Language is a Giveaway

A Breitbart news item entitled Hollywood is casualty of war as movie-goers shun Iraq films has garnered over 500 indignant comments. Their overwhelming message is that the clueless article avoids the obvious – that the public wont go to them because the movies are anti military and anti American. The thread reads like an echo chamber web site where all the readers are of the same ideological frame of mind. But this is a news story and it follows that people of all ideological stripes read it. I’ve read all the comments and despite a couple a references to disagreement I didn’t notice any serious dissent. I did notice that several commenters expressed surprise that the comments were not anti war and pro Hollywood.

So what is going on? First, I think that the article got the reaction it did because it nakedly pretended that the content of the films was uncontroversial. These lines in particular might have done it:

The poor returns do not augur well for more war films due for release in North America later this month, notably the Robert Redford-directed drama “Lions for Lambs” and Brian De Palma’s hard-hitting “Redacted,” based on the real-life rape and murder of an Iraqi schoolgirl by US soldiers.

Lew Harris, the editor of website Movies.com, said the films have struggled to be successful because the subject matters of Iraq and 9/11 remain too close to home. And in many cases, the films have not been entertaining enough.

Anyone who supports the war or is already put off by years of negative news coverage (eg Abu Ghareb ran 32 consecutive days on the front page of the NY Times) is bound to be provoked by the way the article avoids the obvious. The phrase “too close to home” is actually used twice in the article – tipping us off to the underlying agenda that the view put forward by both the movies and the actual war on the ground are the only possible view and just too much for the American audience to handle. That is just plain insulting. On the other hand, the readers who agreed with the article’s interpretation may have just shrugged and said ‘of course’, without being drawn to comment.

So I think the commenters are a self selecting sample of readers who are very frustrated with what Hollywood is offering. Some say that they are solders or veterans and others identify themselves as members of a silent majority from fly over country. Some are as outspoken. But some are Democrats who are specifically not happy with Hollywood in general and these movies in particular. A left coast guy who calls himself Waldo says:

I registered Democrat to vote for McGovern.
I voted against Bush both times
I voted for Clinton both times.
I am a lawyer.
I live in Santa Cruz California.I despise the entertainment industry in general and Hollywood in particular, for all the reasons stated above. The industry has a mind set that cheap, degrading, anti-American material is what sells, and besides that’s what the industry likes.
Guess a lot of us disagree.
God Bless LT Murphy and all the other troops, living, dead, and disabled, who have given so much, and asked so little.

From a media studies perspective this story is straight out of the traditional journalist’s playbook – it seeks to control the narrative with an outrageous omission. The big difference is the Internet – the readers can fight back. But this reaction against Hollywood has been building for some time. Several of the commenters allude approvingly to the film 300. Earlier this year, this $60 million budget film supporting Western values – freedom, reason, heroic military defence of same – grossed $450 million. What the article’s commenters felt was the least anti American film – The Kingdom – has grossed $47 million since the end of September against a budget of $80 million. So there is evidence for the prescription most commonly put forward by the commenters – make pro American films and we will spend out money.
A further revealing – and also twice repeated – idea in the Breitbart article is that wars are not the subject of films until after they are over.

In a break with past convention, when films based on real conflicts were made only years after the last shots were fired, several politically-charged films have gone on release while America remains embroiled in Iraq.

Then later (Note the repeat of the ‘close to home’ canard re-enforcing the misleading ‘past convention’):

“And it’s just too close to home. The Vietnam war movies didn’t start until long after the war was over.

Movies were made both during WWII and even the relatively short Korean war. Casablanca (1942), deservedly, was most cited by the angry commenters. While I agree that the big Vietnam war movies came after the war and were part of the way America dealt with that exceptional war, those movies are neither the only template for our understanding of war in general nor the Iraq war in particular. Or even Vietnam. What is actually going on is the use of a journalistic meme – the imposition of an intellectual template upon a situation that pushes a particular view on the reader. In a completely unrelated post on the targeting of nuclear weapons Belmont club’s Richard Fernandez says in a comment to his own post:

But old thinking persists not simply in targeting doctrines. It also survives in outmoded political doctrines. Language is a giveaway. Iraq is “Vietnam”.


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