06 July 2009
Trends: The Rise and Fall of American Film Patriotism; 1996-1998
With the Fourth of July this past weekend came the requisite viewing of the spectacular blockbuster of yesteryear, Independence Day (1996). Watching this thing again filled me with a pride and patriotism that I have not felt at the movies in years. If you don't choke up just a little at Bill Pullman's final speech and assault on the Saucer, get the hell out of my country, you're not a true American.
With this jingoism out of the way there, it got me thinking, especially with a few recent repeated viewings of Transformers 2 that there was a very small window of time in the mid-to-late 90s where these big, awesome action movies ruled. It's a tiny window in between the 80s bodybuilder/solitary man gun machismo-fests (see First Blood , Robocop , Commando ) and the 2000s comic-book franchise-aganza (see X-Men , Spider-Man , Harry Potter ). Very few of these films were franchised and virtually all of them remain not only pretty great stand alone movies, but watching them becomes an entire event. Sitting down for something like Armageddon (1998) or The Rock (1996) is a whole adventure in itself.
There's these handful of movies in this time that really reflect where America was in the world in its peak at the end of the 20th Century. This is from the time of the Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the attacks of September 11, 2001. This was a decade where the United States was essentially unchallenged in world dominance, and it shows through our films, especially those of Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, and to a lesser excess, McG and Paul W. S. Anderson. The prominence of American power and leadership on display here is astounding. There are three major films from this period which I believe highlight this trend the greatest, along with numerous supplemental films which I will also try to mention. Let's get started with the kick-off point and inspiration for this post:
1) Does England have a Fourth of July? Yes, but no INDEPENDENCE DAY
1996 - Independence Day is an incredible movie with some legendary CGI at the time as well as some of the greatest exploding National Monuments ever to be captured on film (take that, G.I. Joe!) Upon a more recent viewing, there's an extremely high level of badassery on constant display, as well as some broad humour that isn't in the spank-your-ass-after-fucking-it Michael Bay style. It is a globally unifying movie, although a globe that is clearly united under, if not subservient to an American influence. We call the shots, detonate the bomb, and let the rest of the world know how to take down the Alien Tentacly Bastards, and why shouldn't we? On display is the greatest technical and scientific intelligence, biggest bombs, and greatest fighter piloting in the world, unquestioned. I also love seeing a President who is willing to jump into a Fighter Jet to lead his men into battle, how could you not follow that kind of bravery. I mentioned before that Pullman's speech before the final battle is equally epic, and when this movie is over, you've got the feeling that this country can even withstand the attack from a foe as formidable, relentless, intelligent, and technologically advanced as the Aliens, whose planet, race, or history is never divulged. It's not unlike our underdog war against the Brits back in '76, the metaphor of which I could probably spend another post covering. Great, American-Made epic film, still one of the highest grossing of all time, ranks #6 all-time for all movies that didn't have a sequel (More stats: #8 movie made before the New Millennium, actual current position is #28, soon to be pushed down another notch by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. What does that say about current trends, eh?).
2) THE ROCK Goes Home and Fucks the Prom Queen
1996 - The Rock remains to this day Michael Bay's greatest movie. You go back and watch this and actually tend to think "Wait a minute...the continuity and plot in this, although inherently ridiculous, actually kind of makes sense." It's also the only good memorable role Sean Connery has had in the past 15 years (although to be fair, he's sort of retired), and also single-handily morphed Nic Cage from a quirky quasi-indie, Academy Award-winning actor into a fearless, moronic action star. Awesome. It's also one of the most militaristic movies ever made for something that is not explicitly about the military (again, Transformers 2 trying to take its spot...). If there's any debate on this, watch the scene where the Navy SEAL commandos break into the shower room on Alcatraz and debate with Gen. Hummel (Which consists of "ORDER YOUR MEN TO STAND DOWN!!!" "I CAN NOT GIVE THAT ORDER!!!" about seven times). This stands out among my picks here as dealing with U.S. domestic terrorism, admittedly citing that there may be something wrong with our overblown military-industrial complex that expects soldiers to die for their country, but will not acknowledge their deaths. It's an interesting predicament that fuels Hummel's motivation, but any doubt of Bay's true intentions of simply making the most awesome movie possible are put aside with the greatest climax shot of cinematic history -- Cage and the Jets. Hey, you'd fall on your knees too if you just stuck a 9-inch needle into your heart to prevent your skin from melting off due to a fraction of a second exposure to deadly VX Gas. It's epic. It stands alone. Shit blows up. A lot. The whole movie is analogous to the pride of the U.S.A. Breathtaking.
3) ARMAGEDDON: The Meaning of Heroes
1998 - I was in this Church Youth Group in high school, and one night we watched Armageddon to learn about the Meaning of Heroes and sacrifice. I learned nothing, but got to see France explode, so it turned out to be a good evening.
Like Independence Day, it turns out that when the world is in crisis, the United States of America will step up and save everyone with little need to debate with any other country or people and follow their own path to inevitably save the Earth. Russia's single support, Peter Stormare floating around MIR is a weird, crazy, incompetent cosmonaut. I mean, come on. We've got the best in the world up there and all Russia can muster is this crazy, sweaty, hairy guy? Everything's on display here, our secret bases, missions, and training that will turn a group of crude Oil Riggers into the greatest team of Experimental Astronauts in the Universe. America rules. It's big, it's loud, Aerosmith rocks it out, beautiful.
There are a few more entries into this genre of ultra-patriotic, serendipitously propaganda movies out there from this time period that I'll mention quickly here, although the Big Three are what really takes hold. There ends up not being much more than those, however, because of the shear time and epic scale of making films as a metaphor for the excessive pomposity and dominance of Late 20th Century America. So, here's a quick listing:
Air Force One (1997) - President is Harrison Ford, he kicks ass. Just like Truman.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) - By all means a fantastic movie, one of my all-time favourites, but undoubtedly Pro-American in a more conscious way than something like The Rock.
Face/Off (1997) and Con Air (1997) generally will round out this style of stand-alone, large explosion, Pro-American action films in my eyes, although lack some of the epic style and overt American praise of some of the others mentioned here. Both essentially deal with domestic terrorism and crime, and both have cops as both villains (dicks) and heroes (slightly less dicks). This is marginally dissimilar to Independence Day, and virtually every Michael Bay movie that captures one of the largest facets of this movement, the good guy Authority figure. In the movies feature above, either the Police, President, Military, or Government is seen as noble or in some other way using their power for the good of humanity. This is less apparent in modern Action films, where the police or military cannot be trusted, or is seen as the villain (Bourne Series [2002-07], Hulk Series [2003-08], Minority Report ) or even movies that emphasize stealing or conning, which means avoiding/disabling authority figures to get a more important or selfish prize (Ocean's Series [2001-07] and National Treasure Series [2004-07]). Even films like The Dark Knight (2008) or Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) has good characters fighting against cops, supplanting their own authority and judgment over that of the establishment. The action films of 1996-98 tend more to trust Authority figures and deify their role in protecting us. You may take notice now that one of the movies I cited here is not part of a franchise, as well.
This is not to say that all modern movies tend to reject a higher American authority figure. Almost all the examples I could think of happened to be Michael Bay movies (Bad Boys II , Transformers  and of course, Transformers 2 ), but the point remains that all these made money.
Stay tuned for the next installment of "Trends," where we might examine where exactly this style of Action Movie died away (I'll give you a hint, it's The Matrix! ) and the invaluable role that each Die Hard movie played in establishing its trend.