by Gary Gordon
Int. Movie Theater. Night.
TWO ORDINARY MOVIE-GOERS are flanked by TWO MOVIE CRITICS and TWO HISTORIANS, watching a movie. Behind them are-how many PRODUCERS does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
On-screen, something extraordinary happens: a passionate, erotic sex-scene combined with a
profound and moving speech combined with the biggest explosion ever!
The two ordinary movie-goers gape.
The two critics write notes with lightbeam pens. One writes: Seen it.
The two historians also write notes. One writes: factually inaccurate but emotionally correct. The other writes: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!
The producers watch the movie-goers, critics and historians, and reach for their cell-phones.
Me, writing this article.
Last year, The Insider and Hurricane took hits over questions of accuracy. Was there really a bullet placed inside the mailbox, and if so, who really put it there? Was Ruben Carter a saintly victim of a single racist police detective, and was he freed by only three Canadians and two reluctant lawyers, or was reality more complex and too many shortcuts taken?
Each hit conveniently missed the point. The Insider was a story, based on actual events but not restricted to them, about a journalist and a whistle-blower teaming up to take on huge corporate power. Hurricane, also based on but not restricted to actual events, was not about saints or who was portrayed freeing whom, it was about how an innocent person survives thirty years in prison after a System continues to get it wrong.
In a world where huge corporate power grows and an increasing number of wrongly convicted-innocent-people are revealed to be in jail, these two movies were powerful punches at the status quo. So powerful, they had to be derailed. The acting, editing, cinematography etc. couldn't be faulted, so fault the accuracy. Make the accuracy such an overriding question as to perniciously influence movie-goers to participate in a debate as if it were a classroom instead of an excellent piece of entertainment.
And who wants to feel like they're in a classroom when they're on date?
It is interesting that movies that challenge the status quo are challenged for their accuracy and movies that propel the status quo (and American origin myths) go unchallenged.
Recently, in an off-his-medication-again-like piece in the L.A. Times, Robert Bork took on Erin Brockovich (the movie), lumping it with The Insider and A Civil Action, accusing all three of glamorizing plaintiff lawyers and demonizing the corporate world. He actually suggested "In a society that's already far too litigious, this only adds fuel to the fire." and "Today's villains… [instead of] being endowed with human complexity… are invariably greedy corporate entities conspiring to poison women and children for the sake of money."
(I'm reminded of a photo I saw once of General Reinhard Heydrich playing with his children. If only the millions herded into concentration camps had seen that photo, it would have been such a comfort. They would have known he wasn't evil, just complex.)
Of course, Bork makes the same kind of mistake as Michael Medved and David Horowitz, first by overlooking that The Insider didn't feature a plaintiff lawyer, and A Civil Action hardly glamorized Travolta's character, then by ignoring all the movies that either benignly or enthusiastically celebrate the American Fairy Tale at the expense of all too many real-life, truthful exceptions.
Forget those recruiting films like The Sands of Iwo Jima and Top Gun, and those manifest destiny films like They Died With Their Boots On. This propaganda-like activity is contemporary.
Look at Rules of Engagement and U-571.
Rules of Engagement, number one at the box office last week, is well-acted, and much of it is compellingly directed (Friedkin is so damn uneven, but that's another essay).
But where does this story come from? At the end of the movie (and I'm not giving it away here, but I might later on) there's a scroll telling the viewer what ultimately became of several of the key characters, implying this is a true story. It's not a true story. Not even close.
The plot is this: Samuel Jackson, a Marine Colonel and Vietnam Veteran is sent to Yemen with a special squad to evaluate a hostile disturbance at the U.S. Embassy. Under fire from roof-top snipers, he evacuates the spineless ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and then orders his men to return fire, even though there are women and children in the crowd. Back in the States, he is charged with the murder of 83 Yemeni civilians. He gets his old Vietnam Vet buddy Tommy Lee Jones to defend him at his Court Martial. Jones must find a way to prove Jackson's order to fire on the crowd was justified, since Jackson has no evidence anyone in the crowd had weapons. But we see what Jackson saw: there were weapons.
Again, where does this story come from? Did US Marines shoot women and children protesting outside a U.S. Embassy in the Middle East? Was a Marine Colonel wrongly accused of murder? Was a director of the National Security Agency forced to resign? Did I miss this because the TV was jammed with coverage about Jon Benet?
Historically, the American military has killed unarmed civilians during wars and so-called police actions. True, it's not shown in Forrest Gump, but it did happen. Two of the best known incidents were the massacre of Sioux by US Cavalry at Wounded Knee and the massacre of Vietnamese by US soldiers at My Lai. There were times in our history when paying for Indian scalps was policy. There were times when the murder and imprisonment of Native American "savages" or "troublemakers" was policy. There were times in our recent history when Search & Destroy missions were policy, and the collection of souvenir ears, along with other atrocities, was overlooked by the brass. (See the Winter Soldier Investigation, a documentary featuring the testimony of Vietnam Veterans who essentially put themselves on trial for their war crimes in 1971, and, for an account of the FBI war against the Sioux in the latter half of this century, read Peter Mathiessen's In The Spirit of Crazy Horse.)
