Throughout cinema’s history, an eclectic group of films have been written off as propaganda and, sure, sometimes people do make propaganda. What constitutes this particular kind of political agenda, usually with an implication of maliciousness toward its political opponent’s ideology, is not bound by any sort of fixed criteria. Was The Da Vinci Code a plot by liberal Hollywood to take down the Catholic Church or was it just a semi-successful novelist capitalizing on the history of conspiracy theories by making an easily marketable thriller that landed Ron Howard and Tom Hanks for its adaptation? Is The Dark Knight a conservative manifesto justifying The Patriot Act to ensure that order beats out chaos in the end or is it just a cool crime movie about a guy in a dumb costume?
There is no shortage of thinkpieces alleging one or the other, to varying degrees of credibility, all essentially coming down to whether the worldview of its author equates to the worldview of the piece of fiction, and then whether expressing a worldview or set of values is the same as shoving propaganda down anyone’s throat. It’s unclear in 2018 that expressing an opinion of any kind can be divorced from the perception of propaganda.
The kinds of movies that tend to rile up audiences for propaganda thinkpieces range from the intentionally controversial to the obviously stupid. Imagine getting riled up every time Michael Bay puts out a new movie (as director or producer), as if the fact that he makes money for Paramount is a legitimate threat to a political ideology. The Transformers franchise has no clear conscience regarding the environmental impact of the depicted vehicles. In fact, it seems to think gas guzzlers are cool. Is that enough? How do I differentiate what is stupid and popular from a threat to my way of life? And do I actually have to watch those movies to have a radical opinion on their danger? Finding justifications for arbitrary outrage sure seems like a lot of work.
Bay’s latest opus (as a producer) is director John Krasinski's sci-fi thriller A Quiet Place, which follows a family in the post-apocalyptic silent world where absurdly efficient alien creatures eat anyone for making a detectable noise. The few surviving humans have adapted to be as silent as possible, though, seeing as the movie still needs a narrative, things eventually deteriorate to the point of a noisy struggle for survival. While weapons seem mostly useless in this context, the family has guns around the house--presumably as much for the potential to use against the aliens as for protection against other humans. Something almost every post-apocalyptic narrative has emphasized to audiences is that, despite whatever additional external crisis is going on, sometimes people aren’t nice to each other when resources grow scarce.
So, the family has means of protection, including some clever decoys to distract the creatures, and Krasinski’s character fumbles his way into inventing a way to make the creatures vulnerable enough that a gunshot can do some real damage. I won’t spoil the movie further, other than to say that this is not a movie where guns are emphasized, glorified, or fetishized. They’re useful, as one might expect them to be when the structures of society break down. After all, the police aren’t going to come help because they’d get eaten the moment they start their cruiser. So how exactly this context can be construed as propagandic, as Nicholas Barber alleges in his 1843 Magazine article, “Hollywood Needs to Fix Its Gun Problem,” proves more annoying than baffling.
Barber confesses his admiration of A Quiet Place with a sense of guilt. He acknowledges that the movie will likely be one of his favorites of 2018, though, regrettably, he suspects “it could be on the NRA’s list as well.” Perhaps this is the future of actively liberal criticism--a new kind of genre of “Gee, I feel bad about having fun watching this problematic movie” reviews. The new Ebert and Siskel could give every movie a thumbs-sideways and run through a list of possible misinterpretations before sheepishly offering a mild opinion on the quality.
A Quiet Place, according to Barber, along with “nearly every American film involving weaponry[,] might as well be an NRA infomercial. On the big screen, guns rarely kill innocent bystanders, they don’t go off by accident, and they aren’t used to slaughter children in classrooms.” His article similarly skewers Death Wish, for which his criticisms are exponentially more relevant. After all, Death Wish takes place in the same basic version of reality in which Barber finds himself both anti-NRA and anti-gun while also being a story about a man using violent methods to achieve his goals. Okay, fair enough.
But what does the current context about NRA culture have to do with a sci-fi thriller set in a completely different world context? Notice, for example, the NRA, including what appears to be the vast majority of its members, did not find any way to use their guns to stop the violent alien invasion. Guns, on their own, prove to be more of a liability than asset in the noiseless world. Barber holds against A Quiet Place the fact that it plays into “fantasies of Second Amendment obsessives that a private citizen could fend off the US Army” by a moment in its third act in which “gun-toting farmers fare better against the aliens than the entire American war machine.” Do they? I’m not so sure. He leaves out the detail that the only way these farmers fared better than the military is through an accidental invention of nonviolent technology which happens to weaken the defense level of the aliens. I’m curious, given the internal logic of this story, what Barber would suggest as an alternative means of killing this creature.
