Hollywood’s love affair with Americana has gotten complicated. Here’s why.
A Tale of Two Speeches
Anyone born in the 80’s or 90’s probably remembers seeing Independence Day in theaters. It was one of the first examples of the “Will Smith + Fourth of July = GOLD” model that would become so popular throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Of course, like quite a few movies of that ilk, there’s one moment that stands out amongst all others in the film: Bill Pullman’s presidential equivalent of the half-time speech:
It’s not quite jingoism, but it might as well be, right?
Now let’s compare that to the most recent iteration of the “pumped-up inspirational speech in the wake of an alien invasion” I can think of: Idris Elba in Pacific Rim.
Feels sort of generic by comparison, right? Well, there’s a reason for that.
The Fall of America
Quick: when’s the last time you can remember seeing a movie that was so supremely pro-America?
I can think of two instances in the last five years that were ostensibly pro-America: Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. And even in those cases, the pro-America dialogue was implicit in the movie’s premise. It wasn’t often explicit, except in cases when the protagonist needed to explain why it was necessary that he protect the President.
Nor was America itself under attack in the two movies. Rather, terrorist cells wage an ideological war on the Presidency and its symbology. They weren’t declarations of war; they were warped declarations of independence. They were psychological warfare, not invasions; insidious, not strategic.
With Pacific Rim, the issue was global. The Americans were part of an international group of mavericks working to take down an invading force. While the primary characters were American, their citizenship only figured into their plotlines in broad strokes of typical American behavior, like individual determination and maverick decisions.
Even a movie like Watchmen, which spends a lot of time philosophizing about the meaning of America and revisiting seminal moments in its history, takes a cynical view of America the Beautiful. It was a double-edged sword, allowing psychopaths to murder and rape in the name of justice (the Comedian) and creating a god for men to fear and create peace in America’s shadow (Doctor Manhattan).
And of course, it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: the Captain America movies from Marvel. Captain America: The First Avenger dealt with America at the height of her powers and idealism, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a much more contemporary exploration of modern government and a world post-9/11. Both movies held Steve Rogers’ ideals for what America should be in highest regard, but left ample room to question what America itself was accomplishing.
And that, perhaps, is the most important theme to be grasped from this exploration.
It’s no longer in vogue to praise America the reality.
An alien invasion today is no longer about the United States defeating them sumbitches; it’s about a global threat and how anonymous soldiers and others heroes manage to survive.
A superhero movie can’t whitewash its hero’s relationship to the government, because on some level the government can no longer be fully trusted.
These aren’t the days when you serve because the President asked you to serve. These are the days when Iron Man works as a private arms contractor for the government and inadvertently provides weapons to terrorist cells. These are the days when Superman no longer helps repair the White House, but instead brings down a drone trying to spy on his Fortress of Solitude.
Even Michael Bay movies, that bastion of Americana and explosions, have evolved from America saving the world to individuals protecting other individuals or, yes, saving the world.
Why is that?
America the Ideal
My big theory points to two factors: 1) the global box office becoming a bigger, more important factor in movie budgeting, and 2) changing perspectives on America’s place in the world.
The first is relatively simple to explain. With diminishing DVD sales, Hollywood has taken to selling its movies in international markets that probably wouldn’t react to the idea of Americana as positively as a movie marketed specifically to an American audience. (In fact, Hollywood’s taken the exact opposite tack, but that’s a post for another day.)
The second is slightly more difficult to elaborate in such a small space, but my point is essentially this: lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with oversaturation about politics, a general mistrust of the government brought on by surveillance culture, and a lot of other factors, has led to general disillusionment about the government’s general goodness.
I don’t mean this to say that people have lost respect for what America stands for; if anything, that idea of personal impetus and individual success are even stronger foundations of the contemporary movie.
No, what I’m arguing is that the days when America the ideal and the United States’ government can no longer be equated. Our reaction to the two entities, both cinematically and personally, are no longer aligned.
That’s why movies with deliberate cynicism and grit, like Zero Dark Thirty, are made, instead of Wag the Dog with its campy, toothless sarcasm.
It’s why Argo was about one man’s attempt to save a bunch of people against orders, instead of the American government rallying behind him.
It’s why Batman has to save Gotham when the government refuses to intervene in The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s why Captain America says he hates bullies, not just Nazis.
It’s why Non-Stop was a movie about an Air Marshall reacting to a situation where he couldn’t trust anyone – not even the government he was working for.
And it’s why the days of the deliberately pro-United States July 4th blockbuster are more than likely over.
Because America the concept no longer needs America’s idealized government to succeed at the box office.