Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Red Dawn" Might Be The Most Intelligent War Movie In Decades

The trailer for the remake of Red Dawn has surfaced on the web, and it is shocking. This movie - about an invasion of the American homeland - may be the most brutally subversive critique of US foreign policy since Apocalypse Now. The preview is a catalogue of why our military interventions fail, and why insurgencies succeed. You should watch this film, bring friends, and talk about it afterwards. It might make you write to your Congressman. It might change how you see everything.

Just 39 seconds into the trailer the audience witnesses an airborne operation from the ground - menacing and beautiful columns of aircraft with an American flag in the foreground. The slow-moving line of planes is like a distorted World War II propaganda film, or CNN footage of one of our TV wars with the POV reversed. Immediately an accident destroys a suburban home and brings the terror into stark focus. In that one instant the filmmakers thoroughly dismantle the notion that a tactic like "Shock and Awe" could be anything but a strategic disaster, as "collateral damage" poisons the legitimacy of the attacker among the civilian populations. You can't kill a man's family, and then win his heart and mind with a pamphlet, the director seems to be telling us. Why didn't we realize this before?

Characters then talk about the enemy's superior technology:
"How did this happen? There's a new class of weapon. Everything went offline and
never came back."

The occupier has an edge. But right away, we know that such a weapon can be stolen or defeated. And so the filmmakers explain how a vicious, determined insurgency rises out of the wreckage of a defeated country and destroys its conquerors.

The group coalesces around an off-duty Marine, who trains them in combat tactics and marksmanship:

"I can't. Yes, you can. Just relax... and squeeze."
"I'm going to fight. Anyone else who wants to join is welcome to. We'll hit them on our terms."

The makers of Red Dawn are reminding us of the disastrous decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi army, creating a large class of unemployed and angry people who could organize into a potent threat. At the same time they know that bringing security forces into our orbit does not necessarily solve the problem. Local military and law enforcement always have the potential to connect with hostile elements and betray the occupying army from within. In a few spare words of dialogue this movie is presenting us with the most deadly paradox any victorious military faces if it wants to seize a country and recreate it in its own image.
The video shows the insurgent forces grappling with the invading army using their superior knowledge of the terrain and an ability to move easily in the local population. Every mall, every street becomes a potential trap for the occupier. The director's visual of the Wolverines popping out from the ground reminds us of Arminius crushing the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest. Smarter men than this author have observed that the modern Teutoburg - the wilderness that neutralizes the superior equipment and tactics of 21st century centurions - is the human terrain of cities, suburbs, and even virtual networks. We enter this wilderness every time we intervene. But Red Dawn makes it really visible to a civilian audience for the first time.

The rebel leader tells us why they are so effective in the clip: "We're the Wolverines. And we create chaos." An occupying army has to rebuild infrastructure, provide services, and demonstrate its power without brutalizing the people. The rebels just have to topple whatever was painstakingly built in a single, violent moment. And it is always easier, much easier, to destroy than create. We have to relearn this lesson every time we invade a country and attempt to win its people over, Red Dawn reminds us. When will we stop forgetting it?

But it's the personal story of the insurgent commander and his brother that has the most revealing, and depressing, message for US policymakers. As a military officer kills their father, he tells his boys to avenge his death:

"Boys, I love you both. But I want you to do what I would do. Kill this piece of -" He never finishes his sentence. But he doesn't have to.
"They messed with the wrong family," the insurgent commander says later. It is a chilling statement, with a logic as pitiless as Napoleon's famous dictum: "The moral is to the physical as three to one."
"For them, this is just some place," the insurgent commander says, revealing his tactical, strategic, and psychological advantage at once. "For us, this is our home." And these advantages can only multiply. As the occupying force kills fathers, sons, cousins, and friends they only create the next generation of fighters, ever more determined and ever more ruthless. It is the seeming genius of Red Dawn to show us this truth in what would otherwise be a relatively tired action movie plot point.

But it's the meta-narrative of Red Dawn that transcends the medium, and delivers a powerful and vital message to people who haven't even seen the movie. The film's creators originally portrayed the Chinese army as the primary villains, but studio heads forced them to change the antagonists to North Koreans in post-production, according to media reports like this LA Times article.
"The changes illustrate just how much sway China's government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest," the report states. "Hollywood has learned the hard way that besmirching China's image on-screen can have long-running implications for the many arms of a modern media conglomerate."

It's obvious that the makers of this film have created a brilliant piece of Andy Kaufman-style performance art around the production of Red Dawn. As the movie is a commentary about the foolishness of fighting multiple insurgencies around the globe, the media chatter surrounding it focuses our attention on how our military expenditures drain our economy of resources while the Chinese government - the villain who must not be identified - uses economic leverage to change the behavior of some of the largest and most powerful American companies.

"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill," according to Sun Tzu. "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." The creators of Red Dawn have drawn our attention to this strategic fact without directly stating it.

The tone and execution of the film are very similar to this bit of journalistic theater. Red Dawn, an artful takedown of American militarism, is so similar to the kind of ignorant, simplistic movies that celebrate this militarism, that some may question whether it is pitch-perfect satire at all. Some might even believe it is praising exactly what it condemns. But this is impossible. For the people who made Red Dawn to expect us to take it as a straightforward blockbuster, they'd have to believe this country has learned absolutely nothing from the awful ordeals of its recent past which have killed thousands of its bravest, most idealistic young people and devastated their families. It would have to be a film produced by a nation of contemptible idiots, for a nation of contemptible idiots.

That simply can not be true.

16 comments:

  1. After a series of debilitating strokes John Milius is now a quasi-vegetable. He can say his name but no more.

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  2. "It would have to be a film produced by a nation of contemptible idiots, for a nation of contemptible idiots."