A friend pointed out to me that the less problematic resolution to an alien invasion has, in fact, been done before; M. Night Shyamalan’s alien invaders could be killed by nothing more than a glass of water and a baseball bat. Does that make Signs left-wing propaganda because they should have used guns? Does its protagonist’s faith journey make it right-wing propaganda? Similarly, a person at the screening concluded that we had just sat through a serious remake of Mars Attacks. Perhaps Tim Burton should be lauded for his more liberal solution to the alien problem. Surely these farmers had some country music they could have played as well. If we look hard enough, we can pretend Mars Attacks is a political movie.
The fact that Krasinski previously starred in Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is enough for Barber to conclude that the actor/writer/director “is obviously happy to be in films which push an anti-Democratic Party agenda.” I’d say that’s a bit of a reach, but certainly it’s nice to pretend that people only work on projects that align with their party affiliations. The paycheck and Krasinski’s friendship with Bay had no part in the decision? The obsession with agenda here makes me wonder why anyone would think A Quiet Place cares whatsoever about the Democratic Party. Must the logic of a fictional story in a fictional version of history be an agenda by necessity? To view the film industry this way is frustratingly simplistic and more propagandic than most movies.
There are movies guided creatively by political agendas just as there are movies made as an expression of an artistic goal. Most movies you and I have heard of, however, are made because some guy in a nice suit leaned back and thought, “Yeah, this will probably make money.” The production, which may or may not have started with some kind of artistic ideal, then goes through the rigorous process of casting stars who meet a threshold of previous success, gauging international sellability, restricting content to get the desired rating, finding the cheapest possible way to film the movie, making sure it isn’t too unique and off-putting to the masses, etc. The biggest misconception about the film industry is that everybody gets to make the movie they wanted to make. It happens a few times a year, though probably still with some concessions. Even if you set out desperate to make a piece of political propaganda, three years later when it comes out you’ve probably ultimately made something stupid and soulless because that appeals to a wider audience.
Simply creating a context where the family’s possession of a gun is useful is enough for Barber to conclude it has an “unambiguous pro-gun message,” something that makes him regret how fun A Quiet Place is. Unambiguous! He makes it sound like the movie was reverse engineered from an NRA commercial into a horror movie. Curious if there was any evidence of intention, I looked to a few interviews with the film’s original writers, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Speaking with Indiewire, they described the genesis of the film:
"The origins of A Quiet Place date back to our college years, as we became obsessed with the silent cinema of Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati. These filmmakers were masters of visual storytelling, needing not one line of dialogue to communicate character, emotion, or intent. Cinema had never felt so pure . . . We began discussing low-budget ideas; something that, worst case scenario, could be shot back in Iowa for $50,000. At the same time, we looked at the careers of our heroes — at the top of which is M. Night Shyamalan. What we loved about Shyamalan’s films is that they operate on many levels, layering catchy high-concepts with beautiful character nuance. That’s when we realized: A Quiet Place wasn’t just a fun concept. It’s a metaphor for the breakdown of family communication."
As an audience, we can choose to take Woods and Beck at their word or not. They wanted to make something stripped down, simple, and isolated. They wanted it to be Iowa-set. It sounds like they may have been directly thinking of how they could capture the feeling of something similar to Signs. So where do the guns come in? Why would they choose to make a movie about people living on a farm in Iowa and choose to depict this family as gun owners? I wonder if it could have perhaps been because it seemed like a reasonable plot element--isolation goes along with means of protection. This is the point where story logic doesn’t need to clash with political agendas. Nevertheless, outrage persists.
Do you really want to watch movies that are tailored made to the utopian ideals of either mainstream political parties? Would it improve any domestic problems if our fictional universes adhered to the policies we think are appropriate for our contemporary context? Even Atlas Shrugged barely gets to the point of a conservative utopia, focusing instead on the dystopic argument for one. Imagine for a moment how it would go if every spec script/pitch was censored to disregard any potentially problematic plot element regardless of internal story logic. It provokes for me the following questions: Do you think these progressively utopic, conflict-free movies would even age well? How do the most progressive moves of the past century stack up now? Do they pass the Bechdel Test? Isn’t progress by definition a changing set of expectations? Also, wouldn’t they just be just as bad as the movies that have opinions in them? Imposing utopia does not improve entertainment.
There is an insulting element to the propaganda argument wherein those outraged seem to think that viewers don’t have the ability to disagree with an ideology presented to them. If you really think your personal agenda can’t stand up to a stupid action movie, either your ideology is in serious trouble or you have an incredibly condescending view of your peers. Political battle lines arbitrarily drawn on any movie miss the point both of the film industry and political outrage.
Just as The Da Vinci Code didn’t topple Catholicism, A Quiet Place is not going to be the deciding factor in future gun legislation. Maybe film critics could work on their outrage problem instead.