“Good” Propaganda is Dead!
I thought I’d rant a bit about the absence of “good” propaganda in today’s movie. Why is it that whenever a politician or some faction of pop culture tells a lie, the lie seems to be told for the sole purpose of empowering all-powerful institutions such as the government or the major corporations that subsidize it. Such propaganda is abundantly observable in our society, but this form of lying is only deemed newsworthy if some audacious individual speaks out against it (at which point he is demonized and dubbed unpatriotic.
If lies are told to empower “the people,” on the other hand, every rich guy and his brother temporarily morphs into an ideological warrior battling against the immorality of dishonesty. The mainstream media outlets become outraged, and the ensuing campaign to publicly humiliate the good liar follows a pattern oddly familiar to the smear campaigns launched against bad liars. The same corporations who profit from lies are quick to plug honesty in serendipitous moments when the truth actually benefits their agenda.
As a result, all sides of the culture wars must concede that one side has monopolized the right to lie. For all Sean Hannity’s incessant braying about the so-called “liberal elites in Hollywood,” most big-time movie producers stay far away from political topics altogether. Those who dare to deal with politcally charged issues find more success doing so through metaphors than attacking them directly. Thus we see a lot of movies depicting fictitious future governments (”warning: we might end up like this some day”), or our own government in the recent past (”look how shady we used to be before we became such swell guys”).
The best example of using metaphor to make a political point can be observed in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” which subsequently was adapted into several movies over the years. Orwell understood as well as anyone that you have to go back door to challenge the status quo and the moneyed powers that be, but today’s Hollywood climate is even frowning upon that. Your best bet is to show dissent in such a way that the only way to get the point is to extrapolate. Take “V for Vendetta,” for example.
Though the film disguises itself as a fictional/futuristic thriller, V for Vendetta is probably the harshest condemnation this century of American governmental policies. Still, they had to “go back door” in order to launch this critique–that is, they could only criticize the policies American government by contriving an imaginary future in which some other country’s government (England’s) has become dishonest and corrupt. Most viewers probably are appalled at how the government in the movie used fear and dishonesty to keep its citizens in check. But, disappointingly, a low percentage of Americans can connect the dots to see the parallels between the fictitious government in “V for Vendetta” and the one we know intimately in the here and now. I’d be stunned, actually, if our own government knew or care that “V” was calling them out! Even they wouldn’t get it.
Gone are the days when you could make a movie in this country that was blunt about its politically dissenting agenda.
Is there such a thing as good propaganda? Until recently my answer to this question would have been a resounding No. That’s because in my adult life the only propaganda I’ve experienced has been used for detrimental purposes–to further catapult the already omnipotent “powers that be”–rather than for good ones.
But things weren’t always this bleak; only recently have our thoughts been captured and held hostage in a jar. I now know that even during the Cold War, when people were sent to jail for even sympathizing with communism, there were movies that had the audacity to question things.
Last night I watched “The Day After,” a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1983. The film depicts a hypothetical nuclear war between the U. S. and U.S.S.R. and shows its effects on the residents of small town Kansas. Despite its limitations (it sacrificed quality acting in order to splurge on special effects), “The Day After” made a crucial contribution to world peace by introducing accountability into an equation that had previously presumed our government’s actions were done in the best interest of humanity. Now suddenly “The Day After” radically insinuates that the question of “who fired first” should absolutely matter, and that it is unacceptable for American leadership to give the order for havoc and destruction of regular people as they hide in their cozy bunkers.
The film’s most powerful scene occurs when the U.S. fires its missiles. We watch through the eyes of regular Americans–a Kansas farmer and his family; a heart surgeon from the heartland; college students at a KU football game–most of whom are self-consciously oblivious to the nuclear targets in their neighborhoods. As the missiles take thirty minutes to reach their destination, the Kansans know they can expect one of two scenarios: (1) the enemy already fired their missiles and we’re firing back, in which case we have about 25 minutes to live, or (2) we’re attacking them and soon they will fire back, in which case we have about 35 minutes to live. Either way, if we’re still close enough to a nuclear base that we can actually see the missiles taking off, chances are we’re pretty much screwed.
I was captivated by the realness, how calm and normal everything appears as the missiles fire. The weapons seem like space shuttles; and watching them fly away is peaceful, inspiring, almost beautiful.
It makes sense that this movie quickly faded into obscurity. It failed play the “good versus evil” game, neither the U.S. nor our enemies are cast as “good guys” or “bad guys,” and in fact, it appears the U.S. fired first.
Movies like that don’t exist today. If they do, their foreign and subtitled and denied advertising revenue. You won’t see them in theaters or on prime time TV.