Book review: Reel Power

Share this article

REEL POWER BY Matthew Alford Pluto Press, 232pp, £13

IN HOLLYWOOD, "liberal bias" is a longstanding bugbear of American conservatives. Journalist and academic Matthew Alford here posits that Tinseltown's supposed leftist tilt is a myth - at least as far as actual film content goes.

Though individuals such as George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn might personally embrace right-on causes, the major US studios are more likely to promote a jingoistic, patriotic, pro-military agenda, particularly via their action and war films and political thrillers.

How eye-opening you find Alford's book rather depends on the degree to which this notion surprises you. "The Reagan/Bush mentality has long underpinned Hollywood output on foreign affairs," Alford states. "If you believe Reagan and Bush, Reel Power will no doubt mystify you. If you have doubts about the professed benevolence of our leaders, I hope the book will help you make sense of how films are key components of this deceptive myth."

To borrow Alford's somewhat grandiose construction: if you are taken aback by the suggestion that multi-billion-dollar American entertainment conglomerates tend to espouse establishment values and promote the interests of the wealthy and powerful individuals who own them, run them and sit on their boards, Reel Power will no doubt knock your socks off. If, on the other hand, you have not made a habit of looking to the likes of Iron Man, Transformers and Terminator: Salvation for your subversive critiques of the military industrial complex, you may find yourself less than dumbstruck by its revelations.

That said, even obvious points bear summarisation, interrogation and illumination; and Alford's book does provide a useful prcis of some of the more explicit links between major movie studios, American political interests and powerful lobbies, most notably the arms industry. Reel Power is at its best when it identifies and analyses cases of direct influence being brought to bear on film production by the US political establishment, whether via specific cases (the Pentagon's active practical support of, and influence upon, films such as Top Gun, Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, and its stonewalling of more contentious projects such as the unmade Countermeasures, which would have examined the Iran-Contra affair), or individuals in positions of constant influence (Lewis Coleman, president and Chief Financial Officer of Dreamworks Animation, is also non-executive chairman of defence giant Norththrop Grumman; multinational energy, defence, finance and hardware conglomerate General Electric has a controlling share in NBC Universal).

The book also tracks the fortunes of projects such as Behind Enemy Lines and Charlie Wilson's War, which had critical agendas in the scripting and planning stages, but had their politics blanded out as interests such as the CIA and the military intervened in production.

Less enlightening are Alford's breakdowns of the plots of particular Hollywood films. These tend towards the sour and repetitious - and prove somewhat perverse in their refusal to acknowledge that American films might to some degree be expected to foreground the perspectives of American characters.

If the glamorisation of war and the glorification of military "heroism" are regarded as dubious, so too is the acknowledgment of negative psychological and physical fallout from participation in war - which Alford seems to regard as gross indulgence of the yucky oppressor.

Any investigation of an American character's feelings constitutes a highly suspect foregrounding of imperialist interests. Of the film Courage Under Fire, Alford sniffs that "American suffering continues after the war is over. One of the soldiers runs away and turns to heroin, another commits suicide… There is little indication of the information… that Iraqi troops were sometimes buried alive in their trenches by US tanks."

True, but possibly not entirely relevant; the film is about what it's about, not what Alford wants it to be about. Elsewhere, Oliver Stone's Presidential studies JFK and Nixon are disapprovingly characterised as "ultimately… American-centric" - which again seems a bit rich, like complaining that Lassie ignores the interests of cats.

Too often, Alford seems simply to be cross with filmmakers for selecting stories other than the ones which he would like them to tell. Leftist bias, expressed via explicit critique of Bush-era America, is presented as being synonymous with "progressiveness" and "sophistication"; any other position is "regressive", "reactionary", "curious", "dubious". (The Obama administration doesn't make much of an appearance; presumably it was too new during the book's preparation). No space is made for the notion that such a thing might exist as a sincere or even "sophisticated" expression of an opinion other than that of the author.

I'm willing to bet that my personal politics tally a lot more with Alford's than with those of director Michael Bay; and yet so relentless is Alford's one-sided dogma that I find myself rebelliously inclined to defend Bay and his gung-ho ilk. So the man who brought us Pearl Harbor and Transformers is an outspoken fan of the US military. ("I really admire them for the service they do for their country," he states on the Transformers DVD commentary.)

Well, that's what he believes. He's not hiding it; his films certainly aren't. What are you going to do? Prevent him from working? A tempting prospect in aesthetic terms, sure - but censoring artists on the basis of their beliefs is not a practice with an especially noble history. Blockbusters require massive amounts of money; engaging with massive amounts of money can tend to involve a degree of capitulation to wealthy interests; the radical blockbuster might therefore be a little bit of a pipe dream. And even filmmakers from the other side of the political fence, such as John Sayles, Michael Moore and Ken Loach (provider of an approving press release quote for this book), aren't averse to deploying emotional manipulation in service of their agenda or excising information that complicates it. A more multi-faceted analysis of the forms and functions of contemporary propaganda might have acknowledged this - and made for a more complete study.

Reel Power has its valid points to make, but I felt, on frequent occasion, as if I was in the company of the character Jane Horrocks played in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet: the moodily self-righteous teen who hurled the word "FASCIST!" at anyone who failed to mirror her every conviction and desire.