American Movie

 

Last week I attended a showing of Dinesh D’Souza’s America: Imagine the World Without Her.  And I witnessed a movie resplendent with inspiring, patriotic imagery and a complete dramatic story arc full of tension and heartbreak and evolution and ultimately resolution and glorification of what it is to be an American.  Unfortunately, these were two different movies.

Born_On_The_4th_Of_JulyThe latter experience was Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.  It was released 25 years ago and I’m an admirer of Stone’s work, but I had not seen it before.  A reluctance to subject myself to a full color, wide screen exploration of the horrors of war, combined with Stone and Kovic’s overt political agenda kept me away.  Stone’s previous movie “Platoon” is one of my favorites of the 80’s and it is a variation of the same recipe.  But Platoon‘s arguments were safely buried in the past, firmly fixed on an old war for which the political wisdom of fighting it did not affect the contemporary context (by the way, Platoon was released in 1986, a mere 11 years after the fall of Saigon, but at the time, to a teenager, it felt like near ancient history).  Of course, Born on the Fourth of July is about the same old war.  But its agenda was forward-looking, the lessons learned from Vietnam were intended to be visited upon political decisions made in the current day.  That was made clear by Kovic’s continuing political activism in the name of “peace” but in exclusive service of the Democrat party and whoever on the world scene happened to be opposing the United States.  So, I skipped it, until now.

It was worth the wait.  The first 30 minutes are a live action Normal Rockwell painting, with scenes of young, All American boy Ron Kovic being taught to believe in the American dream by earning it, and living it, and enjoying all the benefits.  All the iconic moments of American life are present, with tributes paid to the traditional nuclear family and gender roles, religion, sports, the military and civic pride.  Stone imbues it all with a stylistically sepia tone and surrounds it with a languid, melancholy orchestral score intermixed with pitch perfect romanticized pop standards.  There are no cheap shots about blind jingoism or naïve patriotism.  It’s a red blooded, red state American dream for those who want to believe in the dream.  It could have been directed by Frank Capra in another generation as the entrée to a linear narrative reinforcing nothing but those themes over two hours.  The first act crescendo is Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) on the eve of fulfilling his dream of serving his country by leaving for Marine boot camp, getting back the high school sweetheart he nearly lost forever at their last school dance to the strains of 50’s fantasia “Moon River.”  Fade out.  Fade back into… the horrors of war.

It’s a roller coaster ride from there.  The true American believer fighting the war America asked him to fight, gets caught up in an irresistible momentum that leads to civilian atrocities and fratricide, getting grievously and permanently wounded, getting mistreated and ignored by his country and his family, and his subsequent descent into isolation and darkness.  In the classic dramatic arc, we then get his painful journey to self-actualization, his re-engagement with his lost, beloved nation and the fight to bring truth to it for their mutual benefit.  It ends with his victory, to the applause of his countrymen, and his humble acknowledgement that he finally feels like he’s home.  Wow.

Was any of this true?  Was it a fair retelling of history?  I don’t know.  Stone admits to deliberately using his films to create a “counter myth” to official history.  But, for the purposes of a movie and its effect, it doesn’t matter.  What a story!  And due the skill of Stone, Cruise, John Williams, et al., what a cinematic experience!

There is nothing like this in Dinesh D’Souza’s America.  Which, to be clear, is also a movie.  It is other things as well, like a hopeful political venture into virgin cultural territory.  But that’s context, motivation, abstraction, and not the end product itself.  The play’s the thing.  And the thing D’Souza does is not very good, relative to the cinematic experience described above.

The moral universe masterfully depicted in Born on the Fourth of July was persuasive that America’s war in Vietnam, and by extension, almost any war, wasn’t worth the terrible personal sacrifices and suffering, as encapsulated by Ron Kovic and his severed spine.  It takes extremely hardened ideological blinders for a viewer not to clearly perceive that after viewing it.  Even I was ready to add my voice to a chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” during the closing credits.

There are other lefty movies that have this same effect.  After watching John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” it’s nearly impossible for a sentient being to avoid the desire to pick up an axe handle and stand next to Tom Joad in the fight so hungry people can eat.  Or John Sayles’ “Matewan,” where the dichotomy between good and evil is so cleanly and effectively depicted between the coal miners and the union vs. the corporations and the corrupt authorities.  Immediately after seeing this, I wanted to start a coal miner’s union in my neighborhood.  But for the lack of a vein of anthracite within a thousand miles of Minnesota, I just might have.  (Side note: these inspiring leftist tales always concentrate on the beginning of a socialist movement, or the temporary failure of a beautiful socialist dream that lies just over the horizon.  I think that’s because history shows us that these experiments never have an inspiring, happy ending).

