood liaison. If there are characters, action or dialogue that the DOD don’t approve of then the film-maker has to make changes to accommodate the military’s demands. If they refuse then the Pentagon packs up its toys and goes home.” Having this much control over so many aspects of such popular films is nothing short of insidious and dangerous. By portraying themselves as sparkling poster children, the military is ensuring that the average movie-goer is seeing only the best parts of the war machine. They place themselves on a pedestal. Author Lawrence Suid coined the phrase “mutual exploitation” in regards to the relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military. “The U.S. military gets incredible publicity and recruitment advantages, and the film industry gets equipment, locations and authenticity.” he explains.
“When Ridley Scott went to Morocco to film Blackhawk Down, the U.S. Army was so gung-ho to immortalize this bit of military derring-do history onto celluloid forever, that they not only supplied all the weapons and vehicles for the film, but they actually provided a real life Ranger regiment to train and advise the filmmakers for their film about an embattled Ranger regiment in the Battle of Mogadishu, in Somalia.”
-Thought Co’s exposé on military support of war films
So what’s the issue with this? Plenty of filmmakers strike deals with other institutions to allow themselves access to locations and props. Surely it’s up to the filmmakers themselves if they want to sacrifice the integrity of their script for the sake of production value, right? The problem is that the military is a governmental structure. The Department of Defense is a huge arm of the executive branch, and as such, should not be able to dictate what information is being spread about them. Some people believe that this falls under a breach of First Amendment rights, some believe that it’s entirely fair game. I believe that it’s bordering on propaganda.
Thought Co sums it up perfectly: “Pentagon support of filmmaking likely shaped the type of movies we got throughout the first half of the 20th century. When one considers the effect that cinema has had on shaping culture, it’s not a big leap to suggest that Pentagon subsidies for filmmakers might have very well helped shape parts of our American culture.”
And now we live in a culture that borders on a fiscal-military state, that sends children to invade foreign countries and kill younger children, that puts war on a pedestal and produces glamorized tales of these wars packaged as entertainment.
So whether it’s Act of Valor with its line about the worst part of growing old being the fact that people don’t find you dangerous, or American Sniper applying the analogy of soldiers being sheepdogs to protect the sheep from the wolves to the entire Iraq War, keep in mind that American war movies are not the whole story. What is the rest of the story? The rest of the story is that during some periods of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, more U.S. servicemen have killed themselves than have died in combat. The rest of the story is that in the first two years of U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East, the U.S. and coalition partners have conducted more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with nearly 11,000 of those strikes coming from U.S. aircraft and resulting in an estimated 4,000 civilian deaths. The rest of the story is that America’s military spending is astronomically higher than anyone else in the world, with the 2017 military budget clocking in at $611B, nearly $400B more than the second highest military budget in the world. The rest of the story is that the level of indifference to non-American lives on the part of the U.S. military and DOD is staggering: U.S. military forces were directly responsible for approximately 10 to 15 million deaths during the course of the Korean, Vietnam, and two Iraq Wars. There’s more to the story than explosions and heroism and happy endings tied in nice bows. There’s always more.