The fact that the last three mainstream movies on GWOT / GCO featured Army EOD (The Hurt Locker) and the Navy SEALS isn’t in and of itself particularly significant – both groups have been very active in the war, and have performed heroically in the face of terrifying mission sets. When I heard that the other two substantial Hollywood productions set to come out this year are also about the Navy SEALS – one story about the MAERSK sealiner featuring Tom Hanks, and another with Mark Wahlberg called “Lone Surviver” about a SEAL team that had a really bad day in Afghanistan – I got curious.
Why is Hollywood in love with Navy SEALs? Why, from all the screenplays about war, and warfare (full disclosure, I and two writing partners finished a script about an Army infantry unit, a script that has gathered some interest but not sold), has Hollywood focused on the SEALs specifically? What is it about their story that can raise the funds necessary to bring a movie from the idea stages into production, that can secure the assets required to deliver their story into the public realm?
Quite simply, America loves stories where people are permitted to engage in violent acts. The one thematic point that the five movies (“Hurt Locker,” “Act of Valor,” “Zero-Dark-Thirty,” “Captain Phillips,” and “Lone Surviver”) have in common is that they follow rational actors through stories in which human action and decisions are comprehensible, and have measurable results on their surroundings. They take a proposition – a human who has been trained to do a task better than anyone else is then given a difficult example of that task, and does it or fails to do it – and examine it in the context of war. The stories therefore end up exploring the technical aspect of war, and violence, without asking whether or not that violence can be justified. Seen from a certain perspective, the movies embrace an idea that violence can be justified for its own sake – which means, by the logic of these movies, that violence is justifiable. The movies are actually dedicated to this proposition, which should be incredibly interesting to anyone looking at movie trends, and especially those who, like myself, grew up understanding war as a place where decisions and actions had no meaning outside of their immediate surroundings.
I’ve been to combat, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant, but it’s important for me to qualify my position lest I ruffle too many feathers. I’m not saying that I dislike or resent Navy SEALs – they’ve done some astounding operations and brought down evil guys who needed to be taken out of civilized society. Hollywood could shut down filmmaking on every other genre and still not get to all the deserving stories of courage and gallantry within the SEAL community. It’s a function of the defensive and insecure mindset in the pro-military community that I should even have to defend myself before offering a critique of narrative composition in contemporary war films, but – hey. There you are.
Back to the topic at hand. People who’ve been to combat – myself included – will tell you that violence can be justified, under certain circumstances – that when one is being fired on by enemies, it’s necessary to defend oneself. Within a firefight, there’s a shining, clean, logical imperative to respond to violence with violence. My point is – in GWOT / GCO, which comprises a series of conflicts across a wide spectrum of cultures and poses terribly interesting dilemma to our democracy and how to formulate foreign policy , why have we zoomed into the most specific part of that fight? Why are we exploring something that seems so cut and dry and *uninteresting* on a certain level? For someone in the Special Operations community, or a soldier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, obviously there’s no point in questioning the validity or utility of violence, especially during fights. But these movies are being selected, systematically. I totally get why Hollywood is in love with that particular moment when diplomacy breaks down – makes for great screen – but why is it picking this particular way to examine it – over and over again? Are we surprised that our most elite units are deployed to violent situations and must then use violence to resolve them? I’d be more surprised if there were a cowardly SEAL team that never did anything right, or a weird pacifist unit that managed to stop the violence in an area using meditation or who-knows-what. That’d be incredible.
This represents an important departure from the evolution of past cinematic representations of violence within film. The first great war movie – “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” which follows a group of German youth on their march into doom from 1914-1918 – was an anti-war film, where the childlike exuberance in war was tempered by its grim and impossibly depressing conclusion. American representations of war in World War II tended to be more valedictory, but still made efforts to characterize the suffering and struggle of warfare as necessary because of Hitler and the Nazis – the violence was connected to something, and was regrettable. In Vietnam, and post-Vietnam, film tended to embrace a notion that war was evil at worst and nonsensical at best, and that the violence in war was therefore abhorrent – in keeping with the sentiments of the directors who came of age during Vietnam. The violence was essential to the characters’ development largely in the same way that rape or some savage crime might inform a character’s development in a drama – not as the reason for the character’s existence in the first place.