Of course, I know better than to take what these movies are presenting at face value. A lifetime of pursuing intellectual truth in the realms of politics and history has a way of inuring one to artistic flights of fancy. When the lights come up in the theater, I can let it go. The concern is, that may not be the case with the masses consuming these powerful, provocative products.

This is not a new concern. It is the very reason that two-and-a-half millennia ago, Plato would have banned artists from his rational, ideal world.  Based on America, Imagine the World Without Her, Plato would have allowed Dinesh D’Souza into his ideal state.  That’s good for Dinesh, but bad for the success of this political venture into virgin cultural territory.

His movie is competent, well-reasoned, intellectually substantial, and mildly entertaining.  As artistry and spectacle, however, it barely rises above the level of a CSPAN broadcast of a college history course lecture.  Fine for what it is (and I do dig that), but that’s it.  It is a small dream, it has not the power to stir men’s hearts.  It will not generate word of mouth buzz necessary for mass appeal, and no one will see it other than those who already want to believe.

D’Souza’s America certainly does not merit the laughable “F” rating given by such mainstream reviewing sites as AV Club, either.  But that demonstrates the other impediment his film faces in its quest to make a difference in the culture . The keepers of the narrow ideological gates of the mainstream media will not give it a fair hearing.  So the only hope is to go around them and win the hearts and minds of the general public.  And this film is not equipped to do that.

WatchmencharactersTwo other criticisms of the movie itself.  First, the premise as communicated in the title “Imagine the World without Her.”  Yes, what would have happened in history, and what would the human condition be, if this nation state did not exist?  It’s an intriguing counterfactual that has huge cinematic and dramatic potential.  It’s the kind of skewed, alternate history broached in Watchmen, which could have been titled America, Imagine the World if Megalomaniacal Costumed Freaks Called the Shots. (Which, come to think of it, may not be so counterfactual after all).  D’Souza starts down this path, showing George Washington shot off his horse and killed before the American Revolution was won.  Then we get a few scenes of American landmarks melting into air.  But then it’s dropped entirely for the rest of the movie.  What happened to imagining the world without her?  I guess we’ll have to imagine imagining that.

Instead, most of the rest of the movie is an exhibition of fallacious leftist criticisms and D’Souza’s pedantic responses.  And he really lets the lefties fly, filming interviews with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, and letting them express their tired, but angry and withering criticisms of America and its unforgivable historical crimes in their own words.  These are prolonged, anxiety producing scenes, with D’Souza just sitting back and listening in.  I assumed it was being played like a classic underdog fighting picture, The Karate Kid or any Rocky movie.  Our hero has to take a beating (or series of beatings), in order to increase the dramatic payoff of him rising from the canvas and exacting his brutal but justifiable and satisfying retribution.

The problem is that D’Souza never really does that.  His response to their inflammatory rhetoric is a separate PowerPoint presentation enumerating their themes with bullet points and providing clean, regimented, equally bullet-pointed responses.  Chomsky and Churchill are long gone by then, D’Souza never confronts their arguments to their faces. They get away with saying what they did and are never get a chance to respond to D’Souza’s counter arguments.  D’Souza’s arguments may very well have been superior, but it doesn’t feel like victory.  Maybe that’s because in a movie, a victory requires a winner and a loser.  The America-bashers deserved to get personally beat, and D’Souza lets them off the hook.  It’s like if the end of The Karate Kid was Daniel LaRusso getting his ass kicked, but still getting handed the coveted All Valley Karate Championship belt because the officials noticed the Cobra Kai punk was indeed using an illegal kick.  We won, but we didn’t WIN!  And the Cobra Kai is still sneering and laughing at us.

The Left has magnificent instruments of ideological propaganda in the likes of Oliver Stone.  Dinesh D’Souza is no Oliver Stone.  If there is ever going to be a successful conservative political venture into this cultural space, we need one.

Until then, I guess we’ve always got Red Dawn.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia: Born on the Fourth of July, Watchmen Characters.

