May 16, 2004

Film as Propaganda

by Nick Morgan

Mr. Non-Volokh on The Day After Tomorrow:

    Apparently the implausibility of the climatic disaster pictured in the movie has not stopped Al Gore and from promoting the film, nor has it prevented The Guardian from claiming movie-inspired fears of global warming could swing the election to John Kerry.

What I find surprising is not the disingenuous political use of this film, but the relative scarcity these days of films designed as political propaganda. It's been my feeling that film is probably the single most powerful means of persuading the public. First, a much larger and more diverse segment of the public watches big box office flicks than reads editorials in major publications. I suspect that audiences for most political journalism are generally better educated, and are more likely to have developed views on a topic. Second, a well wrought film with a political message--by captivating an audience for nearly two hours--is more likely to convey a message viewers can identify with and internalize. Even mediocre films feature sympathetic characters, and when a character's welfare depends on events associated with a political platform, sympathy for the character can be translated to sympathy for the platform. (Of course, I'm oversimplifying here, but consider The Life of David Gale, where what I take to be a highly sympathetic protagonist falls victim to the gross injustice of wrongful conviction and a death sentence. The anti-death penalty message of the movie was quite powerful, I thought.) Finally, films have much greater license to misrepresent and even misstate the facts. Cautious viewers are wise to withhold judgment until facts asserted in a film are confirmed, but somehow I doubt that more than a fraction of movie watchers check up on facts, and even some who do may still be tainted by the film's overall emotional impression.

Despite his rhetorical unfairness, I think Michael Moore found exactly the right medium.

May 16, 2004 07:27 PM | TrackBack

This happens even with non-political films; how plausible is Jaws? Yet it inspired an excessive fear of sharks among much of the public, even though I'm assuming Speilberg has no personal beef with the animals. I'd consider art that encourages irrational feelings toward animals to be morally worse than inaccurate political art, since at least in politics there are people arguing on both sides.

If Non-Volokh is worried about the effect of this film on people's perceptions of the global warming threat, he can write a counter-film in which excessive concern about global warming cripples modern civilization and causes us to regress to primitivism (actually, I think he could just work off Ayn Rand's Anthem -- speaking of propaganda masquerading as art). Alas, the sharks have yet to make a counter-argument to Jaws.

Posted by: PG at May 16, 2004 09:19 PM

Well, Non-Volokh could try to make such a film. But then, given the very small influence that Republicans have in Hollywood (although two out of four Hollywood Republicans apparently get to be governor of California), I don't know how successful he'd be. Besides, what would an anti-global warming film look like? You can't film money being wasted, opportunity being lost in a highly disbursed way, and global warming not happening. Or at least, not without having less plot than a Steven Segal film.

Nick, it's interesting that you mention The Life of David Gale. I reviewed it quite a while ago (warning: spoilers). Entertainingly, most people fail to mention that "a highly sympathetic protagonist falls victim to the gross injustice of wrongful conviction and a death sentence" would be a gross distortion of the actual plot.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 17, 2004 12:33 AM

Movies, as with literature, are subject to the viewers' interpretations, which may differ from the intent of the film maker or writer. Over time, current viewers' interpretations may differ significantly from those of an earlier generation of viewers. Take "Dr. Strangelove". Viewers today may very well see things that earlier viewers may not have been aware of because of intervening circumstances that have become part of their experiences. Take "The Mouse that Roared", obviously comedic when first issued. But today's viewers may see the Axis of Evil countries looking to have their problems solved by the U.S. as benefactor/colonialist. Take "Wag the Dog" and the views of Clinton haters back when that film first was released. Current viewers may look at it differently as Bush Jr.'s Administration makes mistake after mistake after mistake in Iraq and elsewhere. Yes, films may give prudent messages, either initially or with the benefit of subsequent events. But they can also work in reverse. It would seem to me a sad day if and when most Americans get their views from the movies rather than from the daily flow of responsible media reporting. Hermeneutics anyone?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at May 17, 2004 08:05 AM

You may have spoken too soon about the dearth of politically biased films. In watching TV last night, I saw a preview for a made-for-tv movie about Eisenhower and D-Day, which will air Memorial Day weekend. Ike is played by Tom Selleck, a noted Republican. The timing and the casting of the movie seemed significant to me.

Posted by: Christine Hurt at May 17, 2004 10:34 AM

Besides, what would an anti-global warming film look like? You can't film money being wasted, opportunity being lost in a highly disbursed way, and global warming not happening. Or at least, not without having less plot than a Steven Segal film.

Rickey, I'm appalled by your lack of imagination. If Day After Tomorrow can leap forward to the time when global warming has gone far enough to endanger most humans on the planet, Non-Volokh's counter-film (like Anthem) can jump forward to a time in which the most radical environmentalists have succeeded in removing all technology that does harm to the environment and Texas is abandoned because it's too damn hot without AC and the streets are covered with horse poop again.

Posted by: PG at May 17, 2004 10:54 AM

"streets are covered with horse poop again"


Posted by: Nick at May 17, 2004 11:02 AM

;) Ah... PG, what a thought.

I'm pretty certain that TDAT doesn't "leap forward in time" very much: I thought the idea was that global warming--or at least climate change--suddenly accelerates?

Nonetheless, I don't think making Texas 'uninhabitable' due to lack of air conditioning and horse poop would do it. I mean, stick Clint Eastwood in it, and you'd just have a western. ;) (Though, that said, we could just make a sequel to The Postman. Even if it didn't end up being the conservative answer to TDAT, it might end Kevin Costner's career.)

Actually, I think the movie with the most anti-environmentalist point so far was probably 28 Days Later... though that's a stretch.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 17, 2004 12:11 PM

I got the horse poop from either Limbaugh or an Objectivist website. Everything I read back in my Republican/ libertarian days sort of blends together now.
Anyway, I don't think westerns did much to convey just how harsh life was before modern technology; they were focused more on the conflict than the setting. And they're more advanced than the scene I'm setting; at least they had the smoke-belching railroad.
Any society that post-dates industrialization would be more 'advanced' (quotation marks required by having lived with anthropology majors) than a society that eschews all activity likely to cause more environmental damage than that caused by non-human animals.

Posted by: PG at May 18, 2004 10:50 AM
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