ON NOV. 19, 2001, members of the entertainment industry, including Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti, met in Hollywood with a few political figures, among them presidential advisor Karl Rove. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the direction of TV and cinema after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the ways that the industry might be supportive of the obvious direction of the government after the atrocities. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywood would focus on movies with positive, patriotic themes. In many respects, the meeting was hardly necessary.
On the verge of release before Sept. 11 were two war films that extol the kinds of sentiments no doubt in mind during the Nov. 19 meeting. "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers," both well-received at the box office, present the U.S. military in glowing terms, at the risk of falsifying history in a manner that would raise the ire of media pundits if the shoe were on the other foot and we were dealing with, for example, the John F. Kennedy assassination or the civil rights movement. "Black Hawk Down" depicts an abortive Army rescue mission in Somalia in 1994 that resulted in the loss of 18 American lives and the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters. The movie has already faced criticism for its portrayal of Africa in the context of lauding the bravery of U.S. forces. The Somalis are depicted as a horde of faceless ants, like giant bugs in a sci-fi film, swarming over the hapless GIs. While mentioning the warlords of the region and their control of food supplies as their avenue to power, the full politics of famine--flowing from centuries of colonization of Africa and constant, punishing droughts--are barely treated.
The Mel Gibson vehicle, "We Were Soldiers," based on a book about a battle in the Ia Drang Valley during the early phase of the Vietnam War, harkens back to military pictures of the late 1940s for its unbridled patriotism and sentimentality. While not quite as hawkish as Vietnam-era films such as John Wayne's "The Green Berets," the nationalistic feelings of "We Were Soldiers" don't need some deconstructive exercise to pinpoint. They are complemented by a view of home and family straight out of 1950s sitcoms, with carefully coiffed wives patiently waiting for their husbands' return, all the while dutifully and happily looking after their household chores. Of course, this was the role assigned women in the 1950s and 1960s; the problem is that "Soldiers" looks at it very uncritically, as it does the reasons why the Vietnam War occurred. Thinking and reasoning aren't the strong suit of the Hollywood's new militarism.
None of this is especially new. Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and the TV mini-series "Band of Brothers" produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks regard World War II as a time when the American national identity was untarnished, dissent very little, and troubling questions not worth asking. The national bestseller The Greatest Generation by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw has spawned a new growth industry, supplemented by the books of World War II chronicler Stephen Ambrose, whose star still seems in the heavens despite charges of plagiarism which he has fielded with the arrogance of a spoiled undergraduate. …