Hey, Conservatives: It's Safe to Go to the Movies Again

Why hasn't the right embraced new films sympathetic to its cause?

captain america conservative murty.jpg
Chris Evans in Captain America (Paramount Pictures)

The recent news that MGM's remake of Red Dawn may finally reach theaters should be reason for conservatives to celebrate. The Los Angeles Times reports that MGM is in talks to sell Red Dawn to Film District (the company behind Ryan Gosling's Drive), which will likely release the film in 2012. The original Red Dawn is one of the iconic films of the cultural right. Written and directed by John Milius, the 1984 film depicted a group of plucky teens who fight off a Soviet invasion of the U.S. This new Red Dawn, of which I've seen an early cut, features a similarly patriotic storyline—and stars one of Hollywood's hottest young leading men, Chris Hemsworth (Thor). And even factoring in some controversial re-edits that change the villains from the communist Chinese to the North Koreans, the new Red Dawn seems like exactly the kind of pro-American action fare that should please cultural conservatives.

But will conservatives actually support Red Dawn when it comes out?

After years of feeling burned by Hollywood, today's conservatives seem reluctant to go to the movies, even to see films promoting their own values. A number of right-of-center-friendly movies have been made in recent years—ranging from big-budget studio fare like the Transformers movies or art-house films like The Devil's Double, to overtly political documentaries like The Undefeated—yet conservatives have responded with little enthusiasm to such films. Indeed, at times conservatives seem more interested in debating left-leaning works like Avatar or Fahrenheit 9/11 than in supporting movies friendly to their own cause.

Witness the conservative public's tepid response to two recent films on "conservative" subjects: the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, and the Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated. Both films received extensive media coverage earlier this year. Fox News and the Fox Business Network ran numerous segments on each film (with John Stossel devoting an entire show on Fox Business to Atlas Shrugged), and both films were widely discussed on talk radio and in the print media. Yet when the films were released, they fared poorly at the box office. Atlas Shrugged made only $4.6 million on a reported budget of $20 million, and The Undefeated made only $116,000 on a reported budget of $1 million. Granted, both films received mixed reviews, at best. Nonetheless, as conservative film critic Christian Toto pointed out in a recent Daily Caller article titled "Why don't conservatives support conservative films?," the popularity of Rand's original Atlas Shrugged novel and of Sarah Palin as subject matter should presumably have led to greater enthusiasm among conservatives for these projects. Yet they didn't.

Stranger still, even when offered more popular or critically acclaimed films, many conservatives still seem reluctant to support them.

For example, a well-reviewed film recently appeared in theaters that offers an implied justification for the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. The Devil's Double tells the true story of Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein's gangster-like son, and his reluctant body double, Latif Yahia. Both roles in the film are played by rising star Dominic Cooper (Captain America), whose electric performance has made him one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men. The Devil's Double depicts the Hussein regime pillaging and demoralizing Iraq's people—and even includes flattering footage of George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And despite its seemingly right-of-center politics, the film was screened to rave reviews at Sundance, with Roger Ebert even calling it a "terrific show" and praising Dominic Cooper's "astonishing dual performance."

Yet conservatives media outlets greeted The Devil's Double with silence or mixed reviews. Though Foxnews.com ran a positive article on the film, a search of the Fox News website and YouTube does not turn up any Fox News clips of the film, indicating that the network gave it little or no airtime. National Review's one article on The Devil's Double complained that the film "fudges" historical details, although writer Charles Johnson otherwise praised its acting and direction. Brian Bolduc on National Review Online's blog The Corner was less complimentary, referring to The Devil's Double as "a morally obtuse film about Uday Hussein" (a charge not born out by the film, which vividly depicts Uday murdering, raping, and torturing innocent Iraqis). Conservative film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post even blasted The Devil's Double as "just a trashy bid to be the Scarface of Mesopotamia."

The Devil's Double joins a number of other recent films that normally would seem to appeal to conservative sensibilities by featuring communists, Middle Eastern despots, or Islamic terrorists as villains. For example, 2010's provocative thriller Salt starred Angelina Jolie as a CIA operative and former Russian sleeper agent who destroys a Russian communist conspiracy on American soil. The film was directed by Philip Noyce and made $293 million worldwide. Salt followed an anti-communist trend begun, strikingly enough, by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which portrayed Indiana Jones as a devoted Cold Warrior battling Soviet communists out to steal alien brainwashing technology. That film made more than $700 million worldwide, and even depicted Indiana Jones quipping "I like Ike" while felling his Red adversaries.

On the art-house front, Peter Weir's gritty 2011 film The Way Back—starring Ed Harris and Colin Farrell—dramatized the evils of communism in its story of political prisoners who escape a brutal Soviet gulag in the '40s. Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer, released in the U.S. in 2010, told the true story of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who defected from communist China so he could dance in the freedom of America. On the anti-terrorism front, Chris Morris's Four Lions, the brilliant satire of a bumbling UK terror cell, screened at Sundance in 2010 and was named by Time's Richard Corliss one of the "Top 10 Movies" of 2010.

Such works would seem to offer hope for conservatives long accustomed to Hollywood films antagonistic to their values. However when conservatives cover these movies, it's often with skepticism. For example John Podhoretz was dismissive of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, complaining that its Soviet villains weren't nearly menacing enough—even though the Soviets are depicted slaughtering an entire indigenous tribe in the film. And while Michael Medved named Four Lions one of his Ten Best Films of 2010, Kyle Smith of the New York Post carped that the film portrayed "Jihadists [as] just sweetly endearing goofballs," and Greg Gutfeld of Fox News worried that the film didn't go far enough in condemning radical Islam—though he admitted he hadn't seen it.

