Since Hollywood’s inception 100 years ago this January, when filmmakers decamped from New York to avoid paying Thomas Edison his royalties, industry leaders have always insisted their mission was pure entertainment. (Edison was not amused.)
As producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
But, as professor Ernest Giglio argues in “Here’s Looking at You: Hollywood, Film and Politics,” producers and directors have always exercised enormous influence in their films on American attitudes and opinions, starting with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), negatively portraying blacks in the South. It just goes to show Hollywood has not always gotten it right on big issues of the day.
Today’s big issue - the war on terror - is another case in point.
Certain films, like “Body of Lies” (2008), “In the Valley of Elah” (2007), “Rendition” (2007) and “Lions for Lambs” (2007) contain stories infused with filmmakers’ opinions and beliefs largely devoid of a sense that America has an enemy intent on its destruction that makes the war a worthy cause, albeit infused with immense suffering. Unsurprising considering that of 400 films liberal Hollywood releases annually, Mr. Giglio estimates 5 percent to 10 percent present “explicit and often latent political messages.”
The newly released film “The Messenger” (2009) - focused tightly on two Army Casualty Notification Officers (CNOs) skillfully played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster - reflects this incomplete message.
Their task is to give “next of kin” (NOK) the tragic, deeply emotional news of their loved one’s war-related death. Yet not one notification scene even hints that military families know the risks as well as the glories of war that come with sacrificing for one’s country. Actress Samantha Morton’s character Olivia is the only NOK who receives the horrid news with equanimity. But, as the film makes clear later on, Olivia disagrees with the war and has already personally disengaged from her husband - at least partially explaining her calm when the CNOs come calling.
By contrast, “The Divided” - a small Capraesque film by Providence Productions - presents a more complete picture.
This story of Army Special Operations officer Cotton (“Cott”) St. Clair, posted in the Middle East, is artfully told by director Bennett Stein, whose parents were CIA operatives. Upon returning home for a visit, St. Clair learns that his beloved sister is engaged to an antiwar activist. Predictably, the two men clash as the war-weary officer pursues a suspected female terrorist posing as a journalist. In the process, the film deftly lays bare the chasm in American society over our role in the world’s danger spots - often seen through a biased media filter - and the actual, far more heroic role as exemplified by St. Clair’s unselfish, disciplined defense of America and its freedoms.
The film is the first to address directly the cooperation between Israel and the United States in intelligence operations that target active enemy efforts in Iran, Lebanon and Syria that destabilize the larger Middle East - often at great cost to those who work in this shadowy underworld.
It also exposes very explicitly the underreported repression, persecution, torture and martyrdom of Middle Eastern women, underscoring the nobility of our counterinsurgency mission in the Middle East and providing insight into why the people of Afghanistan want us to succeed - perhaps our biggest trump card.
Even more gripping are the horrific stories the film presents, which are all composites of what real women in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq have actually endured, according to Providence head Stephen Polk, who masterfully plays St. Clair.
Particularly moving is Canadian-born actress Anne Bedian’s portrayal of the character Adira Allal, whose compelling recounting of these atrocities makes one think for a long time.
Yet somehow this message about all America is doing, in the words of Allal, to make life “a little better,” especially for Middle Eastern women, has yet to penetrate the mainstream media. Instead, the steady drumbeat too often communicates that America’s efforts in the Middle East are wrongheaded at best, evil at worst.
Whereas “The Messenger” all too predictably mirrors this negative message, films such as “The Divided” offer a glimmer of hope that this drumbeat will become a little less steady as they shed light on why our troops are risking life and limb.
Mary Claire Kendall was special assistant to the assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1989-93.