Sunday, August 10, 2014

American Movie

Last week I attended a showing of Dinesh D’Souza’s "America:  Imagine the World Without Her".  And I witnessed a movie resplendent with inspiring, patriotic imagery and a complete dramatic story arc full of tension and heartbreak and evolution and ultimately resolution and glorification of what it is to be an American.  Unfortunately, these were two different movies.

The latter experience was Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.”  It was released 25 years ago and I’m an admirer of Stone’s work, but I had not seen it before.  A reluctance to subject myself to a full color, wide screen exploration of the horrors of war, combined with Stone and Kovic’s overt political agenda kept me away.  Stone’s previous movie “Platoon” is one of my favorites of the 80’s and it is a variation of the same recipe.  But Platoon’s arguments were safely buried in the past, firmly fixed on an old war for which the political wisdom of fighting it did not affect the contemporary context.  (By the way, Platoon was released in 1986, a mere 11 years after the fall of Saigon, but at the time, to a teenager, it felt like near ancient history).  Of course, Born on the Fourth of July is about the same old war.  But its agenda was forward-looking, the lessons learned from Vietnam were intended to be visited upon political decisions made in the current day.  That was made clear by Kovic’s continuing political activism in the name of “peace” but in exclusive service of the Democrat party and whoever on the world scene happened to be opposing the United States.  So, I skipped it, until now.

It was worth the wait.  The first 30 minutes are a live action Normal Rockwell painting, with scenes of young, All American boy Ron Kovic being taught to believe in the American dream by earning it, and living it, and enjoying all the benefits.   All the iconic moments of American life are present, with tributes paid to the traditional nuclear family and gender roles, religion, sports, the military and civic pride.  Stone imbues it all with a stylistically sepia tone and surrounds it with a languid, melancholy orchestral score intermixed with pitch perfect romanticized pop standards.  There are no cheap shots about blind jingoism or naïve patriotism.  It’s a red blooded, red state American dream for those who want to believe in the dream.  It could have been directed by Frank Capra in another generation as the entrée to a linear narrative reinforcing nothing but those themes over two hours.  The first act crescendo is Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) on the eve of fulfilling his dream of serving his country by leaving for Marine boot camp, getting back the high school sweetheart he nearly lost forever at their last school dance to the strains of 50’s fantasia “Moon River”.   Fade out.  Fade back into … the horrors of war.

It’s a roller coaster ride from there.   The true American believer fighting the war America asked him to fight, gets caught up in an irresistible momentum that leads to civilian atrocities and fratricide, getting grievously and permanently wounded, getting mistreated and ignored by his country and his family, and his subsequent descent into isolation and darkness.  In the classic dramatic arc, we then get his painful journey to self-actualization, his re-engagement with his lost, beloved nation and the fight to bring truth to it for their mutual benefit.  It ends with his victory, to the applause of his countrymen, and his humble acknowledgement that he finally feels like he’s home.  Wow.

Was any of this true?  Was it a fair retelling of history?  I don’t know.  Stone admits to deliberately using his films to create a “counter myth” to official history.  But, for the purposes of a movie and its effect, it doesn’t matter.  What a story! And due the skill of Stone, Cruise, John Williams, et al., what a cinematic experience.

There is nothing like this in Dinesh D’Souza’s America.   Which, to be clear, is also a movie.  It is other things as well, like a hopeful political venture into virgin cultural territory.  But that’s context and motivation and abstraction, and not the end product itself.  The play’s the thing.  And that thing D’Souza does is not very good, relative to the cinematic experience described above.

The moral universe masterfully depicted in Born on the Fourth of July was persuasive that America’s war in Vietnam, and by extension, almost any war, wasn’t worth the terrible personal sacrifices and suffering, as encapsulated by Ron Kovic and his severed spine.  It takes extremely hardened ideological blinders for a viewer not to clearly perceive that after viewing it.  Even I was ready to add my voice to a chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” during the closing credits.

There are other lefty movies that have this same effect.  After watching John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” it’s nearly impossible for a sentient being to avoid the desire to pick up an axe handle and stand next to Tom Joad in the fight so hungry people can eat.  Or John Sayles’ “Matewan,” where the dichotomy between good and evil is so cleanly and effectively depicted between the coal miners and the union vs. the corporations and the corrupt authorities.  Immediately after seeing this, I wanted to start a coal miner’s union in my neighborhood.  But for the lack of a vein of anthracite within a thousand miles of Minnesota, I just might have.  (Interesting to note, these inspiring leftist tales always concentrate on the beginning of a socialist movement, or the temporary failure of a beautiful socialist dream that lies just over the horizon.  I think that’s because history shows us that these experiments never have an inspiring, happy ending).

Of course, I know better than to take what these movies are presenting at face value.  A lifetime of pursuing intellectual truth in the realms of politics and history has a way of inuring one to artistic flights of fancy.  When the lights come up in the theater, I can let it go.  The concern is, that may not be the case with the masses consuming these powerful, provocative products.

