Some stories shouldn’t need Hollywood to go all, well, Hollywood on them to make them riveting utterly compelling.
But they do it anyway. And it’s almost always a massive drag.
It’s not a new phenomenon; The Battle of the Bulge was utterly atrocious, seemingly feeling the need to dumb World War 2 down to a cowboys ‘n indians movie – for an audience that had in huge numbers actually been there. Even as a kid, the Hollywoodisms (“They’re sending tanks! Send the artillery and infantry to the rear!”) annoyed me to no end.
The effect wasn’t always catastrophic: the Great Escape didn’t completely bastardize the subject, the greatest POW camp break in history – although adding Americans to the cast was an audience-grabbing anachronism (all Americans had been sent to different camps shortly before the escape’s famous tunnels were started).
But Hollywood’s wall of shame exerts a powerful vortex.
Stories that don’t need the Hollywood treatment get it anyway. 12 Strong – the dramatization of the events of the fall of 2001, where 85 Green Berets – count ’em, 85 – led an insurgency that drove the Taliban from the battlefield. What “improvement” does a story like that need? Well, it got little from the movie – which was watchable, but traded CGI for story all too often.
And the Tuskeegee Airmen’s story needs not even a whiff of gussying up; is there a bigger underdog war movie of all time? (There could be – if Hollywood ever produces Brothers in Arms, the story of an all-black tank battalion that became one of Patton’s best, written by none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). But gussying up it got, with Red Tails, a George Lucas labor of love that substituted P51 Mustangs for X-wings, Germans for Stormtroopers, and white bigots for Emperor Palpatine.
Now, when I saw that there was a remake of Midway in the works, I thought “at last, someone can improve on the turgid but accurate-ish 1976 historical epic. Then I saw the most dreaded six words in movies: “From the maker of Independence Day” (a movie, it needs to be said, that I detest with a cordial passion) and gave up all hope. Roland Emmerich would seem to have turned the all-in total-stakes back-against-the-wall fight by the battered American fleet against an undefeated Japanese Navy that outnumbered it by a prohibitive margin and had aims on closing the trap around Hawaii into a video game – and made an even worse movie than the 1976 version.
Worse still? If there’s a story in American history that’s begging to just be told, it’s Harriet Tubman. Her story is both pretty universally known and completely misunderstood; a gun-toting freedom fighter who defied the entire institution of slavery while running runaways to the North (or, more often, Canada) and returned to run a huge, effective spy ring during the Civil War? One hardly needs a screenplay.
But a screenplay we get – and it’s abominanble:
Set in 1849 Maryland, full of danger, rescues, superstition, frivolous gunplay, and pop-politics, Harriet demonstrates the current exploitation of African-American history, through historical revision, simply to sell tickets while aggravating political identity, tribal separation, and perpetual grievance — the same way that politicians manipulate voters.
Ever since Harvey Weinstein confirmed Hollywood’s Obama Effect, film culture has sought various ways of appeasing racial anxiety through movies about black victimization and white guilt. It’s the new diversity, as one of Harriet’s progressives summarizes: “Civil war is our only hope.”
…The difference in approach tells everything about the modern state of Hollywood race consciousness. Dismissing Demme and Morrison’s perception of slavery’s aftermath (its internalized stress and ongoing need for explanation, relief, and catharsis), Harriet looks at Tubman on a first-name basis, as if to standardize her travails into a Slavery Land thrill ride: She suffers spells after a head wound that causes hallucinations (or prophecies) that may indicate either madness or saintliness; she sacrifices her love life to crusading zeal (the film’s only complex moment occurs when her lover laments, “I’d a died for you. If you’d a let me”); and she frequently sings out her discontent in several message-driven musical interludes: “Sorry I have to leave” and “Lord, why you let me live?”
Even NPR took a pass on it.
Why, it’s almost as if Hollywood doesn’t trust moviegoers to make the right conclusions.