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What accounts for Hollywood's failure to capture the reality of war? Jules Crittenden contends that Tinseltown's "moralistic monkey has climbed back up on its shoulder," resulting in films that have nothing to do with combat and everything to do with politics.

by
Jules Crittenden

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September 30, 2007 - 1:00 am

Despite Hollywood’s best efforts, it just can’t get war right. Filmdom’s fiery-eyed zealots have never quite managed to fake the 1,000-yard stare.

The point has been underscored this week by “The War,” a documentary that for all its shortcomings has performed a great service, bringing to light previously unseen combat footage. That footage demonstrates what combat veterans and combat photographers know, but many filmmakers and ordinary Americans, innocent of that variety of carnal knowledge, do not appear to fully grasp. The most extraordinary things can be quite ordinary, the most unbelievable events playing out in matter-of-fact fashion. Without drama. Without irony. War, the stuff of the world’s greatest drama, is in fact very hard to film, as any combat cameraman can tell you. To do it effectively is to put yourself in a position where you very likely will be killed. To capture any of the drama you expect war to have, you have to capture the faces. And if you are successful, what you see then is often a void. An evocative, soul-chilling nothingness.

Hollywood’s longstanding failure to capture the reality of war is in part anchored in Hollywood’s tiresome, anti-American, multicultural agenda, but goes beyond that.

Hollywood came closest when it dispensed with moral lessons and just tried to be faithful to reality with docudrama “Band of Brothers,” safe territory deep in the heart of the Good War. A brief faithfulness to recorded reality that allowed Hollywood to explore the practical, ground-level execution and experience of war. Another rare departure from Hollywood’s typical moralism was “We Were Soldiers,” on the horrific battles of the Ia Drang in 1965, that attempts to understand the fighting spirit of professional soldiers. (Actual survivors of near massacres there consider themselves victors, tragically, deeply wounded though they were by their experience. They held their ground, giving better than they got. Despite their pain, the stuff of Hollywood epics, they understand the fundamentals of the execution of war.)

Hollywood’s moralistic monkey has climbed back up on its shoulder with “Flags of Our Fathers,” an attempt to tell the story of Iwo Jima without telling the story of Iwo Jima, paradoxically attempting to underscore the heroism of Iwo by pointing out how it was used for propaganda purposes, in effect diminishing the heroism and sacrifice of the Marines at Iwo by reducing it to a propaganda exercise. That was followed quickly by an odd exercise in political correctness, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which through the eyes of that rarest of Japanese soldiers on Iwo … one that wanted to live … spins a tale of meaningless, futile sacrifice in war that, with its ennobling of the Japanese commander, paradoxically seeks meaning and exalts sacrifice in the futile effort to make futile sacrifice meaningful.

Now, Hollywood swan dives into the moralism tank with “In the Valley of Elah,” a movie that reportedly condemns the Iraq war by cherrypicking and embellishing a tragic tale without addressing any of the war’s fundamental issues, to convey the age-old message, “war is bad,” with its modern addendum, “and never worth it.” Disclosure: I haven’t seen this movie, and don’t intend to spend my money on it. The rave reviews told me all I needed to know. Forget self-defense, national security and the complexities of geopolitics in a dangerous world wherein dwell people that wish us ill. It is praised as a “Coming Home” for our time: War makes you crazy and kills people. These are the messages they choose to send in wartime, when our nation has soldiers in the field. Good luck. It’ll make you crazy. It’s never worth it. Your fanatical, suicidal enemy is human, too.

Meanwhile, the simple values, determination and sacrifice of soldiers who give their lives selflessly in defense of their nation … as well as the way in which the bloodlust that is a fundamental human trait can be channeled for noble purposes … gets bizarre, distorted comic book treatment in “300.”

Hollywood is in the fiction business, and has a bad irony addiction. Hollywood is, of course, the original drama queen. Hollywood remains on a quixotic crusade to belabor the obvious: war is bad, and any government that fails to use its words to resolve problems, evil. Hollywood fails to understand that war remains a necessary, ugly business and will be for the foreseeable future.

It may be that it is impossible for zealots with a drama jones to grasp the banality of extreme events, when they require them to be fraught with meaning, particularly when the filmmakers are today, almost without exception, uninitiated. It may also be impossible for actors to feign the subtle expression of faces of men in combat, intent on their business, or in the extreme, utterly expressionless, evocative of the void. You can’t fake those eyes.

As a technical matter, the combat footage of “The War” shows the emptiness of Hollywood’s best efforts, and directors should be forgiven if they give up on reality and honestly devote themselves to cartoons. It’s art, and where they succeed is when they fool people into thinking they have actually represented a reality. The reality can only ever be suggested, and fiction should never be mistaken for anything but a funhouse reflection. But filmmakers will try, doggedly and maybe sometimes admirably.

But here’s some advice to Hollywood. I know It’s too much to ask that you simply honor the sacrifices and the accomplishments without throwing in disparaging moral lessons, and anything that portrays what is happening now in a favorable light is out of the question. So perhaps you can attempt to tell the real stories of Iraq, World War II and Thermopylae, Vietnam and Korea honestly. You might look to the soldiers’ blogs and memoirs already emerging for your guide. Books by combat veterans and embeds, Nate Fick’s “One Bullet Away,” David Danelo’s “Blood Stripes,” and David Zucchhino’s “Thunder Run” can give you an unvarnished picture. “Generation Kill” is already taken, and we’ll see how they do. Blogs like Acute Politics, BadgersForward, Desert Flier and ADayinIraq will tell you what you need to know. You’ll find stories that will spare you the contrived “Private Ryan” or “Elah” plot devices.

Forget the drama and the labored, moral-shoving plot lines that actually have nothing to do with combat and everything to do with your politics. Focus on depicting something that approaches the reality, and its utter disregard for your moralism.

Read more from Jules Crittenden at Forward Movement

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