Last year Matthew Alford published Reel Power: Hollywood cinema and American supremacy (Pluto Press), an analysis of mainstream US cinema’s representation of US foreign policy since 9/11. He discussed his book with Peace News at the Rebellious Media Conference.
PN: What is the main argument of Reel Power?
MA: That Hollywood films which depict American foreign policy have a very strong tendency to support notions of American “exceptionalism” and almost never criticise it at a serious level.
PN: Why do the vast majority of Hollywood films routinely promote the United States as a benevolent force in world affairs and support the foreign policy of the US government?
MA: Hollywood is a corporate media system akin to the news in that it is ostensibly free but nevertheless directed by strong factors that determine a pro-establishment line. These factors are: the concentrated ownership within Hollywood, which is owned by the same parent companies that own the news media; the prevalence of product placement and the general commercialised feel; the influence of the department of defence and the CIA, and the fact that if filmmakers do push radical political positions they tend to cause themselves a lot of problems (the Jane Fonda effect). Then there is the pervading ideology which says there is an “us” and “them”, that America is good and benevolent, with enemies throughout the world.
PN: How do you respond to the argument that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want?
MA: Hollywood corporations provide what they think audiences will accept. But would audiences feel the same way if they were to see at the beginning of the credits for Transformers (2007-11) or Terminator Salvation (2009) or Battle: Los Angeles (2011) “This film was made with the cooperation of the department of defense”? I suspect not.
PN: In Reel Power you highlight some films such as Redacted (2007), Syriana (2005) and Avatar (2009) that are, to a degree, critical of US foreign policy. How do you explain these films being made within corporate Hollywood? What makes them different?
MA: There are special cases which do come up and that’s because Hollywood is a free system. There is no one censorship body saying you must not produce political films which attack American exceptionalism. So a film like Avatar did get through, largely because of the enormous power that [Avatar director] James Cameron wielded through his reputation for making very profitable movies. Typically, though, such ideas slip through in films like Redacted and War, Inc (2008), which are made on low budgets and tend to be distributed very poorly. To take another case, Disney was very unhappy about the political content of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). We don’t quite know why. It might have been due to the general political edginess of it. Others suggest it was because it looked at the relationship between the US and the Saudis. Disney prevented their subsidiary from distributing the film, which was a big move to make for one $10 million documentary movie.
PN: Are there any historical periods in which more critical and questioning Hollywood films have been produced?
MA: Yes, in the immediate aftermath of World War One, there was a general feeling of anti-militarism which was reflected in Hollywood. Perhaps most famous was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which provoked the Nazis in Germany to release rats in cinemas. Also to some degree in the 1970s there was an opening up of creativity prior to the big parent companies coming in and buying up Hollywood. This was the era of Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976). But even these films have to come with an asterisk attached. The Deer Hunter is widely seen as a great anti-war film but it still has really vicious representations of the Vietnamese. Do you remember the Russian roulette scene? Well the filmmakers just made that up. And although war was depicted negatively it was the American invaders who were suffering.
PN: Reel Power focuses on American movies and American foreign policy. Could your analysis be applied to British cinema and British foreign policy?
MA: When it matters to the powers that be, yes. So Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) docudrama, that “recreated” a nuclear war, was banned by the BBC for twenty years. Or go back to the early days of cinema and consider the film biopic The Life of David Lloyd George (1918), which was bought and suppressed by someone in the Liberal Party and found in mint condition eighty years later (Lloyd George was the wartime British prime minister). However, it’s worth pointing out that Hollywood is uniquely open to military influence because its filmmakers frequently need the assistance of the armed forces, due to the traditional emphasis on high-budget, action-packed blockbusters.
PN: What can concerned citizens and activists do to encourage films that are critical of US foreign policy?
MA: I think we should be primarily concerned about criticising films that encourage US foreign policy, rather than the other way around. We should actively oppose the most egregious, corporate-led, CIA/department of defense-backed movies through protest, boycott and criticism. If people also want to encourage anti-war films, then yes, that’s fine – they can make them and they can distribute them fairly easily through the web. One of the things that came out of the session [at the Rebellious Media Conference] was a whole range of activist ideas from the audience. For example, people were talking about calling up their local cinema to encourage certain films to be put on there. And, yes, I think if people are actively engaged in film rather than being passive consumers that will usually result in better products.