Many of my pleasantest memories from childhood involve watching the original 1980s and 1990s Die Hard Trilogy. The uncomplicated dynamic of good Americans and bad foreigners, laced with some nostalgic slices of politically incorrect Americana, such as characters who openly smoked cigarettes and Bruce Willis’s open contempt for Johnny Foreigner evokes memories of the days in which movies primarily catered to the uncomplicated blue-collar mind or that of a stressed professional seeking the intellectual anesthetic of a plot so banal as to be capable of being explained in less than a minute. It’s not that the underlying message was necessarily wholesome. There was an implicit endorsement of police violence and a glorification of cops acting contrary to established rules of conduct. The movies also served up what was already becoming the highly dubious Hollywood fare of contrasting the appropriately heroic but empathetically ordinary American security operative (in this case, the physically super-human but emotionally immature John McClane) with the evil and shadowy terrorists, who, it was implied, could bring civilised life to an abrupt end in a matter of hours or at least days.
The movies provided a fundamentally benign view of the American security establishment – one of public service against drug dealers, kidnappers and bullion snatchers. Never was a US government official seen to behave inappropriately (unless he had gone rogue like Colonel Stuart or Major Grant in Die Hard II). The movies made no attempt to explore actual themes of complex human behaviour that have characterised the activities of American police forces or branches of the military or intelligence. For the libertarian, the socialist, the paleo-conservative or the conventionally conscientious constitutionalist, there would be no examination of the philosophical principles or often nefarious motivations behind the use of government power.
However, only the most puritanical of their number would have objected to the movies. They were, after all, light entertainment. They catered to the existing prejudices of the audience, but at least they didn’t seek to implant new ones like the propaganda movies associated with the Bolsheviks or the Nazis. They made no effort to examine in truly questioning fashion the actual behaviours associated with securocrats, but they did not show those securocrats engaged in dubious behaviour and then seek to explicitly or implicitly endorse it. There was no attempt to inject any kind of moral nuance into the battle between the goodies from the US government and the baddies from outside it, but at least in the sterile world created by the shallow script, there was no ambiguity: the goodies were good and the baddies were bad – one might not consider that to be a realistic narrative but it was an entirely reasonable and rational implication of the plot. The movies were, in simple terms, harmless rubbish, of no more relevance to the concept of cultural enlightenment or decline than Enid Blyton’s racially insensitive use of Golliwogs in her literature was to segregation or Apartheid.
The original Bruce Willis trilogy represented one of the last examples of the (in its own way noble) Hollywood tradition of providing low-fiber entertainment and leaving weightier matters to the publishers of books, periodicals, newspapers and documentaries where they could be discussed and analysed in cool clinical terms by serious people motivated by intellectual curiosity.
What began shortly after the first Die Hard movie in 1988, was the intellectually dubious habit of Tinseltown treating serious subjects through the medium of feature-length movies, whose fundamental purpose was to entertain and not to educate. This led to movies such as Dances with Wolves, JFK, Thirteen Days and the Path to War, which took a series of factual historical episodes, distilled the poly-chromatic facts that emerge from any historical narrative into a black and white tableau of right versus wrong (sometimes the underlying message was pro-establishment and sometimes anti), either employing poetic licence with established facts or just plain fabricating them and confecting these ingredients into entertaining narratives in which miscable pieces of facts and fiction could be forced into a false consistency consonant with the filmmaker’s fundamental biases. Sometimes, these bad movies would have the indirect consequence of encouraging a person to research a topic and learn more about it. However, mostly, it gave viewers who had little familiarity with the facts of a historic episode a false belief in their own expertise, when they had, in fact, only learned a mixture of indistinguishable facts, opinions and fallacies manipulated for the purposes of, at best, entertainment and, at worst, propaganda.
The 1990s genre of historical movie eventually gave way to a new concept designed to communicate something approximating dissent in the grim and darkening era of the 2000s. Instead of historical events, we saw pointed simulations of hypothetical events designed to draw direct comparisons with historical events occurring in the here and now. This genre reached its arguable apogee in 2005 with the grimly haunting thriller, Syriana.
This movie was a true curate’s egg – a potent mix of good and bad features defined, sadly, by its flaws rather than its strengths. Once again, the need to generate a Hollywood arc led to the use of a simplistic plot. Instead of using a real country, the script invented a hypothetical one which could be bespoke to the exigencies of the theme. The Royal family of this nation (resembling a curious and entirely bogus cross between Saudi Arabia and one of the Emirates) is divided into a good prince, who is anti-American and a bad prince who is pro-American. The viewers are expected to uncritically, and without an examination, accept the prima facie motivations of the Chinese and the Europeans, whilst regarding American imperialists as corrupt and immoral. This was no small flaw in the movie. It disregarded the basic fact that the Arab world is a place where governments, whether pro-American like Jordan’s or anti-American like Syria’s, have few redeeming features. More seriously, it implied that the European Union was a much more virtuous political entity than that of the Ugly American.
It was thus that beneath the dissenting veil, there was a hard core of establishmentarianism to the movie. It implicitly rebuked the Bush administration but played into the prejudice of East Coast establishment figures, whose principal disagreement was with George W. Bush’s foreign policy, not with America’s more generally and who favoured the paleo-Wilsonian ideology of multilateral aggression administered with European approval through the UN rather than the neo-Wilsonian preference for unilateral American action.