And rarely, very rarely, has any US soldier or government agent been punished, because, as it turns out, hey, we don't commit war crimes or these kinds of injustices. Lt. Calley was the scapegoat at My Lai-he was a murderer, but not the only one. And some might argue, as Vine De Loria did in his bestseller, Custer died for his sins.
The full-length, feature movie about My Lai with stars like Jones, Jackson and Kingsley has not been made. Apparently, it is not entertainment. And my guess is, if it were made, it would be challenged as inaccurate and thus relegated, as The Insider and Hurricane were, to secondary status and eventual tainted vapor. Platoon and a few other Vietnam movies have what are known as "My Lai" scenes, but they always seem to follow a specific hostility suffered by the squad, so it's never a discussion of policy; it's depicted as out-of-control but justified revenge, in the heat of battle.
(Incidentally, the My Lai massacre was uncovered and reported due to the efforts of an investigative journalist; it did not surface through the efforts of a benign yet complex corporate entity. Come to think of it, the Pentagon Papers expose was also the work of a whistle-blower and some crusading journalists-where's that movie?)
The full-length, feature movie of Wounded Knee has also never been made, although there are heartbreaking, gruesome scenes of Custer's Washita River massacre of Native Americans living peacefully in their village in Little Big Man, and Wounded Knee is referenced in Thunderheart. Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and brilliantly directed by Arthur Penn, was made during the Vietnam War, after the My Lai massacre details had surfaced. Several writers have suggested the real massacre contributed to the movie, and perhaps those scenes are as close as we'll get to a major movie about My Lai or Wounded Knee.
It would be easier to stomach a fictional, American fairy tale movie like Rules of Engagement if movies about Wounded Knee and My Lai had been made.
An argument can be made that the dazzling, intelligent Three Kings was just such a counter-fairy tale movie. Exceedingly well-written, directed, acted, and photographed, this movie, which took on George Bush's legacy (it's emotional and political core was that the US betrayed the Kurds by urging them to revolt against Hussein and then totally abandoned them) wasn't attacked for inaccuracy; instead it was just ignored by the powers that be and the so-called Liberal Hollywood establishment.
But, in the end, as good and important as Three Kings was, it wasn't a portrayal of the villainy and brutality of US military policy as carried out against the Sioux or Vietnamese at Wounded Knee or My Lai. So we're left with the reverse negative in Rules of Engagement: instead of the actual "What if US soldiers massacred civilians and tried to cover it up?" we get the imaginary "What if US soldiers killed armed combatants and were wrongly accused of killing civilians?"
There are no sex scenes in Rules of Engagement, but there are explosions, and there is a stirring speech. Jones, near the end of the trial, reminds everyone that firing on people firing on you is not murder, "it's combat". And then he goes on to remind the jury of Marine brass that you never leave a man behind, you never "hang him out to dry". He argues Jackson did his job.
And by gosh, given what the movie's about, he's right. Because the movie isn't about what actually happened, either in the West in the 1800s or in Vietnam in the 1960s (or other times) when American troops killed innocent civilians. It's about a Marine Colonel falsely charged with killing innocent civilians.
So, in the words of those who mistakenly celebrate the peaceful transfer of power from Nixon to Ford as the primary lesson of Watergate: the System works.
No whistle-blower is needed. No hardworking investigator or journalist is necessary. No innocent man gets sent to jail.
As for U-571, the genuinely exciting story of how an American submarine crew snatches the super-secret Nazi encryption device (called Enigma) from a U-Boat only to have to crew the U-Boat after losing their own sub, and suffer attacks from their own army-whew! Great story!
Actually, it was the Polish Underground who got hold of the first Nazi Enigma that lead the codebreakers at Bletchley to succeed. But who wants to watch a movie about the Polish Underground?
Meanwhile, for you conspiracy buffs, if you search U-571 on the web, you'll find out the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) is the official Naval Submarine Museum, and that a Cub Scout Troop 571 has a website.
Obviously, movies are stories and there's nothing wrong and lots right with a great yarn. It's when the mostly accurate movies that take on the powers that be and the official history are trashed for meaningless "inaccuracies" while mediocre yarns that reaffirm the myths are celebrated that the alarm ought to go off.
So sound the alarm. Instead of seeing Rules of Engagement or U-571, read From Hanoi to Hollywood, edited by Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (one of several excellent books on the Vietnam War and its portrayal by Hollywood), or The Ultra Secret by F.W. Winterbotham (one of several excellent books on the Nazi Enigma machine and the Allied efforts to break the code). Or if reading's not your thing, watch The Pentagon Wars on HBO: it's about how the U.S. Army spent over 14 billion dollars and took 17 years to build an armored troop carrier that couldn't withstand one live round fired from anything heavier than a machine gun. (According to the crawl at the end of that movie, the Colonel who blew the whistle was forced to retire.)
Ext. Colombian Countryside. Day.
Choppers land, U.S. Troops dismount and deploy.