What liberals believe about America, as seen through movies
(Note: In addition to “A Few Good Men,” this entry contains a discussion about “What Makes Sammy Run?” and other movies that liberals and conservatives may see very differently.)
Remember the reader who, when he heard about the murder at the Holocaust Museum, immediately assumed that the perpetrator was a Christian, when in reality he is a Darwin-believing neo-Nazi?
This is what all liberals believe now. They believe that America is under the sway of Christian Fascists—Jesus-believing, hyper-militarist creationists. They believe that evangelicals—the most anti-racist, pro-open borders people around, are the Focus of Racism in the Modern World. They believe that the open-borders, uber-Wilsonian Bush, who sought to democratize the world, was a Fascist. This is the fantasy evil that liberals have constructed. All their politics and thinking are driven by their fear and loathing of this fiction.
I happened to see the 1992 movie A Few Good Men two nights ago, and that was its precise message. The Marine platoon commander Kendrick, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and the Marine commandant at Guantanamo, Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, are evil Christian Fascists ensconced in the U.S. military and in the heart of American culture; and Jessep, whose personality echoes Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Batman, is about to be appointed to a high position on the National Security Council. This is what the American populace (not to mention the foreign audiences of Hollywood movies) have been carefully taught to believe about America. This is the grotesque propaganda line that my reader thinks is reality.
A Few Good Men was written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” and directed by the equally repulsive Rob Reiner. When Americans opened the Golden Door to millions of Jewish immigrants (from several of whom I myself am descended) in the late 19th century, if they had known that many of the grandchildren of those immigrants would be a bunch of permanent cultural subversives against this country, would they have let them in?
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Apart from its politics, A Few Good Men is a substandard movie, filled with rug-chewing, by-the-numbers dramatics and a painfully perky performance by Tom Cruise at his worst. I like Cruise when he’s restrained, but when he acts out, he’s a disaster.
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Carol Iannone writes:
What to make of the cult-like status of the speech that Jessep makes on the stand? Nicholson so relished being able to give that speech, to say such powerful words, that he gladly did it full strength in every one of the forty or fifty takes that the whole scene took to film, with reactions from others and shots of the courtroom and so on. Reiner reports this in one of the special features on the DVD. The speech has taken on something of a life of its own. Could it be that some admire what Jessep says, that there are those who have to do the difficult, sometimes ugly work of protecting the country so the rest of us can enjoy our lives? (The Demi Moore character says something like it too in a milder form; it’s the reason she is so on the side of the two accused marines.) And more, that immature pretty-boys like Kaffee, the Tom Cruise character, have put nothing on the line yet use their freedom to harass the Jesseps of this world who have secured that very freedom for them.
These are my thoughts:
It could be that conservatives like the speech on naively straightforward terms. Even though it comes from a flawed character, it speaks a conservative truth about life.
(But if Sorkin were sincere about allowing this truth proper weight in his play and film, he would have fleshed it out more. Instead of having Jessep just declare how he “saves lives,” a comment repeated so often it begins to sound like an empty slogan that can be used to justify any wrongdoing, he would have had him relate instances where this happened as a result of strict Marine discipline, etc.)
If liberals like the speech, it’s because it provides cover for them. They can eat their cake and have it too. They can seem mature enough to realize that there is evil “out there” that we need to be protected from, but they can also enjoy the spectacle of locating the evil “in here,” within our own fascist military and government. The existence of the first by no means excuses the second, they can pretentiously proclaim. And they can enjoy the pretty boy intellectual Cruise being able to put down the man’s man at the end.
David B. writes:
I can confirm what you write about what liberals believe about America. My ex-friend Professor F. was certain that “white racism” was the core belief of the Religous Right. He was also convinced that they were all-powerful and the major influence on George W. Bush.
When I would tell Professor F. that the Religous Right was very liberal on race, he wouldn’t believe it. He was surprised when I told him that Bush favored Mexicans over white Americans and seemed completely unaware of GWB’s fixation on hispanicizing America.
Did that affect his view of Bush?
David B. replies:
No, he still thought Bush was the “far right.” Professor F. was obsessed with the religous right, whom he thought were a bunch of white racists who Bush was beholden to. He thought Bush was acting under orders from big business in supporting open borders.
