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Five Movies About Fake Wars

There’s perhaps no real life subject so ready-made for the screen as war. War is the epitome of conflict, so a key narrative element necessarily exists in just any movie about war (even if war is just the background for the characters).

War demands that young men and women, and even countries as a whole, demonstrate their strength and resolve – so movies about war also have a never-ending potential source of heroic and tragic characters.And war, at least in the traditional sense, demands us to identify enemies and allies, so we can find comfort in knowing right away who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Even the events leading up to war, or the aftermath of war, can be great subject matter for a movie.

But what if the underlying reasons for war are just lies? What if the war itself is a sham

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Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)  

It’d be a tall order to expect any consistent realism in a Bond movies (although the brief Daniel Craig era seems to portend a change on that front). Historically, the whole reason for James Bond to exist is to be a living caricature that manages to at once be a shameless Lothario, a man of never-ending deadpan humor, as well as an expert in all manners of weapons, gadgets, automobiles, alcohol and violence. Bond is so over the top that you’re never at risk of taking anything you see too seriously, or worry too much about Bond’s morality. He’s a cartoon who’s not meant to be a believable character, and with that out of the way we can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Jack Wade: “You know that, officially, Uncle Sam is completely neutral in this turkey shoot.” James Bond: “And unofficially?” Jack Wade: “We have no interest in seeing World War III — unless we start it.”

Talking Head

Bond always requires a supervillan, and most often these men (almost exclusively men – quick, try to name a strong and memorable bond villain who’s female…. ) are on a quest for power. So in addition to the Bond cars and the “Bond babes,” one of the most enjoyable aspects of each new Bond film is learning the nature of supervillan’s goal, and what means they’ll use to achieve that goal.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, Elliot Carver wants to build his media empire to the point where it doesn’t just report the news, but shapes it and perhaps even directs it. And what’s bigger news than war? So Carver engineers geopolitical conflicts based on misinformation and manipulation, in order to bring the world to the brink of war. War – even one based on deliberate lies – is good for business.

Tomorrow Never Dies was a middle of the road Bond flick, but it lets us ask whether people would care quite so much today if faced with similar circumstances.  In the 15 years since the movie was released we’ve seen the beginning of the War on Terror, as well as varying degrees of focus on our War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Christmas, and wars (declared and otherwise) in and with too many countries to list. After all of this (or perhaps because of it), it seems clear that our collective level of patience and dedication for matters of war is far too low. The latest MegaPowerSuperJackpot Lottery stories seem to command more attention than the most recent dispatches from Afghanistan.

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Canadian Bacon (1995)  

It’s a shame that this was John Candy’s last movie. Michael Moore knows how to put sharp criticism and satire on film, but apparently only in documentary form. His one venture into non-documentary features is the unfortunate Canadian Bacon.

Yeeeee Haw

In Canadian Bacon the U.S. President needs something to distract the voting public from a horrible economy, so he and
his advisors decide to use a sports-related fight between a few Americans and a few Canadians to demonize Canada and march the nation towards war. There’s also a story line with some attempted biting commentary the military industrial complex, but everything seems to come up far short of the mark. By painting virtually all of the characters as one-dimensionally greedy, inept, manipulative or simply Dudley Do-Right-ish, Moore guarantees that the audience isn’t going to care about what happens to anyone.

Canadian Bacon tries too hard to be funny, and relies on cheap and obvious gags. Perhaps the first joke about Canada being bland, flavorless and polite to a fault is worth a chuckle, but that’s not enough to sustain an entire film.  Especially when you hear essentially the same joke a couple dozen more times. Besides, any jokes that have Canada as a punchline kind of fall into themselves – if Canada is so bland and flavorless, can a joke about Canada ever be all that funny?

“When have you ever heard anyone say, ‘Honey, lets stay in and order Canadian food’?” – Smiley

There are homages to much better movies (like Close Encounter of the Third Kind and Dr. Strangelove) in Canadian Bacon, but they’re forced and don’t make sense. Even the characters themselves (if we take them at face value), do and say things that don’t feel genuine, even farcically.

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The Mouse That Roared (1959)

Before Vietnam, there were no doubts in anyone’s mind about which side would win in a war involving the United States. The prior two centuries had established the absolute and unquestioned truism that the U.S. would prevail in whatever conflicts it was involved in. And after WW II, the U.S. made the policy decision to help the vanquished rebuild by providing them with significant financial assistance, rather than seek reparations and the spoils of victory.

“Only an imbecile could have won this war…” – Count Rupert Mountjoy

So it’s not surprising that the Duchy of Grand Fenwick – the fictional nation in The Mouse That Roared – comes up with a simple plan to save their failing national economy; declare war on the United States, lose almost immediately, then reap the benefits of post-war rebuilding.

On To War

The fake war waged by Fenwickians turns out to be successful, and we’re treated to a surprisingly robust commentary on the power shift created by atomic weapons, as well as on the relations between countries in the face of those weapons. The film bogs down a bit with an unnecessary and unbelievable romantic story line, but the main story still holds lots of power and value even today.

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Wag the Dog (1997)  

“We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war.” – Conrad Brean

What happens when a horrible scandal is about to embroil the President, just a few days before the election? If two key members of the President’s staff have their way, the U.S. will be drawn into a military conflict in Central Europe out of humanitarian concerns. The “war” doesn’t need to be much – just enough to rally the voters around their President. It’s a completely over-the-top and ridiculous premise… or maybe not. Despite the claims that Hollywood is a stronghold of dovish liberals, there’s certainly a long history of studios and moviemakers taking up the pro-military cause. (Top Gun, anyone?) The scenes where we see the propaganda machine chugging along are funny, but a bit uncomfortably so.

Wag that dog

Fortunately, the time for this type of deception has come and gone, though probably not for the best of the reasons. With the rise of the Internet, we now have so many different sources for our “news,” and we aren’t limited to a few major television networks. Unfortunately, this makes it easy for us to pick and choose the sources for “news” that we like. If we don’t like how a particular media outlet is presenting a particular story, just go online to find another side to the story, even if it’s based on a different set of “facts.” If we don’t want to believe something is true, there’s certain to be a news source assuring us that we’re right.

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Tropic Thunder (2008) 

Actors Studio

Tropic Thunder turns Wag the Dog on its head. Instead of being in control and meticulously planning out the fake war, Hollywood is utterly clueless, and its fake war becomes engulfed by real war. Based on a war memoir (itself of dubious veracity), a movie crew heads to Southeast Asia to film an action movie. The actors become involved in a genuine conflict, although it takes them a surprising amount of time to become convinced that their fake war is actually real.

“Tell the world what happened here.” – Tugg Speedman “What happened here?” – Kirk Lazarus

Tropic Thunder garnered a lot of negative feedback from some of its characterizations, but the film as a whole is undeniably rich. Sure, the main characters are vapid Hollywood actors, but they’re really all of us. And we’ve gotten to a point that we can’t always tell what’s real and what’s not. Worse yet, how long will we cling to our notions of reality when there’s so much evidence to the contrary?

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.