    I would not rule out that possibility!

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  3. Of course, none of this is news to those who saw the original movie back in the 80s. That's what has made the first ten years of this century so painful to watch.

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  4. The film's creators originally portrayed the Chinese army as the primary villains, but studio heads forced them to change the antagonists to North Koreans in post-production, according to media reports like this LA Times article.
    "The changes illustrate just how much sway China's government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest," the report states. "Hollywood has learned the hard way that besmirching China's image on-screen can have long-running implications for the many arms of a modern media conglomerate."

    Which sould show us, if we had even an iota of self awareness, that the battle is lost without a shot being fired. We cannot even make a comment about China without being concerned about angering our largest creditor.

    And sadly, though they are blissfully ignorant of it, the most rabid of the gun totin', flag wavin', tea party swillin', Obama hatin' rednecks have sold their beloved country down the river every time they set foot in a Walmart.

    I hope that at least HALF of the people who go to see this movie come away with as deep an introspection as you did. America has grown fat, lazy, and entitled. We havn't had to fight a guerrilla action since the revolution, and haven't defended the nation since WW2. Its not enough that we're blessed with a plethora of natural resources, for 50 years or more, we've used our military might to help corporations steal the national treasures of other nations. Our military have become tools of the corporations, and easily disposed of tools at that. At some point in time our foriegn policy action WILL bite us in the ass again, just like on 9/11 (And we STILL haven't had the national discussion on the enemies our corporate centric foriegn policies create to rise up against us. Lets hope the makers of Red Dawn treat this subject with the gravitas it deserves.

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  5. I've reposted this, with full attribution of course, at madmikesamerica.com. It is an outstanding review and social commentary and I wanted to share it with my readers. I hope you don't mind.

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  6. You're crazy.

    The original Red Dawn was about a group of insurgents fighting an occupying force, but it wasn't read as anti-military or anything like that. In the popular perception, it became a symbol of American ass-kicking awesomeness & exceptionalism.

    The operation to capture Saddam Hussein was called Operation Wolverine for fuck's sake! Wolverines = American greatness, period. No context, no reflection.

    Keep in mind that this is the same culture that stands up and shouts along with the chorus of "Born in the USA" without ever letting one idea from the verses sink through their thick fuckin' skulls.

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    1. Unfortunately, you're correct. I tried to use Red Dawn as an example when arguing against the invasion of Iraq, but it completely went over the heads of the war supporters.

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    2. True, but if I recall correctly, and I graduated from high school the year the original was released, America at the time was not occupying any hostile foreign nation. Iran, Afghanistan, plus now equals context. The fact that people are drawing these conclusions without even seeing the movie suggests that Goblinbooks' analysis is an more accurate prediction of how the remake will be received by the public than any recollection of our reactions to the original at the time.

      But you have a point about "Born in the USA". Regrettably, America has never dealt with the truth regarding our involvement in Vietnam and any reference to it, such as in the Springsteen song, serves only as an invitation to further mythologize our past with no introspection whatsoever.

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    3. The "Born in the USA" comment reminds me of the song "American Woman" (Guess Who, later covered by Lenny Kravitz). It too is often sung by Americans with pride, especially the ladies. It doesn't seem to really get noticed that the song is really about the Canadian author's dislike of American women.

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    4. If I recall correctly, I believe 'American Woman' refers to the Statue of Liberty, and is a critique of America itself. But that's one of those "I heard it from another guy" sources, so I could be wrong.

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  7. Very nice. I was all prepared to come here into the comments to say that you were looking WAY too deeply into a shallow remake of a too patriotic 80's movie. Then I read the last paragraph. Excellent satire!

    Unfortunately, this movie is just going to be another "AMERICA! F--- YEAH!" movie, proving yet again that we may be caught surprised, but modern military might is no match for good ol' Americans. It shows that even our football players (one is an ex-marine? horrible rewrite) can beat your best!

    At LEAST the original showed the horrors of war. It showed that the actions of your own government when it came to international politics doesn't result in some far away war taking place, it can result in innocents (civilians) being abused despite all claims to morality or otherwise.

    The original showed that not every enemy soldier is an evil, grinning devil in uniform. They are all just people, swept up into this horrible international spat that they themselves don't agree on (aside from the few brainwashed into enjoying the slaughter) with the ultimate russian commander himself giving up when he had the opportunity to end it. He saw what his actions on behalf of an unfeeling government was causing to children. Children he himself very likely has at home.

    This remake, of course, doesn't have that subtlety. The trailer music underscores it, bolds it, italics it, and font size = 80 it.

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  8. I evidently missed the satire, and took the piece as serious. Mea Culpa.

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  9. I would say those in power already know this. Who profits from war? Those selling the arms and those who invested in those companies. I think these conflicts in small countries that go on for decades are just what the investors want.

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  10. My reading comprehension is lacking these days. After re-reading the last paragraph, this time carefully, I feel stupid. Thanks Nick.

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  11. It has to be satire. Look at 1:20. That's Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the Comedian in Watchmen. In that movie (spoilers), he shoots his Vietnamese baby momma in the head. Why make that association, if it's not a satire?

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  12. "I hope that at least HALF of the people who go to see this movie come away with as deep an introspection as you did."

    I will be astounded if half a DOZEN people come away from this movie viewing it as anything other than a colossal "FUCK YOU" to (a) the rest of the world, which is starting to make some noises like maybe they don't consider America to be the bad-ass to end all bad-asses anymore, and (b) those Americans who don't believe that everyone should carry at least two guns on their person at all times.

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