I disagree with your assessment of A Few Good Men. Of course I have no doubt that the film was made with an anti-American liberal bent, but let’s take a look at how it has aged. Watching the movie all the way through is soporific—the moral “dilemma”, the “investigation”, the pep talks, are all thoroughly uninteresting. What do casual viewers recall from the film after it mostly fades from memory? Why, the very thing the movie sought to demonize—the harsh reality expressed by Col. Jessep.
What is, by far, the most memorable exchange in the film? It’s the incredibly revealing, and perhaps unintentionally honest, illustration of the liberal/conservative mindset: “I want the truth!”—“You can’t handle the truth!”. The second most memorable line: “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” To be sure, the film ends with Jessep being taken away, presumably to prison. But it’s clear that it has been Jessep’s character that has resounded with the American public. While the film goes great lengths to condemn the evil of the “Code Red”, it never really argues that this evil is, in fact, unnecessary.
In sum, I don’t think that the film helped to undermine the military or reduce faith in American exceptionalism. To the contrary—it seems to have fostered a subtle understanding that there is a darker truth to which most Americans are blissfully ignorant, and a “wall” that must be manned even if its purpose is distasteful. Perhaps 20 years later, in an era where “waterboarding” is seen as an unspeakable crime, we need another inept liberal make a film condemning the Jesseps of the world, while inadvertently reminding us of their necessity.
Very interesting., I was just talking with a friend tonight on this very point. We were saying that liberals and conservatives might see “A Few Good Men” very differently: Liberals would see in it the confirmation of their belief in a lurking fascist bullying evil underlying America, and conservatives (and secretly or unconsciously some liberals) would see in Jessep’s speech an affirmation of the strength and courage and readiness to use force on which society rests.
However, in terms of the film itself, I personally don’t see the latter. As I see it, Jessep is not given enough by the script, his repeated invocations that things such as his brutal treatment of William Santiago (the private who receives the “Code Red” treatment and dies as a result) is what’s necessary to “save lives” starts to sound like an empty excuse that could cover any abusive behavior or criminal activity. In the end, when Jessep is arrested in court and momentarily resists arrest, he emerges as a criminal, with nothing noble about him. Further, as I said, it seems to me that Nicholson’s portrayal of Jessep as a cartoonishly sinister villain would make it difficult even for conservatives to see him as some kind of hero.And this is a flaw in the movie; the movie makers were too ideologically liberal to give Jessep’s side of the story a fair shake. This goes even more for the creepy Lt. Kendrick, who combines devotion to Jesus Christ with fascist-like devotion to military authority.
However, that is my view of it, and it doesn’t take away from your idea that many people see in Jessep something admirable, though, personally, I don’t.
This reminds me of a very different yet oddly similar movie I saw recently: the 1959 Westinghouse Theater TV production of Budd Schulberg’s “What Make Sammy Run?”, based on his 1941 novel of the same title (the second hour of the two hour production was rediscovered five years ago after being lost for decades). It’s about Sammy Glick, played by Larry Blyden, a relentlessly ambitious, manipulative, and energetic young man who in a few years climbs from copy boy in a New York City newspaper to the most powerful studio chief in Hollywood. Sammy’s friend, the writer Al Mannheim, played by John Forsythe, is, so to speak, the liberal moral mouthpiece of the play, constantly commenting on Sammy’s failings, the way he uses people, the way he only produces popular hits rather than the quality type of film that Mannheim wants to write for him.
But here’s the similarity with A Few Good Men. At the end of What Makes Sammy Run?, most of the liberal audience will doubtless see Sammy as the embodiment of soulless capitalist selfishness and greed; that’s the way Mannheim (who at the beginning of the movie liked Sammy’s energy and pluck) comes to see him.
That is the ostensible meaning of the movie. But is it the real meaning? Mannheim becomes such a dreary moralistic complainer that he starts to turn us off, while Sammy, notwithstanding his flaws, emerges more and more as a positive person who achieves a great deal and enjoys his life and never resents Al’s constant carping at him. Al’s whining, resentful criticisms of Sammy start to seem like a leftish resentment and condemnation of success itself; it’s immoral to be successful, Al and the movie seem to be saying. But then, underneath that liberal message, there is a subtle anti-liberal undercurrent, which looks critically at Al’s self-pitying moralism and subtly suggests that Sammy, notwithstanding his crudeness and at times brutal selfishness (though he never does anything really evil), is a better, more alive person than the refined, world-weary, oh-so-superior Al. Thus Al keeps portentously repeating his question, on which he says the fate of the universe may depend, “What makes Sammy run?”, as though it were some big mystery. But it’s no mystery at all. Sammy wants to be a Hollywood mogul, and he becomes one; is that so hard to understand? For Al, it is. By treating his mouthpiece as a pompous (and even clueless) malcontent, Schulberg, whether it was his intention or not, subverts the play’s seemingly liberal, anti-capitalist message.
