UNCLE SAM’S BLOCKBUSTER MOVIES

by Mar 28, 2014Magazine

Book Review

REEL POWER: HOLLYWOOD CINEMA AND AMERICAN SUPREMACY

AUTHOR: MATTHEW ALFORD

PLUTO PRESS 2010

Just when you thought it was safe to start watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster (that pirated copy of the Bourne Identity you got from a friend of a friend), as you curl up on that favourite recovery couch and nurse that monstrous throbbing hangover of a headache from the previous night as you struggle to remember the details of that drunken argument you had about the collectivisation of farms in eastern Ukraine in the 1920s USSR. And you just cringe at all that effort you made to impress that waitress whose name you can barely remember in that pub whose name you can barely remember. All of this just before you passed out on the bar stool while sharing your knowledge about the virtues of tractors and mechanized transport used in upper Kazakhstan during Stalin’s second five-year plan.

Well, whatever state of mind you are in, Hollywood is waiting for you. It’s exactly at these moments when Hollywood goes to work on you, waiting to colonise you. Presenting itself as merely entertainment, but instead it articulates and propagates views in line with the right-wing establishment, against whose sphere of influence you might have thought you were immunised. The idea that the Hollywood blockbuster might be a thinly-veiled propaganda piece is hardly a new argument and might be pointing out the damned obvious. However, Matthew Alford’s new book identifies a batch of Hollywood action films that shows the symbiosis between corporate Hollywood and its military institutions, which has matured and accelerated to new levels of engagement. According to Alford, even children’s movies and the most innocuous-looking romantic comedy will contain subtle allusions to American’s past and present wars and the US government’s ‘necessary’ foreign interventions and self-perpetuating idea of the benign altruism that is the basis of American foreign policy.

Throughout the book we are directed to films that endorse and underwrite the notion of American exceptionalism as ‘National Security Cinema’. But, interestingly, the book goes on to argue that even many films which might be considered more ‘liberal’ – Hotel Rwanda, Thirteen Days and Three Kings, for example – also perpetuate favourable mythologies about the United States. We also learn about the power moguls and the close involvement of the CIA and Pentagon in the very production of various films – Black Hawk Down, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers. ‘I play the Terminator, but you guys are the real terminators,’ Arnie Schwarzenegger tells US troops in Iraq following the American invasion in 2003. The Transformers series is full of product placement for the likes of Nokia and General Motors, but also for the US military.

It’s an engrossing read and provides a view inside the guts of the process of that dream factory known as Hollywood. While the intriguing revelations of filmmaker collusion with the Pentagon are not surprising, the details are nevertheless fascinating, especially in films that we may have traditionally considered nuanced or critical of US foreign policy. The symbiosis between corporate Hollywood and its military establishment has a long history, going back to John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam film, Green Berets. ‘If everything isn’t black and white’, I say “why the hell not?”,’ the Duke famously said in reaction to his jingoistic views about these matters.

The book is part cultural studies analysis and expose, and a salient critique for those concerned about the long-term implications of the power of film to act as a site of ideological instruction and contestation. It has been well received by those on the left in the film industry, such as Ken Loach. The myth that these films are mere entertainment is refuted throughout and as Loach says, the book confirms our deepest suspicions that we have all been played. The multi-million dollar American industrial cinema complex espouses establishment values and ideas that are most likely to promote a jingoistic, patriotic, pro-military agenda, via action and war films dripping with violence, even some obstanely labelled ‘progressive’. To the enormous credit of Loach and others, they have chosen to remain aloof from the temptations of the Tinseltown machinery.

The films Charlie Wilson’s War and Behind Enemy Lines are cited as examples of movies that were hijacked through direct CIA interference, even though they initially started off as a critical take on US intervention abroad.

Almost absurdly, Hollywood is often characterised as a stronghold of left-liberal ideals by the hard-line right-wing Republican conservatives. The book gives a devastatingly well-argued dismissal of this ridiculous claim by an industry whose political orientation is its very antithesis. It illustrates this through the dissection of several high-grossing movies from the likes of Stallone to Oliver Stone, which are deeply complicit in serving the interests of the most regressive US corporate and political forces. Many of these blockbusters are produced with Defence Department assistance and are thus full of explicit cheerleaders and praise singers for the US ruling class.

Here for the first time is a book for the general reader that examines the internal workings of the contemporary highly politicised Hollywood film industry through scores of films, across all genres. . Many films made by Hollywood’s radicals present a watered-down alternative vision of American politics that serves the same interests of the American ruling class as Stone’s presidential biopics, like JFK or Nixon or Stallone’s Rambo franchise. Then there are the movies that present the idea of how the US military is capable of self-regulation when committing a few war crimes, like A Few Good Men and Rules of Engagement

But no matter what the progressive impulses of some celebrities and artists are, Alford shows how they are part of the system that is hardwired to mythologise American hegemony and the use of state violence that is needed to sustain it.

The strongest and most entertaining parts of the book are when it identifies and analyses cases of direct influence brought to bear on productions by the US political establishment – its stonewalling of more contentious and critical projects or individuals in positions of influence. It is a solid introduction to those who want to explore the subject further and revisit those movies. A crucial omission from the book is its silence on audience reception of the movies. It would have made a fascinating addendum to this study, especially audience reaction in sites around the world that are often used as a backdrop to these films, for example the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. But maybe that’s for another book. The book has also been criticised for its lack of exploration of representation, genre, narrative and other concepts with which film theory has provided us.

In many ways it is left to us to fill in the gaps and look at these films with a critical eye. Since the book’s publication we have had a plethora of movies – such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty – that call to be unpacked and interrogated in the same manner. Alford’s book is a good start and should be borne in mind during those painful hangover morning after quests for light entertainment.

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