Has the US lost its ability to inspire the world?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 4, 2016
John Krasinski in the film, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" from Paramount Pictures (Christian Black / Paramount Pictures via AP)

John Krasinski in the film, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” from Paramount Pictures (Christian Black / Paramount Pictures via AP)

In its films, as in its foreign policy, America seems to be losing the ability to inspire the world, or at least to inspire much more than a slow-burning resentment and hard-edged hostility. From a powerful tool of diplomacy, an agent of soft power that is able to coax and persuade the world of American exceptionalism, Hollywood may be turning into a malevolent force for Brand America.

Consider 13 Hours, which tells the grim story of the September 11, 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. That night, an armed mob overran the compound and set it on fire. US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. Cue director Michael Bay’s guns-and-ammo portrayal of the tragic events. It has a complement of cartoon cut-out “bad guys” – speaking Arabic, wearing the kaffiyeh, answering the muezzin’s call to prayer – and muscle-bound all-American heroes fighting to survive a world that’s bad, mad and dangerous. At a certain point in the film, one of the Americans delivers his 30-second take on life in a foreign locale: “They’re all bad guys until they’re not … you can’t tell the good guys from the bad.”

Only the most insular and ignorant American could enjoy this simplistic rendering of the US versus everyone else. Audiences everywhere else – Arab or not, Muslim or not – would be repulsed by the lack of nuance, context, explanation and examination of how post-Qaddafi Libya became so unstable and unsafe barely a year after the dictator’s fall. And why mighty America was unable to scramble assets to extract its ambassador from the situation.

In the short term, the film is important for two reasons. It is being used by the Republican Party to make political points as it seeks to bring down the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton. She ran the US State Department at the time of the Benghazi debacle and the Republicans want to persuade voters that she is culpable and therefore unworthy of the highest office in the land. The film was timed for release just before Monday’s Iowa caucus, when the first votes of the 2016 presidential election were cast. It will hit DVD in time for the November general election.

But there is a second, more pertinent reason to pay attention to 13 Hours. And this concerns everyone everywhere because the film showcases America’s seeming insularity and fear of the world. Like Clint Eastwood’sAmerican Sniper, it depicts foreigners as a swarming, threatening mass. The more insidious – and dangerous – message, in the words of the New York critic Jordan Hoffman, is as follows: “The real enemy is those … pencil pushers. If they’d just get out of the way and let a soldier do his job, we’d finally accomplish something and make America great again.”

This is disturbing because it appears to reflect the American public’s deep divisions about government, politics and elected leaders. In a piece for this newspaper last April, American writer Jack Shaheen quoted the diagnostic assessment of the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Jack Valenti, who ran the US film industry’s lobbying group for 38 years: “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA”.

That may once have been true but 13 Hours and similar films don’t seem to reflect Washington’s occasionally internationalist enthusiasms, not least the Iran deal and normalisation of relations with Cuba. So, has Hollywood untethered itself from US foreign policy perspectives and goals?

As the latest of a crop of execrable films that belong to the “paranoia genre”,13 Hours illustrates the surprising distance that Hollywood is putting between itself and its glorious past as Uncle Sam’s most appealing emissary over nearly 150 years.

Time was when Hollywood dreamt up an ideal of America, American life and the American way, canned it and exported it, and much of the world instantly fell in love. At one point, the audiovisual industry was America’s second largest export sector, after aerospace. Hollywood was considered so valuable a propaganda tool for American ideals after the Second World War, that president Harry S Truman secretly supported schemes that included the promotion of US film exports.

The post-9/11 period feels troublingly different. Hollywood’s offerings are becoming as much of a psychological liability for America as the so-called war on terror and its unquestioning support for Israel. Instead of looking outward and attempting to communicate with the world in a meaningful way, Hollywood films increasingly seem to speak into the echo chamber.

This is dangerously self-destructive. Hollywood still dominates the global entertainment industry, accounting for roughly 85 per cent of worldwide ticket sales. According to figures from the MPAA, almost 70 per cent of Hollywood studios’ annual box office revenue now comes from international markets. World audiences have become more important for Hollywood producers than ever before – sometimes as a safety net for movies that fail at home. In 2013, the sci-fi war film Battleship, starring Liam Neeson and Rihanna, generated just $65 million (Dh239m) in ticket sales in the US but earned four times that amount overseas.

The Chinese market has become especially important – it’s now the world’s second biggest – and there are signs that Hollywood is paying heed. Chinese people are portrayed more sensitively than in the past.

This is strategic thinking, but it prompts the question: if Hollywood can do this with its portrayal of China, why not with the Arab and Muslim world, which is potentially a big market? Is it because it has internalised the psychological limitations of the post 9/11 war on terror?