Oh! What a lovely war! At least that’s the overall tone of the most popular movies reflecting our current conflict, surge, or however we’re marketing it this week as it conveniently combusts so far from all of the happy $3.50 a gallon gas-guzzling Best Buy shoppers, out of ear- and eyeshot on the other side of the world.
Moviegoers have been avoiding Iraq’s realities in droves this much the producers of The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, and others can attest. This year Americans liked their war with a good dose of comic book fantasy and clearly fictitious spectacle, their tongues teasing the CGI-enhanced teat, preferably attached to the too perfectly uniform six-pack abs on one of those hunka-hunka-burning-Spartan tough-love monkeys in 300.
While Grindhouse‘s bio-experiment rogue troops were banished to fiscal limbo, Hollywood blockbusters like 300, Transformers, and even Beowulf stemming from comics, toys, and cartoons and steeped in the stuff of a distended childhood turned out to be the only way Americans would swallow warfare. Fusing digital animation and live actors to produce spectacles that would have made Cecil B. DeMille reach for his next merchandising tie-in, those hit movies tacitly acknowledged the war we’re in and offered candy-colored, action-packed escapism for the inner fanboy and fangirl. Six years into the war on terror, we can’t feel good about imminent outright victory; hell, even the most fervent right-winger realizes, in his or her reptilian back brain and in the dark of the multiplex, that the real-life shoot-’em-ups are depressingly, futilely, infuriatingly misguided. But we still want our war to be a great ride despite the fact that ambiguous reality finds a way of inserting itself into the metal-crushing, knuckle-skating mise-en-scène.
Picking up the air of suicide-mission doom suffusing 2006 Oscar contender Letters from Iwo Jima, 300 started the year with blood-spattered, heroic fatalism. Like Beowulf and even the tongue-in-cheek Transformers, the Zack Snyderdirected epic, based on a graphic novel by draconian edge maven Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), self-consciously frames its narrative and its uses as propaganda from the start by revealing the bard or narrator telling the tale. Here the story is recounted for the distinct purpose of leading the Spartans into battle against the Persians.
Miller may have penned the original comic in the late ’90s, yet it’s hard to read 300 as anything more than emotionally skilled, cinematically compelling, and blatantly racist support for a US invasion of the country most associated with ancient Persia, Iran little surprise that Javad Shangari, a cultural adviser to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described 300 as being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture," according to Variety. Certainly, stereotyping is nothing new in the realm of the sword and the sandal, and 300‘s Spartan heroes are pale faced and peppered with accents from throughout the United Kingdom (though not the evilly aristocratic upper-crusty tones pushed by Romans of yore) a case for multiculturalism and inclusiveness they ain’t.
The film, however, firmly positions these "free" people versus the dark-skinned "slaves" of the Orient, holding their noble defenses against the dusky masses. According to 300, it may be futile to battle the hordes of the Persian empire tellingly, an imperial array of warriors from Asia and the Middle East that resembles a mindlessly blood-thirsty "It’s a Small World After All" but dying a good death and fighting for one’s supposed freedom is the right and noble path to take. Freedom is a word that’s bandied about repeatedly here and in Transformers, but it’s obviously the privilege of a select Darwinian few.
Snyder resorts to the ignorant and offensive tact of visually equating the forces of evil and darkness with the dark skins of the Persian forces. And the empire’s pierced, proud, and power-hungry leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) painted as perverse and ensconced in a polymorphic harem comes off as a fetishy freak next to the Spartans’ King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who are fiercely straight (judging from Leonidas’s odd and likely historically inaccurate disparagement of bookish Athenian "boy lovers") and, by implication, straight shooting and Spartan-soldier tough. Which isn’t to say there aren’t vulnerabilities in the Spartan armor: Leonidas and his too meticulously CGI-embellished troops live and die by standards that doom the weak and disabled, and when a rejected Spartan hunchback is denied entry into their ranks, the scene is set for their final destruction, one that rhymes with that of Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese Macbeth in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood.
Able-bodied elite fighting forces take an even more artificial turn with Transformers. Though its production was aided and abetted by the US armed forces, preening military hardware in displays that rival those of the alien robots, the movie nonetheless exhibits a conflicted relationship with warfare that reflects the mood in the country. At moments its scenes precisely echo the visuals of those ubiquitous "Army of One" recruitment commercials; at others it reveals a wariness of its very exhibitionism. It’s no marvel that director Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) can ape those ads as adeptly as a ‘bot can mimic a sports car: in early 2006 he wrote on the MichaelBay.com forum, "The military looks like it is going to support the film, which is a big deal in giving the movie scope and credibility. The Pentagon has always been great with me because I make our military look good."
In keeping with that two-way support system and setting Transformers clearly in the Persian Gulf, Bay applies a veneer of salable heroism to his scenes of military machinery in action by battling the nefarious Decepticons and hastily dabs a quick layer of humanism on an identifiable, multilingual, and diverse clutch of everyday grunts. Jon Voigt’s defense secretary makes his share of wrong moves, but he’s no Donald Rumsfeld. This is likely Bay’s most successful film, thanks to the self-mocking humor of the script, which extols the bond between "man and machine." After all, he knows and we know Transformers is all about toys our hardware versus their hardware and what makes them go, a.k.a. energy whether it’s the magical, Energizer Bunny envy-inducing all-spark cube or that oil the film’s military is battling over when it isn’t strafing robots.
The question is, who is to be trusted? Intriguingly, the Decepticons hide in plain sight on Earth by assuming the guise of US Air Force jets, Army tanks, and police cars, while the good Autobots change into civilian big wheelers, trucks, and cars. If a car makes a man, the machines in Transformers are giving out conflicted signals. *
KIMBERLY CHUN’S POP TOPS
•<\!s>Most valuable hair: Javier Bardem’s do in No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US)
•<\!s>Most versatile player: Christian Bale in I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US), Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, US), and 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, US)
•<\!s>Thug life: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US) and American Gangster (Ridley Scott, US)
•<\!s>Horrific kicks and sick twists: Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, et al., US), Black Sheep (Jonathan King, New Zealand), Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, UK/France), The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea), Sicko (Michael Moore, US),
•<\!s>Geek love: Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz, US), Eagle vs. Shark (Taika Waititi, New Zealand), Superbad (Greg Mottola, US)
•<\!s>Little love: Control (Anton Corbijn, UK/US/Australia/Japan), Broken English (Zoe Cassavetes, US)