When I was working at Harvard's Kennedy School, then dean Joe Nye spoke often of "soft power," the notion that America's abiding influence extends far beyond its military and economic might to the timeless appeal of its enduring values of democracy, freedom, opportunity and innovation -- celebrated and advanced by legions of Americans from academics to artists.
I have long believed that American movies are among our nation's most important diplomats. Rarely has this unique role been so challenging or effective as it has proved to be with this summer's unlikely band of box office emissaries.
While audiences largely side-stepped more serious takes on world affairs, diverse people are lining up in multiplexes around the world to meet a new breed of American superhero. Far from perfect, these post-modern purveyors of truth, justice and the American way strive to improve the world and themselves. It seems an acutely apt metaphor for our nation. Gone may be some of the bulletproof swagger, but the more genuine remaining article has fresh appeal.
We first meet Will Smith's Hancock careening unsteadily through the air with a bottle of whiskey. When he cleans up his act, he draws a different kind of skepticism from a SWAT team taken aback by his skin-tight new duds.
There's the much-celebrated meta-moment in Iron Man where Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark, caught in a compromising position by his assistant, matter-of-factly declares, 'let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing.'
A misunderstood Hulk works to control his rage and prevent the government from weaponizing his condition. And, no question, the women of Sex and the City, flawed and fabulous, are superheroes in their own right to legions of fans.
Seeing a few chinks in the armor and glimpsing the human frailty behind the steely exteriors and flashy hardware only adds to the allure -- and the recurring theme of redemption.
In trailers for the next Batman installment, The Dark Knight, a Gotham politician declares, 'You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.' Through film, we see our country wrestling with the mighty task of drafting an alternate sequel for our nation, grappling with misgivings about the current gulf between cherished American ideals and the grim realities of the post-9/11 world.
It's no surprise then that even our presidential candidates seem straight out of central casting -- one a decorated veteran and former prisoner of war, the other a Kennedy-esque voice of a new generation, summoning the 'audacity of hope.'
Battered and bruised as our national image may be at the moment, we remain a country of ideals and bold aspirations. With movies and with democracy, we choose our stories. At the box office, we favor happy endings. Around the world, they are the quintessential signature of American cinema. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Michael Clayton, one of the most archetypal happy endings is the affirmation that ordinary people can take on "the system." From Rocky to Wall-E, we never tire of the story of the lone individual -- the underdog -- who makes good. It's encouraging in these eminently discouraging times to see this distinctly American theme successfully translate into so many languages.
The best of American cinema celebrates American values -- and explores the struggle to preserve and advance them in a complex world. Are we perfect? Hardly. Neither are our heroes. But we're striving toward our better selves.
Is art imitating life? Only time will tell. Asked who he'd want to play him on the big screen, Obama recently answered Will Smith. While the people's verdict on Hancock is in, Obama will have to wait until November. Until then, we can only hope he sticks to the spirit of that statement --and his Burberry suits.