846 words on: Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day

Squeaky clean and militarily innocent.

You can dismiss Independence Day on various levels: audience-baiting ‘Armageddon porn’, meaningless pageant of  ‘holy shit’ set pieces or painfully transparent slice of ‘fuck yeah’ U.S. nationalism, to name three. I already knew this, before my wife and I channel surfed our way into the summer of 1996 last Friday night . What I hadn’t realised, until said Friday night, was the real issue at hand: that Independence Day is the biggest piece of pro-U.S. military propaganda in the history of all cinema. Let me explain.

First of all, the US military is painted as being way, way, way too squeaky clean. Will Smith, with all his abs, ears and charm, is a manifestation of the American Dream’s perfect soldier. Committed, human, loyal, brave, witty and so on, and he inhabits a world of similarly plucky soldiers (including the slightly simple loveable best mate destined to die tragically – thanks Harry Connick Jr).

This much is normal. Hollywood readily presents rank and file military personnel in such light and I’m not suggesting for a moment that a summer blockbuster should explore the sinister subtexts of military policy. But isn’t just a little bit strange that everyone linked to the military in this film is Good? The bald-headed General guy that flanks President Bill Paxton is unwaveringly loyal and almost physically built out of integrity – he doesn’t even know that Area 51 existed, whereas the snivelling CIA intelligence weasel is fired for his moral ambiguity. As an audience, we are asked to question Intelligence and trust Military Might.

Then there’s the President himself. Why on earth is he a fighter pilot? The film forces us to equate military action with moral fortitude. It isn’t enough for the president to lean upon military action; he literally has to hop in the hot seat and fire the missile that initiates Mankind’s victory.

And what about that drunk, shambling crop dusting pilot? The one who saves the day in an inspiring moment of kamikaze gusto? His back-story states that he served as a pilot in Vietnam, a conflict notorious for leaving many US soldiers in a state of significant psychological damage. He can’t piece his life together at all, until called upon to get back into action. Military service rejuvenates him completely, simultaneously giving him a purpose in life and the means out of his depression into History Book Heroism.

Still unconvinced? Ok, why is it that so much is made of Drunk Crop Duster Hero’s having been abducted by aliens? It’s because we, the audience, are supposed to see this as the causation of his mental instability, not the years of service fighting in dodgy wars for a country that has abandoned him.

Then there’s the alien enemy: instinctively malevolent, insidiously evil, and icky. The film doesn’t give us a single chance to empathise with them, hammering home the point with the croaky “We… want.. you… to… die…” sequence that ends in a hail of gunfire. Basically, the military response is shown to be the only logical one, which implicitly blinkers an audience to the subtle politics of the situation. It becomes a very simple case of ‘Kill The Foreign Element Because They Are Evil End Of’.

Now I wouldn’t mind so much (I mean, it is only Independence Day for crying out loud), but the U.S. military sort of thrives on this type of over-simplification. We saw it in the 1960s with President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, in which faceless ‘Communists’ were an enemy in need of annihilation. We saw it in Iraq, where supposed weapons of mass destruction were justification for a sustained military conflict. And we continue to see it in the War in Afghanistan, in which the lines have been blurred between the al-Quaeda organisation, the Taliban government that harboured them, insurgents and, sadly, civilians.

Or maybe I’m overreaching.  The following extract from 2005 World Socialist Website article ‘Military interference in American film production’ suggests that the film is far from a successful endorsement of the military:

Producers of the mindless blockbuster Independence Day (1996) bent over backwards to gain access to Department of Defense heavy equipment. The Pentagon rejected these overtures, claiming that the movie did not contain any “true military heroes” and that Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) was too irresponsible to be cast as a Marine leader (he dates a stripper). Moreover, the invading aliens were thwarted not by the Marines, but by civilians. While Dean Devlin, the scriptwriter, agreed to rectify these “flaws”, Independence Day was given no assistance.

Before you go though, one last thing (here comes my Columbo moment…) A quote from Dean Devlin, Independence Day writer/ producer, in correspondence with the Pentagon:

“If this doesn’t make every boy in the country want to fly a fighter jet, I’ll eat this script.”

And there we have it. A cynical ploy to gain governmental support? Or the core motivation of a film that sees the actual President don flight jacket and save the day from the front line itself? I’ll let you decide.

-Unseen Flirtations

If they're evil, we should kill 'em.

Articles of interest:

Hollywood Propaganda: Nightmares in the Dream Factory?

Military Interference in American film Production

Top Gun versus Sergeant Bilko? No contest, says the Pentagon

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