There are 20 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. user_124695 Inactive
    user_124695
    @DavidWilliamson

    It’s a little unfair to compare Stone with Dinesh, other than that one hates America while one loves it.

    FWIW (which may not be much) I loved Dinesh’s movie  – first time I have been in a movie theater for a year or two.

    No doubt Mr Stone’s next movie will feature Mr Obama playing Golf in Hawaii while Iraqis and Syrians are crucified, beheaded, raped and left to die on a mountaintop – it will be a wonderful work of art and will win many Oscars, for sure.

    Ain’t it wonderful having a Nobel Peace Laureate as President? – America sure has moved on and become a more moral nation, since Vietnam – no doubt in part because of Mr Stone’s movie.

    Aforementioned Iraqis and Syrians are unavailable for comment.

    • #1
  2. Mario the Gator Inactive
    Mario the Gator
    @Pelayo

    Dinesh should illustrate what would have happened if there was no USA by including a picture of ISIS militants posing for a group picture with several decapitated heads on tall poles behind them.  Oh wait, that actually just happened…

    • #2
  3. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    The fair comparison is Dinesh vs. Michael Moore.  That said, Brian’s point is a good one — we need a conservative Oliver Stone.

    • #3
  4. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Sorry, Brian, but this post is not very satisfying.

    Okay, falsehood has certain advantages that truth lacks. For that matter, fiction and “docu-drama” are flexible in ways documentaries cannot be. Telling stories is hard–believe me, I know, I’ve been living that fact for 5 years now.

    Can you give us some clarity here? A program for action, maybe? Or was it just that We’re All Doomed?–because I already knew that.

    • #4
  5. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Side note: these inspiring leftist tales always concentrate on the beginning of a socialist movement, or the temporary failure of a beautiful socialist dream that lies just over the horizon. I think that’s because history shows us that these experiments never have an inspiring, happy ending.

    Which reminds me of the ending of Norma Rae, with everyone cheering after the union wins the election.  Since then, I have been waiting for Norma Rae II, where the company refuses the union’s demands, the workers all go on strike, the company shutters the plant, and the entire town is left in poverty and squalor.  I’m still waiting for that sequel.

    • #5
  6. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Great post, Brian. The opportunities are out there, for the talented, brave and enterprising. The tools are widely available, cheap, and easily used. Of course, people on our side would have to take risks. Some will get laughed at by critics. Some backers will get rich, but others will lose their money. It happens to the Left every day. They suck it up and make another movie, and another one. 

    I don’t know if conservatives will step up to the plate, but I do know the non-triers, the non-participants with no skin in the game will whine and cry about how the mean media is so cruel to them.

    • #6
  7. Capt. Spaulding Member
    Capt. Spaulding
    @CaptSpaulding

    When it is emotion vs. reason, guess which wins.

    • #7
  8. Mark Belling Fan Member
    Mark Belling Fan
    @MBF

    Probable Cause: The fair comparison is Dinesh vs. Michael Moore. That said, Brian’s point is a good one — we need a conservative Oliver Stone.

    Shouldn’t the comparison (of Dinesh) be to that documentary series that Stone made for Showtime a year or two ago?

    Shouldn’t “Born On the 4th of July” be compared to “The Patriot” or something else by Mel Gibson?

    • #8
  9. Laconicus Member
    Laconicus
    @

    At least Dinesh is trying, and I love him for it. If no conservative makes films until he’s as good as Oliver Stone, no conservative movies will ever get made.

    • #9
  10. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    David Williamson: FWIW (which may not be much) I loved Dinesh’s movie – first time I have been in a movie theater for a year or two.

     
    Please note, the full text version of this post, with some additional context, appears here:

    Please note, the full text version of this post (with some important additional context) appears here:

    http://www.fraterslibertas.com/2014/08/american-movie.html

    As noted in that version, Dinesh does score a direct his with a self selected audience motivated to see his movie.   That audience is small (and, through no fault of it’s own, increasingly insular), and success with it has no direct effect on his larger mission of changing the cultural narrative.   To win that war, we need artistry on Stone’s level.  Not in place of D’Souza  for he’s essential (in terms of intellectual honesty, there is no leftist equivalent), but as a supplement.

    • #10
  11. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    Fredösphere: Can you give us some clarity here? A program for action, maybe? Or was it just that We’re All Doomed?–because I already knew that

     The post was a critical assessment of D’Souza’s success in reaching his goal.  And it’s a reality check.  Those that enjoyed it (as I did) may be too complacent that this is a benchmark accomplishment in the war for the soul of the culture.  It’s not.  

