17 January 2010

Hollywood and the Military.

So, I'm risking getting into deep water without enough water wings here. (But I will call on e-mails from my very learned and smart and amazing best friend Beth, who has TONS of experience and can drop some serious knowledge on this topic.) However, watching the Golden Globes the last night got me thinking... I saw a clip from the movie "Brothers" and recalled a great conversation I had with Beth after leaving Invictus. We had seen the posters for "Brothers" and started talking about how movies like these color the public's perception of what Veterans are. For better, and mostly, worse. We wondered why most MilMovies focus on the crazed, angry, out-of-control Veteran with PTSD. Why do they all show the dirtiest, nastiest and least common side effect of these wars? But before I go on, let me ask y'all this:

How do you feel about Hollywood's current portrail of Veterans in movies?

Here are a few for you to reference if you need a cheat sheet (obvs this isn't comprehensive):
Dear John
Hurt Locker*
Taking Chance*
The Marine
*These two movies are nearly universally lauded as excellent MilMovies, not fitting the recent status-quo discussed below.

Cross reference the "big" military movies (leaving out the WWI & WWII fare) of the last 30-ish years (again, not comprehensive):
Black Hawk Down
We Were Soldiers Once
Apocalypse Now
Deer Hunter
Full Metal Jacket

The crux of the matter is this: pre-Platoon, all war movies (depicting active duty soldiers or Veterans) were basically patriotic pseudo-propaganda. They were designed to make you feel proud, make your heart swell with patriotism, make you revere and honor the bravery and honor of The American Soldier. None of which were bad things. They just tended to gloss over the more realistic, graphic issues and realities surrounding war. Platoon changed that. It changed everything. It wasn't sterilized for mass consumption, it was raw and real and gruesome and in-your-face. Platoon was everything the previous movies were not. It was terrifying, shocking, eye-opening, and likely left many feeling less than patriotic.

Was this a good thing? Yes and no. Yes, because it de-sterilized war, it made it real and brought the terrors and gruesome realities of war to the forefront of public perception. It thoroughly de-romanticized war and illustrated that these wars weren't full of John Wayne types, there were slackers and terrorizers and greenies and weary career types. Yes, because it opened up the public's eyes to what wars really are and what our Veterans really went through.

But on the other hand... as revolutionary and eye-opening as it was... it created a reason for fear. A reason to fear and keep Veterans at a distance. It showed the dirty under-belly of combat, it showed the reasons why so many Veterans had mental health issues, coping issues, health issues, why some became so detached from society, why some never recovered from their tours. Keeping Veterans at a distance became the new norm... not men (and women) to be honored and revered, but people to stay away from and be weary of. Because you never know when they'll snap.

In some ways, Platoon, and movies like it, enhanced our understanding of things like PTST and Combat Fatigue, which is good. It gave credibility and weight to the realities of being a soldier, it gave heft to their experiences and personal traumas. But as these types of movies increased over time, it became the only image of the Veteran we saw in the theaters. When is the last time you saw a feel-good, patriotic military movie? When did you last see a soldier -from the current conflicts- not presented as a psychopath waiting to emerge (See: Brothers)? When did you last see a soldier who wasn't being taken advantage of by the Military, bound to turn into a crazed, gun-wielding Veteran? When is the last time you saw one quietly dealing with PTSD, TBI, or combat fatigue with medical personnel and family members? That's right, Never.

It is all about the new cliche Hollywood has created for our Veterans. And admit it, you know it: The guy who just isn't the same as he was before the war... the guy unwilling to discuss the horrors of war, with a terrifying temper just a wrong word/action/sound/memory away. The guy who can't differentiate between reality and war. The guy who is just one wrong move away from blowing everyone away. Your worst nightmare wearing the cloak of PSTD and on a steroids. THAT is the perception of Veterans Hollywood has given the masses since the '70's.

Okay, I hear you. They are just movies. They aren't real... movies are the same places we go to for princesses, Marvel Comic heroes, men who age backwards, romanticized historical epics and ridiculous romantic comedies. We don't think those are real... why would we think THIS was real? But then I ask you this: How many of you have watched a romantic comedy at some point in your life and thought, "That could happen to me!". How many of you have watched an epic historical drama and thought, "Yes, that is EXACTLY how it was... no body odor, beautiful people, and good teeth!". Whether we like it or not, how Hollywood chooses to portray things DOES color our view of those things... assuming we don't have first-hand knowledge to tell us otherwise.