This is not a new concern.   It is the very reason that two and a half millennia ago Plato would have banned artists from his rational, ideal world:

Then the imitator, I said, is a long way off the truth, and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image. For example: A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.

Flash forward to the 21st century and the average American (simpleton or not) confronted with an incredibly powerful artistic medium and story reasonably concludes they are looking at the real nature of capitalism or socialism or of America, instead of a lightly touched upon imitation of a small part of these entities.

Based on America, Imagine the World Without Her, Plato would have allowed Dinesh D’Souza into his ideal state.  That’s good for Dinesh, bad for the success of this political venture into virgin cultural territory.
His movie is competent, well-reasoned, intellectually substantial, and mildly entertaining.  As artistry and spectacle, it barely rises above the level of a CSPAN broadcast of a college history course lecture.   Fine for what it is (and I do dig that), but that’s it.  It is a small dream, it has not the power to stir men’s hearts.  It will not generate word of mouth buzz necessary for mass appeal, and no one will see it other than those who already want to believe.

Some, including D'Souza, have been touting the movie’s A+ rating on CinemaScore.

… an A+? That’s the brass ring.  In the last 29 years, only 52 films have received an A+ from CinemaScore, including seven Oscar Best Picture winners: “Gandhi,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” “Forrest Gump,” “Titanic,” and “The King’s Speech.”
[The Hollywood Reporter] added that an A+ typically “signals a long, prosperous theatrical run.”

But this just goes to show that CinemaScore is, more than anything, a measure of a movie’s success in eliciting confirmation bias among a self-selected sample.  Succeeding in that does means something.  But for box office success like Titanic, you need a Titanic-sized potential audience in which to motivate to self-selection.  There are vastly more people (women) seeking doomed romantic fantasies with big special effects than people seeking an intellectual defense of American exceptionalism.  Perfectly hitting the target with each audience yields vastly different results.   D’Souza’s success with America will result in a tiny ripple in the cultural waters, not a tidal wave.

D’Souza’s America certainly does not merit the laughable “F” rating given by such mainstream reviewing sites as AV Club either.   But that demonstrates the other impediment his film faces in its quest to make a difference in the culture.  The keepers of the narrow ideological gates of the mainstream media will not give it a fair hearing.  So the only hope is to go around them and win the hearts and minds of the general public. And this film is not equipped to do so.

Two other criticisms of the movie itself.  First, the premise as communicated in the title “Imagine the World without Her”.  Yes, what would have happened in history, and what would the human condition be, if this nation state did not exist?  It’s an intriguing counterfactual that has huge cinematic and dramatic potential.  It’s  the kind of skewed, alternate history broached in The Watchmen, which could have been titled America, Imagine the World if Cold, Megalomaniacal Costumed Freaks were Calling the Shots.  (Which, come to think of it, may not be so counterfactual after all).  D’Souza starts down this path, showing George Washington shot off his horse and killed before the American Revolution was won.   Then we get a few scenes of American landmarks melting into air. But then it’s dropped entirely for the rest of the movie.  What happened to imagining the world without her?  I guess we’ll have to imagine imagining that.  I’m reminded of the immortal words of super lawyer from the Simpson’s Lionel Hutz:  “this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, "The Never-Ending Story".

Instead, most of the rest of the movie is an exhibition of fallacious leftist criticisms and D’Souza’s pedantic responses.   And he really lets the lefties fly, filming interviews with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, and letting them express their tired, but angry and withering criticisms of America and its unforgivable historical crimes in their own words.  These are prolonged, anxiety producing scenes, with D’Souza just sitting back and listening in.  I assumed it was being played like a classic underdog fighting picture, the Karate Kid or any Rocky movie.  Our hero has to take a beating (or series of beatings), in order to increase the dramatic payoff of him rising from the canvas and exacting his brutal but justifiable and satisfying retribution.  The problem is that D’Souza never really does that.  His response to their inflammatory rhetoric is a separate PowerPoint presentation enumerating their themes with bullet points and providing clean, regimented, equally bullet-pointed responses.  Chomsky and Churchill are long gone by then, D’Souza never confronts their arguments to their faces.  They get away with saying what they did and are never get a chance to respond to D’Souza’s counter arguments.  D’Souza’s arguments may very well have been superior, but it doesn’t feel like victory.  Maybe that’s because in a movie, a victory requires a winner and a loser.   The America bashers deserved to get personally beat, and D’Souza lets them off the hook.  It’s like if the end of The Karate Kid was Daniel LaRusso getting his ass kicked, but still getting handed the coveted All Valley Karate Championship belt because the officials noticed the Cobra Kai punk was indeed using an illegal kick.  We won, but we didn’t WIN!  And the Cobra Kai is still sneering and laughing at us.

The left has magnificent instruments of ideological propaganda in the likes of Oliver Stone.  Dinesh D’Souza is no Oliver Stone.  If there is ever going to be a successful conservative political venture into this cultural space, we need one.

Until then, I guess we’ve always got Red Dawn.