    • #11
  12. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    Probable Cause: The fair comparison is Dinesh vs. Michael Moore. That said, Brian’s point is a good one — we need a conservative Oliver Stone.

     
    On a strict medium basis, yes the two documentarians are the more apt comparison.  And on this level, Dinesh is smarter, more intellectually honest, more reasoned, and has the facts on his side – and Moore is by far the better storyteller and film maker.   Guess which one is going to have the greater cultural influence?

    • #12
  13. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    Larry3435: Which reminds me of the ending of Norma Rae, with everyone cheering after the union wins the election. Since then, I have been waiting for Norma Rae II, where the company refuses the union’s demands, the workers all go on strike, the company shutters the plant, and the entire town is left in poverty and squalor. I’m still waiting for that sequel.

     Hilarious, and absolutely true.  Talk about an opportunity for a talented conservative filmmaker!  Comedic sequels to these naïve but inspiring liberal epics.

    • #13
  14. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    MBF: Shouldn’t “Born On the 4th of July” be compared to “The Patriot” or something else by Mel Gibson?

     
    More good points.  Hadn’t thought about The Patriot, but you’re right it was an attempt at dramatic narrative in the service of traditional American ideals.  Admire the attempt, but the end product in this case was marginal.  Mel Gibson does have the artistic talent to create this picture we’re all dreaming of.   Does he have uncomfortable personal political beliefs and baggage as well?   That never stopped Oliver Stone.

    • #14
  15. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Oliver Stone, for whatever his flaws or mistakes, is a wounded, decorated combat veteran. He does not hate America. He’s on the other side of a serious political divide. Let’s get our terms straight. 

    Love ’em or hate ’em, Stone and Gibson put themselves on the line many times. That’s where they earned the freedom (that is, $) to create. They dared, and they won.

    • #15
  16. Laconicus Member
    Laconicus
    @

    Gary McVey: Let’s get our terms straight.

     Yes, let’s. The term “moral equivalence,”for one.

    • #16
  17. Brian Ward Contributor
    Brian Ward
    @BrianWard

    Thinking more about Gibson, maybe the counterpunch to “Born on the Fourth of July”   has already been made in  “We Were Soldiers”?   Imagine if young Ron Kovic had served in the unit depicted in that movie and suffered the same injuries?  Same journey to disillusionment and leftist activism?  Which movie was closer to the truth?   Which had greater cultural impact?

    • #17
  18. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    That’s an excellent apples-to-apples comparison. The battle scenes in “We Were Soldiers” are stupefying. When the man’s reputation fades in radioactivity, this will be remembered.

    The Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic isn’t on every Rico’s calendar, but it’s a pretty big, Sundance-sized deal, even before the fall of the Wall. This year they gave their lifetime achievement award to Mel Gibson, who seems to be making a quiet public re-emergence in places like KV, western and sophisticated but not too inclined to ask questions about “uncomfortable matters”–

    • #18
  19. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Larry3435:

    Side note: these inspiring leftist tales always concentrate on the beginning of a socialist movement, or the temporary failure of a beautiful socialist dream that lies just over the horizon. I think that’s because history shows us that these experiments never have an inspiring, happy ending.

    Which reminds me of the ending of Norma Rae, with everyone cheering after the union wins the election. Since then, I have been waiting for Norma Rae II, where the company refuses the union’s demands, the workers all go on strike, the company shutters the plant, and the entire town is left in poverty and squalor. I’m still waiting for that sequel.

     Right on.

    • #19
  20. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Agree with the comments about better comparisons.  I’ll just add that D’Souza’s landmark epic Citizen Kane level accomplishment was to get this movie into theaters at all.  Where Fat Comrade Moore merely farts and the newscasters beat each other to death in their rush to sample his essence, I am amazed this movie saw the light of day.   Er, darkness of the theater.  You are right that conservatism does not have the world-class movie maker it needs committed to the fightin an unambiguous way, but this is how we’re going to develop that expertise.

    One of the GOP’s key failings is the attempt to bypass fights in order to announce victory later or something.  You have to fight and struggle for every last inch of ground, and the only alternative to victory is defeat.  D’Souza is winning, even if it is a shabby fight.  He is building capacity on the right, which is more than the GOP is doing.

    • #20

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.