Today we continue with our preview of the new (Winter) issue of the Claremont Review of Books wiith the second of three pieces that we are previewing here. The entire issue is now available to subscribers online. Subscribers can access every article individually or download the entire issue (artwork included) in PDF. Subscribe here.
In “Whatever It Takes,” CRB film and teleision columnist Martha Bayles takes a look at four of Hollywood’s recent takes on the war — “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lions for Lambs,” “The Kingdom,” and “Rendition.” I considered this cycle of Hollywood war films in “The eternal return of Hollywood politics.” These films generally reflect the historical amnesia and puerile political drift that Victor Davis Hanson addresses in his essay “In war: Resolution.” The politics of these films seems to have something to do with turning them into duds.
Bayles follows a different thread in these films, one that the films share with the television series “24” and other successful Hollywood products. Bayles finds a thread of casual cruelty and affection for torture that the series and films share with Hollywood’s slasher films. Bayles also cites Quentin Tarantino as a director peddling the casual cruelty to which she objects. She finds the films under review to be illustrative of Hollywood’s “sick attitudes toward violence.”
In his essay, Hanson traced the immaturity reflected in certain criticism of the war to Vietnam. Bayles finds a thematic connection between one of the films under review and Hollywood’s take on Vietnam:
In the Valley of Elah is a deadly serious film about a deadly serious topic: the brutalization of young soldiers under the hellish conditions of an insurgency they are neither trained nor equipped to fight. Ironically, Hank, the straight-arrow warrior whose life is upended by these grim revelations, is a Vietnam vet. Last I checked, the Vietnam War was also a nasty insurgency that brutalized some of those fighting it. Hollywood certainly thought so. Right afterward, in the late 1970s, a slew of films appeared portraying soldiers and veterans as dangerous lunatics: Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Ninth Configuration (1980). The noble exception was The Deer Hunter (1978), and by the 1980s, it was no longer cool to portray Vietnam vets as nut jobs. In the Valley of Elah is based on a true story, and that story is not unique. But it would carry more moral authority if it appeared after the conflict was over. There is something unseemly about producing a film about the demoralization of American troops while thousands of them are still in harm’s way.
Bayles’s focus is more on culture than politics and her focus ultimately seems to lead her astray. She refers to the box-office boosting attitude toward torture in “Rendition,” for example, yet “Rendition” was a commercial bomb. Indeed, all the films under review are notable commercial failures. They are certainly commercial failures by contrast with “24.” Why? Bayles’s essay does not address this question and somewhat misleadingly suggests otherwise. In this respect Bayles’s essay misses the boat, but it takes up an important subject in a thought-provoking way.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I recently returned from a 15 month deployment to Iraq. I was with a combat unit at one of the more austere forward bases. During redeployment, we had to spend a few days at one of the large airbases in Iraq, waiting for our flight out. These bases have all the amenities of home – gyms with new equipment, pools, Burger Kings, and movie theaters. It’s a different world. And what was the movie theater playing? “Rendition”! I kid you not! The AAFES and Morale/Welfare/Recreation folks must have tin ears. If there’s a similar example for going out of the way to demoralize your own troops, I’m not aware of it.
The cluelessness on display here is sad. On the other hand, it might have been their way of preparing our correspondent for life on the home front.