While conservatives are in no way obligated to support such films or to suspend their critical judgment, it seems telling that so few films are able to hit the sweet spot with conservative viewers or media pundits. For example, artistically successful films like Four Lions are often deemed insufficiently political for conservatives to support, yet more overtly political films like Atlas Shrugged fail with conservative audiences precisely because they seem inartistic.

What's going on here? Why do conservatives seem to have such a fraught relationship these days with the movies?

It could be that today's conservative movement remains in thrall to the same narrative that has defined its attitude toward film and the arts for decades. Inspired by feelings of exclusion after Hollywood and the popular culture turned leftward in the '60s and '70s, this narrative has defined the film industry as an irredeemably liberal institution toward which conservatives can only act in opposition—never engagement.

Ironically, this narrative ignores the actual history of Hollywood, in which conservatives had a strong presence from the industry's founding in the early 20th century up through the '40s, '50s and into the mid-'60s. The conservative Hollywood community at that time included such leading directors as Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Cecil B. DeMille, and major stars like John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Charlton Heston. These talents often worked side by side with notable Hollywood liberals like directors Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and John Huston, and stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Spencer Tracy. The richness of classic Hollywood cinema is widely regarded as a testament to the ability of these two communities to work together, regardless of political differences.

As the younger, more left-leaning "New Hollywood" generation swept into the industry in the late '60s and '70s, this older group of Hollywood conservatives faded away, never to be replaced. Except for a brief period in the '80s when the Reagan Presidency led to a conservative reengagement with film—with popular stars like Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger making macho, patriotic action films—conservatives appeared to abandon popular culture altogether.

In the wake of this retreat, conservative failure to engage with Hollywood now appears to have been recast by today's East Coast conservative establishment into a generalized opposition toward film and popular culture itself. In the early '90s, conservative film critic Michael Medved codified this oppositional feeling toward Hollywood in his best-selling book Hollywood vs. America.

This "oppositional" narrative has become a hardened dogma that seems to be making it difficult today for conservatives to adapt when artists and filmmakers suddenly come their way.

For example, on the few recent occasions when conservatives have made a significant push to support a film—such as when promoting Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or The Undefeated, or Atlas Shrugged from this year—it has generally been due to this "oppositional narrative," which defines a film as significant to the extent that it's attacked by the cultural left. As a case in point, Fox News' coverage of Atlas Shrugged was often based on the film's status as being "victimized" by liberal persecution. Sean Hannity opened one Fox News segment on Atlas Shrugged by stating that the film "might never have happened if Hollywood liberals had gotten their way." Another segment led with the idea that the film was politically blocked by Hollywood, even though the film's producer John Aglialoro demurred when asked to provide specifics. In fact, far from the movie being persecuted, such top Hollywood talent as Angelina Jolie and writer-director Randall Wallace were once attached to the project.

Though this oppositional strategy has boosted controversy and ratings for conservatives in the media, it also preserves the sense that Hollywood and the popular culture are in a non-stop war with conservative values—even when that isn't necessarily the case.

For example, a slate of patriotic, pro-military films was released in 2011 that seemed in accord with conservative values. Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon contained glowing depictions of the American military and space programs, valorous Navy SEALs in action, and proudly waved the American flag at every opportunity. The film poked good-natured fun at President Obama, and even included a cameo by Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Similarly, this spring's sci-fi action film Battle: Los Angeles featured heroic Marines fighting off an alien invasion, and this summer's superhero film Captain America depicted brave American soldiers battling Nazi thugs. All three films opened at #1 at the domestic box office, and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" to date has made over $1.1 billion worldwide. Yet none of these films received the widespread promotion in the conservative media of Atlas Shrugged or The Undefeated. Indeed, the success of these films seems more attributable to their massive ad campaigns, built-in fanbases and broad public appeal than to promotion by conservatives.

Other films and TV series are in the works that seem likely to treat American troops and counter-terrorism agents respectfully, which has long been a plea of cultural conservatives. These include Jerry Bruckheimer's new Navy SEALs TV series for ABC, Tom Clancy and Mike Ovitz's Tom Clancy's Homeland Security for TNT, Universal's film Lone Survivor, Relativity's upcoming Navy SEAL action filmAct of Valor, as well as recently announced film projects based on Vince Flynn's American Assassin and Brad Thor's Takedown. Such projects would seem to indicate that Hollywood has not completely abandoned the patriotism and respect for the military that conservatives value. As director Peter Berg told Deadline Hollywood about his Afghanistan-set Navy SEAL drama Lone Survivor, "Bin Laden's death has cleared the way for this, a movie that will be an unapologetically patriotic film that honors and pays homage to an incredible group of badass guys who do this."

In fairness, some conservative media figures seem aware of these changes in Hollywood. Nationally syndicated talk-radio host Lars Larson now regularly features segments on his show in which he promotes conservative-friendly films. When I asked him why he thought such movies were important, he replied, "They're one of the ways that people communicate messages about what America is." Michael Medved also reviews movies weekly on his radio show and has praised films like Four Lions and The Devil's Double. And a younger generation of writers and bloggers are making the effort to take contemporary film and TV more seriously.

Such instances are rare, however, and today's conservative movement appears unwilling to adapt to the fluid, dynamic nature of popular culture—even when it turns in its favor. Conservatives have a timely opportunity to engage with the film industry and achieve a rapprochement with American popular culture. The future growth of the conservative movement may rest on its ability to embrace the arts and participate in the culture that brings joy to the mainstream of American society. The question is, will conservatives be willing to re-think their fraught relationship with Hollywood to do so?