Wednesday, November 17, 2004

By the end of the Vietnam War, the US military had a public relations disaster on its hands as the prospects of joining the military seemed somewhat of a joke to many Americans. No longer able to resort to the draft, the military was in dire need of a serious campaign to maintain its personnel numbers and reboost its image.

Part of the military's new campaign in Hollywood would be one of the highest grossing films of its time. Top Gun (1986), directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, made being a member of the military look good again. The film glorifies the image of the fighter pilot and makes it seem like just about anybody can become 'Top Gun' if they put their minds to it. This was the beginning of the Pentagon's shift in its approach to selling the military to the people. The pitch went from an outdated theme of serving one's country to the simple promise of excitement and adventure following enlistment. In such films, although a few American casualties are had, this is strictly for dramatic rather than ideological purposes and doesn't give the sense that one is truly at risk.

In the 1980’s, although the threat of the Cold War still loomed over the American people, the enemy was losing face. There was no more Axis in Europe, no more Communists that posed actual threat and the American people were not familiar with any one enemy that the United States military should be fighting against. And without a concrete enemy, military enlistment and the sense of military importance was losing appeal. This resulted in the creation of a new identity for the military, which would come in the shape of carefully constructed advertisements resembling short, dramatic movies in their style and technique. As Hollywood refined its giant blockbuster cinema experience throughout the 90's, the Pentagon saw this use of exciting special effects as a way of targeting a new and even younger audience.

Independence Day (1996), directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Will Smith, serves as an example of the 'lacking a specific enemy' issue as in this case, the Americans must fight against alien takeover and destruction. The images in the film are so celebratory of the military's power and resilience against an equally powerful enemy that it is no wonder at the large role the Pentagon played in its production. What's more is prominence of high-tech combat toys in fighting said enemy. Dean Devlin, writer and producer of Independence Day is quoted as having told the Pentagon: “If this doesn't make every boy in the country want to fly a fighter jet, I'll eat this script.” (Kick online) By presenting war in a highly glamorized and exciting way, this film and many others are targeting a young audience who will one day be old enough to join the military.

In December 2001, Black Hawk Down was released with huge success at the box office and stressed the role of the individual in battle. The enemy was, as per the theme of the time, a shadowy warlord with no depth of character. Although this film is in fact a post 9/11 film, it was well in the works before September 11 and it is safe to assume that the terrorist attacks had no effect on the shaping of the film. It is, after all, based on actual events. The producers of this film worked closely with the United States Department of Defense to come up with a film that satisfied the Pentagon's need to have the military portrayed favorably. Josh Hartnett plays a handsome Marine who is part of an elite group that must capture two top lieutenants of a local warlord but find themselves at the mercy of a vicious mob. In actuality, these events were a disaster for the United States Marines, but in the film the soldiers are heroes. Hartnett’s character utters the easily forgettable words: “Nobody asks to be a hero, sometimes it just turns out that way”, telling the audience that if you join the military you too can be a hero. This film stresses the power of the individual soldier to make a difference in an unrealistic, romanticized, and manipulative way. There is never any criticism of the Marines actions in Somalia or the possible mistakes that they may have made, oversimplifying the actual events to create a prettier picture.

The era of Post Vietnam Hollywood films is marked by one key characteristic - the vague enemy. These films tell us that it doesn’t exactly matter who we are fighting just as long as we are fighting. They emphasize the 'toys' that military personnel get to use as opposed to the nationalism we see in earlier eras of cinema. Although there does exist a clear patriotic tone to these films, the individual is the focus of attention. This can equally be been seen in the new Military requirement campaign “Army of One”.

With the onslaught of terrorism on a global scale and the massive consequences of the events of September 11, 2001, American culture and Hollywood Cinema would again change its course during the War on Terror.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Pearl Harbor (2001)
box office info

Staring: Ben Affleck
Director: Michael Bay