Therein lies the issue. It all comes back to the 1%. Only 1% of movie-goers (give or take an educated few) have ANYTHING to cross reference these stereotypes/cliches against. So where does that leave us? 99% of moviegoers think this is the reality, or at least some permutation of the truth. "Crazy-on-the-verge-of-going-Postal" is what goes on in a Veteran's head. This is why you shouldn't get too close or ask too many questions. The sad trickle-down-effect? A higher Veteran unemployment rate - no one wants to hire the Vet who just might go crazy. It is the obvious disconnect between the public and the Veterans in their communities. It is why funding for Veteran health care (including mental health) gets voted down. It is why people bitch about the Post-911 GI Bill not being fair for everyone else.

I'm interested to know what you all think about this. Have I taken the argument too far? Is there really no discernible link between these stereotypes, Hollywood and Vet unemployment rates? Or is this real? Is this something we need to combat? What do YOU think about the stereotypes Hollywood has created for our Veterans?


Kayla said...

I don't think you've gone too far at all! In fact, I remember someone else posting about this subject not too long ago... can't for the life of me remember who it was.
Anyways, I agree with you. I think Hollywood perpetuates these stereotypes just to push their pseudo-political agendas through to people that worship the ground they walk on. Think about it: so many people only follow political movements because their favorite rapper or movie star thinks themselves educated about the topic and go around spouting off their "factual" knowledge. These movies keep getting made because Hollywood likes to think of itself as "anti-war" and peace-promoting. I'm sorry but I think it is ridiculous, and I agree that it is turning the general public into viewing veterans in a negative light.

Meghan said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this. I have been thinking about this a lot since I watched Avatar. I came away from that movie with a bad feeling. I felt like the "Military" in that movie were portrayed as war-mongering idiots who only wanted to blow shit up. While my man reminded me that there are plenty of people in our military who do love to blow shit up, that just isn't how I see it. I see my man and he is smart and thoughtful and not at all how the movie portrayed a solider to be and that upset me. I don't really think anyone else that I talked with noticed though. They just thought it was awesome. Anyway I kind of took that off in a different direction, but I agree, I would like to see a more positive portrayal and I definitely think the movies can influence the way people think about veterans in negative ways.

liberal army wife said...

since I vividly remember the aftermath of Vietnam, being the ancient fossil around here, you are pointing out what we all saw right after the war. Most cops n robber shows portrayed Vets as nutjobs just waiting for a car to back fire and drive them over the edge. do you remember a couple of months ago, a community didn't want to allow a homeless shelter for women vets to be in their precious neighbourhood, because they could "go off" and be a danger to the children? When all anyone sees is either the "poor me, pity me" or the "I'm brave and lost my legs and have problems so pity me" OR the "I have PTSD and you look like a danger so get away from me before I EXPLODE" or even the benignly silly Army Wives... they have no idea of what reality is in the military.

Whether the way we are shown Vets is the root, the cause or is the visible embodiment of the stereotype - is a chicken and egg argument. I'd love to combat it but we also need to remember that there are a lot of vets coming back that will need some counseling and some help. Do we want to risk the "oh, everyone is just fine", John Wayne kind of shake it off and suck it up..... idea being the norm again?


Tucker said...

LAW- I think those are all super points and I agree 100%. I certainly don't want us to go back to the "Nothing to see here... everything's fine" mentality. I guess I just wish there was a middle ground.

I hate that the stereotypes out there are nearly always the worst case scenario- because that breeds the fear you are talking about. If there was a way to talk about these things more realistically, show that often PSTD is something Vets deal with quietly and in much more varied ways than "Going Off" we could maybe change the stereotypes.

For me, the issue isn't to stop talking about or portraying the bad parts- but it is about talking about them in a thoughtful, and ultimately, helpful manner- to raise understanding and sympathy (bad word choice) and prevent the fearful spin.