War movies are inherently political. That’s just the nature of warfare itself, but to me it’s especially a shame how these biases shape most professional critical perspectives. These critic’s viewpoints roughly tie into the topic of Just vs Unjust war, a basic analytical doctrine of US Military policy. But for most Hollywood critics, a war film’s quality seems to be determined first and foremost by how well its justification of war ties into their own views. Generally, I see a few common trends in responses to a film’s context: US vs Nazis = GOOD AND JUST. US in Vietnam, US in Iraq/Afghanistan = EVIL AND UNJUSTIFIED. Whether or not these characterizations are universally true, these overwhelmingly common viewpoints can heavily sway review aggregates, all under the sub context of one of my least favorite words: JINGOISM.
I hate the word jingoism with a passion. From the outset, it sounds pretentious as hell. But my primary issue is its shameless misuse to describe films that do not directly tell the audience that war is bad. Jingoism is defined as extreme patriotism, but to a chauvinistic, xenophobic, and hyper nationalist degree. It is an adjective that can be used to describe particularly warlike groups and state actors. I see this word used FAR too often, essentially for any film that involves Vietnam or the Global War on Terror that doesn’t portray US servicemembers as hyperviolent, or shaking their fists at Washington for being damned to the battlefield.
I should be up front that I’ve served my country in the US Military. This doesn’t mean that I fully support every single time the US put boots on the ground since the mid 20th century, nor that I believe anyone should. War is complex and multi-faceted, it’s ugly, and it is deserving to be loathed. This doesn’t mean that even in operations that occurred for stupid reasons, you cannot portray and appreciate acts of heroism without simultaneously spitting at war in disgust.
Take Lone Survivor. This film was a direct adaptation of a memoir by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrel, who was, as the title implies, the sole survivor of a botched reconnaissance mission with his 4 man team. Completely regardless of the “why” behind the US being in Afghanistan, these men made very real sacrifices and fought with an insane amount of grit and courage to keep each other alive. For example, you cannot ignore the sheer bravery of Lt Michael Murphy, who completely exposed himself to gunfire and sacrificed his life to call for rescue. However, many reviews debased the film by citing its so-called “jingoism” as the primary factor which totally mitigated it’s powerful portrayal of battle. There’s no Chris Taylor from Oliver Stone’s Platoon to overtly exclaim to the audience “we fought ourselves, and the enemy was with us”, but the movie didn’t need this element, nor would it be appropriate to shoe horn it in. Beyond the simple facts of the real life event, it was clearly meant to portray the length men will go to save their brothers in the darkest fog of war, and director Peter Berg made this decisively clear.
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper suffered the same prejudiced criticism. While I personally did not care as much for Eastwood’s adaptation of Navy sniper Chris Kyle’s memoir due to pacing issues, jingoism was frequently used by critics to portray Kyle as a killer for the “Washington war machine”. This attribution is once again inappropriate on many levels. Even in marketing, the first public portrayal was of Chris (played by Bradley Cooper) anxiously deliberating shooting a woman who could be carrying a bomb disguised as a baby. It’s clear to me that all parties involved with producing this film wanted to make it clear that the movie’s purpose was to portray the complexities of being a highly capable warfighter in such a complex battlefield, where the lines between good and evil are totally blurred. To say that the film was bad because he was a sniper who did NOT decry the invasion of Iraq is simplistic and unwarranted, but unfortunately this film suffered the “jingoistic” branding for this reason.
Jingoism isn’t without its proper usage, but I think mainstream American cinema has evolved past its relevancy. Perhaps a more recent example is John Wayne’s The Green Berets. The film portrays America as being infallible, the war as being black and white, with some reasonable interpretations of racist undertones. It became infamously known by many veterans to have completely mischaracterized the combat dynamic overseas and became a critical flop. Vietnam as an entire experience was a key historical event that opened the eyes of Americans, which made this form of cinematic nationalism pointless for studios to produce.
Since Vietnam and the slew of propaganda that deliberately lied to the American public about the war’s development, society has become generally freer thinking about warfare; people are able to better form and generate their own opinions and see through attempts at propaganda that may have gripped the national spirit during the World Wars. But just because someone is more “globally aware” does not mean they can easily rid themselves of unfair biases, which is why the proper use of jingoism has been corrupted past reason over decades of global conflict.
It’s fair for people to say they believe the past half a century has been filled with nothing but pointless wars. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion as free speech should be championed, and there are solid arguments that can be made for most just/unjust war viewpoints. It’s also fair to just flat out not like movies about these conflicts. But saying that one’s distaste for war mitigates any and all potentially positive attributes of a movie is nothing short of poor critical thinking. Jingoism is too easy of an excuse to steer clear of perceiving any goodness in a film.