Today, I had the dubious pleasure of watching the fifth movie in this rather tired franchise. A few superficial facts I might mention in limine:
- Bruce Willis, now 57, looks exceptionally good for his age. He has aged sufficiently well that he looks like a realistic projection of how a (now seemingly non-smoking) John McClane might look, on the assumption that he has looked after himself. There are no scenes where his shirt comes off, meaning that perhaps Bruce is less happy to show off his pecks than he once was. That said, the man is 57 and he is depicting a character who must be at least 50. He has avoided the disaster of looking like a roided-up freak like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, which is eminently to his credit.
- The film is a veritable orgy of product placement. I counted at least seven separate appearances of the Mercedes C-Class coupe. There was also a Mercedes van, a regular C-Class, a Maybach, a Unimog and another Mercedes commercial vehicle. Subtle it was not and I would love to know how much Daimler AG spent on this blatant shilling. I believe that whatever the sum, it was wasted. Nobody with the money to actually buy a Mercedes (a category which regrettably does not include this author) could possibly be anything but insulted at the blatant attempts to burnish the three-pointed star in his face. Were I in the leagues of those blessed with the requisite purchasing power, I would be tempted to go straight to a BMW dealership to spite the bastards.
- Hollywood, I swear to God, when depicting foreigners, shit or get off the pot. Have them speaking English or have them speak their native language but be consistent. The Russian characters in this movie primarily speak Russian to one another. However, in scenes in which there are Russian characters alone together, there are regular interruptions of the subtitled Russian conversation with invidious use of English with Russian accents. Why was this necessary? It added nothing to the dialogue and took the audience for fools. Note to scriptwriters: If I could read the subtitles you showed for the Russian conversation, then I didn’t need sudden digressions into accented English at random points in conversation.
- Was I the only viewer who thought that there was a disturbing incestuous undertone to the relationship between arch-baddie Yuri Komarov and his sexy daughter? Note to Hollywood: There is no need to underline the badness of baddies by showing completely non-contextual hints of sexual deviancy. If they are baddies, then their bedroom mores should not matter, period.
More seriously though, this movie pushes the envelope in terms of its ability to manipulate the prism through which the viewer sees public policy. Gone are the halcyon days of George W. Bush, when there was at least some attempt to provide a critique (however misguided though the medium might have been) of US foreign policy.
Today, we have seen a regression to the type of propaganda not seen since the days of the Spaghetti Western. It is hard to give proper expression to just how nauseating this movie is. The fetid stench of political propaganda envelopes the theater not like the subtle breaking of wind which might provide momentary olfactory discomfort to a viewer of room-temperature powers of reasoning, but is like sharing a small room with a metaphorical open sewer without the benefit of a gas mask.
The movie sets the scene by depicting the CIA as fighting a vicious and covert war with people at the highest levels of the Russian government, implicitly justifying two decades of post-Cold War bear baiting which continues to this day and which sadly strengthens the demagoguery of Vladimir Putin.
John McClane’s son Jack is depicted as a talented CIA operative, who is sanctioned by his employers to assassinate a Russian functionary in order to assist in the interference in the prosecution of a sinister Russian criminal. I don’t think I have ever before seen a movie in which Hollywood has endorsed the use of assassination as a legitimate public policy.
The US government’s current drone-war is implicitly endorsed by this movie. Indeed, the endorsement is chilling in ways that no serious news outlet has yet been able to match. Early on in the film, CIA operatives are seen priming a drone to be used in downtown Moscow. It is disturbing enough that drones might be used in failed states in the Middle East. It is more disturbing still that Hollywood thinks it is acceptable to use them in a nuclear armed industrial power like Russia. This could be chalked up to Hollywood trigger happiness but for the context, in which US forces, on presidential orders, killed not merely the American citizen Anwar al Awlaki, but also his sixteen year old son. Perhaps the most brutal juxtaposition ironies, though, is the fact that in the context of the open use of targeted assassination by the US government, the county’s president openly jokes about the policy.
Early in the movie, we see Bruce Willis on NYPD premises with a picture of President Obama in the background. This is more than a little depressing. A president elected on an ostensibly dove-ish platform now reduced to a poster-boy for the lawless and unaccountable use of military power.
More depressing still: no serious institutional opposition. In the days when George W. Bush prosecuted a foreign policy of heedless aggression without recourse, we saw the emergence of waves of opponents, both inside and outside of the US establishment.
No more. The crowds are no longer to be seen. Trafalgar Square and Times Square are curiously devoid of protesters. The manager of the current policy has been re-elected, against an opponent whose only relevant complaint was that he was not aggressive enough and was too apologetic about America’s actions in the world. Bruce Willis, in contrast with most in Hollywood, is no Democratic Obama-sycophant but a Republican. The once great Republican Party of Harding, Coolidge and Taft remains in thrall to war mongers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. While the purchase of Ron Paul and his son Rand in the GOP increases and slowly advances the cause of restrained foreign policy within that party, the progress is too slow to match, let alone exceed, the increased hawkishness of the Democrats. Of the anti-war voices in the party of Andrew Jackson, Denis Kucinich lost his primary and is gone and Mike Gravel has decamped to the Libertarian Party. Even at the fringes of the left, the rapper Lupe Fiasco was recently removed from the stage for condemning the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Seen in this context, A Good Day to Die Harder is a disturbing symptom of disturbing times. The centres of cultural communication seem to have locked themselves into an embrace of officialdom that is every bit as disturbing as the puppet media outlets in the third world that we in the west so rightly despise. The question is who and what will produce the social capital necessary to organise coherent opposition to this insanity.