In these respects both “A Few Good Men” and “What Makes Sammy Run?” fit a pattern I’ve previously discussed: ostensibly liberal movies with a recessive conservative message—a message that perhaps even their liberal creators were not aware of. Two other examples are “Dead Man Walking,” which liberals (and certainly the movie’s liberal creators) see as a condemnation of the death penalty but which viewers not under the sway of liberalism would see as a powerful affirmation of the death penalty; and “Wilde,” which liberals see as a tale of the terrible price of society’s cruel prejudice against homosexuality, but which alert conservatives will see as a moral tale of a talented man who corrupts and destroys himself through sexual vice.
So, there are these movies that, whether the creators are conscious of it or not, can be seen as both liberal and conservative.
But I have to amend what I said about these movies’ conservative themes being hidden. The pro-death penalty theme of “Dead Man Walking” hit me so strongly, that I don’t think it occurred to me while I was watching it that this was merely a recessive or hidden meaning of the movie; it’s right out there in front that only the imminence of own death gets the Sean Penn character to confess to the horrible murder he committed, after having insisted on his innocence all along. This is so powerful that how could anyone not see it? But in fact, as I realized afterward, many liberals did not see it. They were blind to the obvious pro-death penalty message. And maybe even the director, Tim Robbins, was blind to it. The dramatic material had an integrity of its own that got past his liberal filters. But I was blind too. While watching the movie, I did not pick up on what was pointed out to me later, that the juxtaposition of the execution scene with flashbacks of the murder scene, which to me showed the evil act for which the prisoner is paying a just price, was conveying just the opposite meaning to liberals. A friend said to me afterward that liberals would see the juxtaposition as signifying that the execution was the moral equivalent of the murder! How could anyone imagine that the peaceful execution by injection, with the nun looking lovingly into the Sean Penn character’s eyes as he is dying, was the moral equivalent of fear and horror to which he subjected his two young victims as he murdered them? Yet liberals did see it that way.
And, as I remember, my reaction to “Wilde” was somewhat the same. To me, the movie was about how Wilde’s homosexuality destroyed him, not about how an unfair society destroyed him; and I was struck afterward when I realized that liberals only saw the latter side of the movie, not the former.
Paul K. writes:
You wrote, “The dramatic material had an integrity of its own that got past his liberal filters.” It is interesting how often this proves to be the case.
Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” is an example of a show intended to make conservatism look ridiculous which failed to do so because the hardworking, put-upon conservative, Archie Bunker, was far more appealing than his self-satisfied, freeloading son-in-law, the liberal “Meathead.”
Examples of anti-war movies that similarly failed to deliver their liberal messages were “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.” While they tried to drive home the futility of the Vietnam war, what came through to many viewers was the courage and toughness of some of the military characters, such as Robert Duvall as Col. Kilgore and R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant. In such movies the non-liberal portion of the audience will inevitably be less interested in the anti-war message than in the admirable military virtues of courage, loyalty, discipline, and honor, and when viewing images of the brutality of war, will think, “I admire anyone who could pass that test of character.”
When I was in college, I watched “Dead End,” the original movie starring the Dead End Kids, in the company of a liberal friend. In it, they beat up a well-dressed rich kid on his way to school for no reason but class resentment. The violence is not depicted on screen, but we see one of the Dead End Kids run out of the alley, pull a board off a fence, and run back in with it to continue the beating. When the victim’s father tries to intervene, one of the toughs stabs him in the hand. When the tough is arrested and facing jail, his saintly older sister meets with the father and begs him to help her brother avoid jail. He is sympathetic to her, but points out that her brother beat his son savagely for no reason. To my amazement, my friend was on the side of the criminals, shouting, “You bastard!” at the father. “How would you feel in his place?” I asked him, incredulously.
That liberals and conservatives can look at the same thing and draw opposite conclusions from it should be obvious, or why else would we have such different ways of interpreting the world?
Great discussion. I enjoy your explication of movies’ themes through incident, character, speech, and context. Also the way you contrast ostensible meanings with the “real” meaning (i.e., not what the movie says but what it shows). You “read” movies the way you read a story in a book.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 20, 2009 02:39 PM | Send