There is no escaping ideology in art. Everything from painting to filmmaking will in some small way contain a part of the artist’s view of the world. It is only natural, after all, that when a person creates something they imbue it with what they know, how they feel, with a message they want to tell. In filmmaking, the ideas can be treated with subtlety, such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where zombies are an allegory for consumerist society. Ideology can also be ridiculously overt, sometimes to the point of shoehorning, for example Olympus Has Fallen’s anti-corporate statements. This can be considered harmless, artistic expression of personal ideas with which an audience can choose to agree or not, but recently I have noticed several films with a worrying ideology, or at the very least with troubling implications.
The ideology in question is one that everyone will recognise. It is the ideology of the pro-American filmmaker, taken to an extreme about which we should all think twice. The most obvious example and best illustration of this thought would be the Oscar nominated American Sniper. Based on a true story, though sharing little with fact, Clint Eastwood’s film is riddled with the same ‘HOORAH AMERICA!’ attitude that anyone outside the US has trouble understanding. The main character is an infallible guardian, a sheepdog taking on Middle Eastern wolves in the film’s metaphor.
Every time Bradley Cooper shoots someone it is justified; there is no questioning of morality as there is on the battlefield. To cap it off, the attitude with which the people of Iraq are treated would make Orientalism theorist Edward Said explode. In short, the film presents Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle as the shining golden god of the American ideal taking on the pure evil of Iraqi militants. Why is this troubling? We all know that terrorists are the bad guys. It comes down to a question of subtlety: the fact that terrorists and militants are the ‘bad guys’ does nothing to explain why they do what they do. By presenting American soldiers as infallible, it stops people questioning the effects of war on the soldiers and ignores the difficult, sometimes impossible, decisions that are made on a daily basis. A film that I would consider to be the antithesis of this over-simplified distinction would be Jarhead, an amazing depiction of the very real problem of Gulf War Syndrome.
But American Sniper is overt and perhaps less troubling. What is more troubling is seeing a ‘world police’ attitude in American films stated in throw-away lines and matter-of-fact statements.
In the recent Point Break remake, a particular scene struck me: they have narrowed down a list of locations where the bad guy could be; ultimately deciding on Venezuela, a non-extradition country and the only one on the list American authorities cannot intervene in. This list includes Pakistan. This would be a terrifying implication on its own, but within the space of a sentence the characters have ignored all boundaries and sent the hero into Venezuela anyway. Admittedly, Point Break is an awful film, but just think for a minute about these moments: not only do these FBI characters deem foreign nations as places they can exact American justice, but they also go into nations where even they recognise they should not. This is a problem. Point Break was designed as mass market entertainment, and as such does not challenge the status quo in any real way. This means similar movies depict a widely held idea; that America is the police force of the world.
But why is this issue a particular problem? American films are made for American audiences, so it makes sense for Americans to be the heroes. Putting aside my exasperation at this, and the fact that the villains are always British, Russian or Asian, America’s hero complex smacks dangerously of coddling. Blind nationalism needs to be questioned rather than bolstered.
By passively accepting when the American flag is associated with ultimate nobility and ridiculous, infallible heroism without question or argument, we agree to continue a dangerous mind-set of America as the world’s police force, arbitrating what is right and what is wrong. This may sound distasteful, but attention is nonetheless required. Creative arts have a responsibility to challenge ideas and explore the grey areas where differing views clash. If we as audience members do not question blind ideology when we see it, we only encourage its continuation.
Image: Minie Baytuk; Youtube.com/Wikimedia commons