Then an amazing thing happened: a great work of art came along that began the process of healing that wound...a movie called Star Wars. In the movie, three American movie stars played scrappy young rebels taking on a massive empire. The empire kept using its advanced technology to track and slaughter the rebels, leaving smoking villages filled with charred corpses...but a rag-tag band of farmers and outlaws won out by hiding in jungles, infiltrating the enemy army, striking fast and scattering quickly, all the while drawing strength from a meditative, church-less spiritual force.
George Lucas was giving America a chance to empathize with our victims, and refight the war on their side. Years later, when America had swung back in a more reactionary direction, Rambo would return to Vietnam and famously ask, “Do we get to win this time?” But George Lucas had already given us a chance to win...provided we were willing to switch sides. As they watched Star Wars, Americans happily made that switch, and felt that their souls were a little bit cleaner.
Now let’s jump ahead a few years: it was 1984 and America seemed to be on the edge of nuclear war. Few could imagine a bright future. In The Terminator, the Soviets became giant robots, and nuclear war became a robot apocalypse, but the implications were clear: we were caught in closed loop that only had one end. “A storm’s coming.” “I know.” There was nothing left to do but ride off into a sun-drenched desert to prepare.
Nobody walked into these movies expecting any political content, and even afterwards most remained blissfully unaware of the movie’s deeper implications...all they knew was that these movies had resonated with them on a much deeper level than many other blockbusters.
Those movies were all science fiction, which is the most allegorical of genres, but all movies become more meaningful when they include twinges of real-life national pain. Let’s look at the eight movies that I evaluated with the last checklist:
- Bridesmaids: The Great Recession
- Silence of the Lambs: Ted Bundy’s rampage
- Donnie Brasco: 70s government overreach
- How to Train Your Dragon: The “war on terror”.
- Alien: The rise of corporate sovereignty
- The Shining: Domestic violence, racism, and the backlash of the AWM
- Casablanca: The concentration camps
- In a Lonely Place: Domestic violence and postwar PTSD
The trick, of course, is to avoid hypocrisy. As I pointed out before, The Avengers tacks on a subplot in which the Avengers protest the fact that SHIELD is using an alien device to make weapons instead of clean energy...but the team members all love their own weapons, and nuke their enemies out of existence at the end without an ounce of compunction. By contrast, each of the eight movies listed above, though very entertaining, deals with its painful national wound in a serious, non-hypocritical manner.
If you want your story to be more meaningful, you should feel your country’s pain...but don’t exploit it.