Thursday, March 13, 2008

Filmmaking Made Easy

Any documentary called War Made Easy and narrated by Sean Penn practically screams “righteous lefty propaganda,” which pretty much sums up the aforementioned film. Indeed, you could just write off the doc as another cog in the robust, liberal, Robert Greenwald dominated propaganda machine (information about screenings can be obtained at Greenwald’s Brave New Theaters website) if it weren’t for one truly fascinating thing. In attempting to reveal the path that has led the U.S. into war after war since the second great one, writers/directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, along with their talking head media critic Norman Solomon (whose book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” the film is based), end up employing much of the same spin that their film is purportedly trying to expose!

Alper and Earp have crafted a doc heavy on stock footage of yesteryear’s propaganda flicks, blitzing us with presidential speeches from LBJ to W. inter-cut with serious Solomon holding forth, bombarding us with the requisite “Apocalypse Now” images of war. We’re told that propaganda today is the same as that of half a century ago, that the Red Menace has morphed into the Islamic threat, that the U.S. tries to use the “selfless act” as a rationale for going to war (“We must help these poor foreigners to achieve freedom!”), a plea to the public’s emotions. “We go to war to achieve peace” is endlessly repeated while bombers prepare for the next air raid. A constant drumbeat is necessary to rally support. The media colludes with the government while officials blow smoke, actively shaping the media message before waging a PR campaign during the war. We learn that embedded reporters in Iraq were in bed with the government message, were used as instruments of information control. WWII had high public support, but once the public feels lied to or deceived (Vietnam, Iraq) the support drops, yet the war continues on momentum alone. Shocking, no?

No, and this is my second problem with “War Made Easy.” Virtually every bit of information Alper and Earp drumbeat us with is common knowledge. And how do I know that Phil Donahue got canned as a result of questioning the Iraq war, that the U.S. news media didn’t even bother delving into Powell’s infamous U.N. speech to debunk it? Why, from the exact same American media Solomon slowly and deliberately excoriates. In fact, this movie’s entire point about conspiratorial media collusion has been rendered moot. If nothing Solomon says comes as a surprise then the media rectified its own mistakes. No matter that Solomon speaks with gravitas, for his words are lightweight. There’s little substance in his analyses. He proffers that declaring the Iraq war not winnable is a copout, that “A deeper critique is that the war is wrong.” Yet he never explains why this mea culpa is truly any deeper.

Instead Solomon generally paints a picture of the media as lapdogs or suckers. But a “deeper” critique would be an analysis of corporate interest in big media. Maybe Solomon missed the memo, but CNN and Fox are businesses – not public services. They only report what they think will sell. CNN has a fetish for the “technical wizardry” of war just like they have for the dramas of Miss Lohan and Miss Spears. The media doesn’t report that WWI had 10% civilian casualties while Iraq has 90% civilian casualties as a result of those high-tech weapons not because Dick Cheney told them to shut up, but because, really, Americans want to hear about themselves. Big media looks through Americans’ eyes at the expense of foreigners because the average TV viewer simply doesn’t have the patience to sit through subtitled Kurds halfway around the world when “American Idol” is on.

It’s one thing (laughable) for Alper and Earp to trot out O’Reilly and Fox News, quite another to drag out footage of the CNN chief news executive “bragging” about consulting the Pentagon for his (one-sided) experts – when the filmmakers themselves use only one source, Solomon, for their film. We’re told of CNN’s directive to reporters to remind the public why we were hitting Afghanistan – Americans died first. But is this tacky order really so heinous? Giving a story a broader context is a worthwhile goal – a lesson Alper and Earp prefer to ignore. Solomon even holds forth on history’s outsiders, mavericks that stood up to presidential authority and were later vindicated. But not every challenger to the status quo that votes against a bill, a decision, is right. I highly doubt the filmmakers would consider Supreme Court maverick Justice Scalia honorably “right.”

Perhaps “War Made Easy” would have worked before Vietnam, before cynicism towards government became a part of the American DNA. In 2008 it looks antiquated, too simplistic for even a high school audience. Eugene Jarecki’s highly informative “Why We Fight” is an intricate study of Eisenhower’s theory of the military industrial complex. Charles Ferguson’s thoughtful “No End In Sight” is ingenious in its method of turning the war hawks’ own words against themselves. “War Made Easy” is simply a movie for those who’d rather not think too much.

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