Meghan McCain went to see the movie "Brothers" and didn't like it. I'm not surprised. Based on the film's current score on Rotten Tomatoes, nobody else seems to like this movie, either. But McCain wants to take this little-regarded and little-seen film and turn it into some Ur-point about how "Hollywood hates the troops."
First of all, kudos to McCain for actually going to see the movie before criticizing it. Too often, pundits decry movies that they haven't seen -- which is how we get news, for example, that a movie like "Trainspotting" glamorizes heroin use, when the movie actually depicts users experiencing harrowing hallucinations and cravings so profound that they're willing to dive into feces-filled toilets in order to get their fix. Since she's seen it, she has every right to say that she was offended by "the portrayal of soldiers as cowards and lunatics -- driven to such lengths that they come home and try to kill their families." As she is a member of a family full of people who have served their country with distinction, and whose father is constantly subjected to these inane "Manchurian candidate" attacks, I can see why she'd take this movie as something of an affront.
As for myself, I won't be going to see this movie -- not because it depicts our troops in a certain way, but because the movie is very clearly made as a piece of cheap, pulpy melodrama. That said, McCain mentions but glosses over some key pieces of information that inform Tobey Maguire's unbalanced-deserter-soldier character -- information that can be gleaned from reviews (and which further inform me that I wouldn't be interested in seeing this movie). First, Maguire's character, according to what I know of the plot, was captured and traumatized by the Taliban. I think that we can all agree that the Taliban are brutally evil people, no? Second, it's also clear from available plot synopses that this movie is really about a heroic soldier who goes abroad, is captured and traumatized, and comes home to find that his layabout brother, presuming him deceased, has assumed his role in his family. Awkward! So this movie is really about jealousy, magnified by the trauma of war.
Like I said, this seems to me to be a case of overwrought, melodramatic pulp. And, really, in a rational world, that should be a sufficient way of telling the story of a movie that will be forgotten about in another week or so. But McCain's larger point is this:
Unfortunately, the thousands of stories about heroism and courage that could be told about our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not in the interest of many Hollywood filmmakers, and so a real disservice is being done to these troops. These films only perpetuate negative stereotypes about soldiers and the military. At a time when support for the war in Afghanistan is dividing this country, I simply don't understand why Hollywood insists on portraying our soldiers in such a negative light. If Vietnam taught us anything, it was hate the war, love the warrior.
I sort of think that the fact that the Afghanistan War is "dividing this country" is the reason why Hollywood imagines there is a market for movies that exploit that division. But, far from being disinterested in telling stories of "heroism and courage," Hollywood produces movies about military heroes all the time. "Saving Private Ryan" is about noble soldiers. "Tears Of The Sun" is about noble soldiers. So are "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Rescue Dawn."
"Inglourious Basterds" depicts soldiers as... well, inglorious bastards, but they still kill a lot of Nazis, which I call a win. And "Three Kings" flips the script, depicting soldiers who start off as amoral wretches but are finally spurred by their consciences to act nobly. Hollywood made all of these movies.
Of course, most of these films fall outside the parameters set by McCain, in that they need to deal specifically "about our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan," but I think that the problem here isn't that Hollywood has decided to hate those troops specifically. It's simply that better war stories, both for and against these wars, will probably only come after some time has passed. I've seen a few movies in the "War On Terror" genre, and liked some ("The Kingdom," "Redacted"), hated others ("Rendition") and just not opted to see others because they looked boring or stupid to me ("Lions For Lambs"). Right now, the best work I've seen relating to our ongoing wars was done allegorically by the revamped "Battlestar Galactica," before that show lapsed into a lengthy treatise on the universal mysticism of Bob Dylan songs.
Culturally, we live in an age of instant gratification, and the entertainment industry acts on these compulsions, attempting to give us the here and now, right here and right now. But the best storytelling always comes with adequate time to reflect. Years from now, I'm quite sure that Hollywood will provide us with plenty of the "hate the war, love the warrior" movies McCain prefers. (I'll be curious to know what McCain will think of whatever director gives the War in Afghanistan the "Full Metal Jacket" treatment!) Regretfully, I haven't seen it yet, but based upon the reactions of my colleagues, it seems that "The Hurt Locker" may be the first film in wide release to tell a truly great story about these conflicts.
At any rate, what Hollywood likes most of all is releasing products that win the enthusiasm of as many demographic groups as possible. I think the issue with "Brothers" has more to do with the fact that they guessed people would privilege the participation of major actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman over a clunky and cliched story. Hollywood does this all the time, which is why every single year, someone has to go out and write some variation on the "Are Movie Stars In Decline?" article. I also tend to think that Hollywood is locked into a business model where too many mediocre movies get green-lit and released.
Meanwhile, McCain says, "Obviously, post-traumatic stress disorder has become more prevalent in the military and clearly this is a problem that needs to be seriously addressed." Obviously! What's not as obvious is how you make a movie about the trauma war inflicts on soldiers without doing what McCain would seemingly forbid -- depicting a soldier negatively impacted by trauma.
Maybe Meghan McCain will deliver unto us the first truly great screenplay about Predator drones, on Twitter.