The last war movies of this type (pacifist / anti-war) were “Jarhead” and “The Thin Red Line,” which represented Operation Desert Storm and the Guadalcanal Campaign, respectively. In one, violence was a thing that had been abstracted – the only thing one was left with was charred bodies and bombed-out convoys – war had become air power, grunts were the people who picked up the dead bodies. In the other – in my opinion, the greatest war film ever made – war is an unmitigated catastrophe that isolates and kills its participants, regardless of nationality, at random. It’s difficult to recall a character as fundamentally unheroic as the RTO played by Adrien Brody in “The Thin Red Line” – he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue – one can’t help but imagine that viewers felt uncomfortable placing themselves in his shoes. Terrence Malick also seems to think that war is inevitable, which I hope is untrue, and an intimate part of nature, which is essentially savage and uncaring. Many of the most popular films about Vietnam – “Platoon,” “Deerhunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Predator,” and “Full Metal Jacket” (among others) are equally nihilistic, and involve the mental and/or physical destruction of most or all of its protagonists – violence destroys or irrevocably changes the people who participate in it. This trend, again, ended around 2000 for some reason.
The idea that war could be inevitable is a slightly different statement than the one contemporary filmmakers knowingly or subconsciously embrace (although they probably wouldn’t dispute it), which is that war and the violence it begets is enviable. This notion – that war is a fun game, and that the American participants therein are the unquestioned heroes in the story – is expressed nowhere so perfectly as in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s film “Saving Private Ryan.” This WWII-era throwback discards all of the intellectual progress Hollywood had made since films like “The Longest Day” and exposes its audience to an understandably hackneyed story in which the Germans are the bad guys, and the Americans are the good guys just trying to make a decent day’s work out of a shitty mission gone to hell. The audience storms the beaches in Normandy, gets a taste of Nazi brutality in a French village, and watches as the Americans try to do the right thing by all and sundry, but are basically forced to treat the Nazis like savages – because we’re the good guys, and our violence is justified.
Most people who haven’t been to war (and many who have) probably feel that that’s basically the way it was in WWII. It wasn’t – and “Saving Private Ryan” fails to capture the horror of the war that our grandparents endured because according to Spielberg and Hanks and Matt Damon, the story of the Greatest Generation is an opportunity to finally feel okay again after Vietnam about just letting loose and congratulating ourselves on having taken part in state-sanctioned violence. In the process, it becomes really fun to participate in the killing and destruction – with a righteous, God-fearing sniper, and sticky bombs, and a likable commander who can’t stop shaking. “Blackhawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” continue the tradition of war as a great, anticipated adventure full of orchestral scores and meaningful violence for the people there, and give up on the political motivations or foreign policy decisions as hopelessly detached and almost irrelevant. These movies, this impulse, a sort of happy relief to remember that we can take part in war and treat violence casually again, is the immediate predecessor of popular culture’s contemporary fascination with special operations – and specifically the SEALs.
Why Hollywood specifically favors Navy special operations is likely an accident of geography – Los Angeles is close to many Naval and Marine bases, and writers and producers have better and more persistent access to those stories therefore. The only significant Army base in California is Fort Irwin, a training facility in the desert, closer to Las Vegas than Los Angeles. The fascination, though, could easily be exported to any small group of technical specialists – warfare as just, and an easily digested struggle between four or eight or twelve people. You know everyone’s name, in these stories – they’re all friends. There’s enough time in two or three hours to develop meaningful connections with the characters. Their struggle is understandable – the whys behind it are as irrelevant as the unknowable circumstances surrounding an earthquake.
The U.S. audience, it turns out, has no appetite for movies in which many of the actors are nameless faces, or have no dialogue. It’s much better to have a few bulked-up heros – supermen with great gadgets, who are going after people everyone knows to be evil – easier, more profitable. The movies with SEALs fit the bill quite well, are convenient for Hollywood, and we can expect to see more of them before we see fewer. Not because that’s indicative of the typical experience in GWOT / GCO, but because it perfectly encapsulates how Americans like to view themselves, and like to understand what the experience is for their soldiers, rather than the truth, which is that it was a bunch of sort of confused people duking it out with each other on largely equal terms, groping around in the mountains in the dark trying not to get killed.
My question is: what do these movies tell us about ourselves as Americans? If our deepest needs receive ministry from the notion that we can reach our greatest human potential from beating or killing someone who’s wronged us, somehow, then can we really complain about living in a litigious society, or gun violence, or this modern Forever War we’re living inside? Hollywood is going to produce entertainment that sells. After twelve years overseas, it seems what the audience wants is – more. I suspect our foreign policy will accommodate that desire or need.