Did you know that America still makes propaganda films?
Oh yeah. All the damn time. Seriously, ask yourself how many war films or even just blockbusters still feature US Military rushing into conflicts? How many feature these men sacrificing themselves? Doing their best, maybe making mistakes, but always emerging out the other side as somber heroes in some way? How many superhero movies feature said heroes rushing in, saving faceless foreigners in the crowd? How many sad, tragic films end up showing the American flag as some kind of beacon of hope? How many, even the most critical, represent Americans as being the most important people at the center the world purely by virtue as always being the main characters?
It's strange that we never think of this as being propaganda. No, we think of IT as being "default." Stories that are just stories. And they're all Americans because we're just reflecting our own selves. It's the kind of thing we take so easily for granted. I remember when first watching Doctor Who, I kept marveling at the idea that aliens were always picking London as their target vs. the "obvious" choices of New York or DC. But I was thinking of us as a default. Seems so harmless, right? Well, when these American movies go out into the larger world, you better believe they manifest as propaganda. For they paint a picture of the world that says, we are the center, we are the storytellers, we are the ones who matter, while they are just the fodder for conflict. As an outsider, you can see it plain as day. But from the inside, you miss the real problem that these movies often represent our foreign interests as purposeful, yet sometimes complex, but ultimately nothing short of benevolent, as we are the heroes of all the "the others" out there. This is absolutely propaganda. And perhaps we would we see it more clearly if we could get out of our own myopia and associations. Or to put it more succinctly...
Perhaps we could see it if China made a Michael Bay movie?
Well, they did. Actually, they've made a lot of them in the last few years, but the latest one is called Wolf Warrior 2 and it's made nearly a billion dollars in China alone (you read that right). It's the kind of mega-hit that gets people talking. And it was a big enough story to get me to the theater.
To be clear, it's not a good movie. It's flat, airless, and barely sound mixed (I mean, at least Michael Bay at least gets energy and lighting). Sure, the fighting is pretty good, but the cinematography cuts it to pieces. There isn't even any of the absurdly unrealistic flare that makes Bollywood action so much fun. Instead, there's just guileless propaganda. I'm talking constant shots of the Chinese flag. Constant scenes of the Chinese military showing their benevolent might. Constant references to their great status with the UN. Constant references to how America has abandoned a world in crisis (okay, that one is pretty accurate). Constant one-upmanship in the face of other forces who oppose them ("I guess the Chinese military isn't so lame after all!" is an actual line). It even ends with a non-translated-for-outsiders title card from the Chinese government telling their citizens they will protect them abroad (I'm not kidding).
But it really is propaganda all the way down through the storytelling itself. What, with its by-the-book plotting, stock romance, juvenile swearing, and cheesy treatment of sacrifice. China has even recently come to the ugly epiphany that filling your movie with blood and violence only spurs on the patriotic zeal even more, along with a greater sense of antagonism. And make no mistake, it's "America" on the other side of this depiction. The one personified by the villain played by good old Frank Grillo, happily enjoying what I hope was a kick ass paycheck. His character "big daddy" is everything absurd and stupid and backward about American politics, all dressed up with all the nuance of a mustache twirl. Nothing about any of his actions makes sense, except to kill as many people as possible for no reason and just seem really, really bad. Which brings us right into the heart of propaganda. It's not that they're thinly-veiled criticisms of American foreign policy are "wrong," it's that thinking of yourself as "right."
After all, China's human rights violations are downright astronomical, as are its abuses of foreign territories. But here they, like us, painting themselves as the hero. Specifically, the heroes of Africa. Oh yeah, this film takes place in Africa. And look how swell these main characters are, constantly adopting African children. Look how happy everyone is to see the Chinese as they are saved. And in turn, the Chinese love Africa so much they'll compliment their women, portray them as bonfire-dancing extras, and shoot bullet after bullet until the movie piles up more dead Africans than I've ever seen in my entire god damn life. But don't worry, they're shooting the bad Africans! The bad Africans who spent all the rest of the time shooting all the sad doe-eyed good Africans! Which not only downplays the enormous complexity of African politics, but also our role within it. The film never even says the country where it takes place, just "Africa" as if it was one thing. But hey, it's all just a stand-in for "black" as it's mostly trying to put a band-aid on the country's explicit racism against black people.
What, cause America's relationship with black people is so much better? Which brings us to the crux of everything: the only difference in this movie versus countless other American war films and action movies is guile and tact. That's it. So while I see a lot of false relativism going on these days in the political sphere, there is no more apt time to pull out the "both sides" card than when looking at that solipsistic heinous actions of both sides in the Superpower Military game and their treatment of foreign policy. And in that spirt, I honestly feel like going to see Wolf Warrior 2 is an experience that every American needs to have. Not to see China make its bold artistic declaration of being a superpower, but instead to feel the strangeness of the weird reflection it creates within.
Go see it because it's the best way to see ourselves.