by Quin Hillyer
If, as I have suggested, American culture isn't yet lost
, then where are the avenues for traditionalists - for advocates of decency - to start winning some victories that turn society decisively in the right direction?
Sometimes the adversary is weakest exactly where he appears most firmly in control. Caesar was killed not by foreign defeat but in the very heart of Rome. The Soviet empire was never directly fired upon, but it collapsed when its subject peoples in Poland, Romania, East Germany, and finally Russia itself rose up in peaceful protest. And in American pop culture, where liberal Hollywood still reigns supreme, some encouraging signs are emerging even from the movie industry's citadel.
For decades, the prevailing ethos of Hollywood movies has sneered at faith, sneered at patriotism, sneered at the virtues of personal restraint, and gratuitously promoted senseless violence and other immorality. Aside from a few brave exceptions - Rocky Balboa earnestly and lengthily praying for his wife Adrienne; Mel Gibson (alas, guilty of other weaknesses) celebrating a Revolutionary War hero in The Patriot - the very definition of "virtue" and even heroism seems to have been transformed into some sort of world-weary, cynical, inverted version of those terms. In this inverted morality, only a "sucker" insists on using noble means to reach noble goals; instead, any means, no matter how ignoble, can be justified for ends defined as admirable only by adopting the modern anti-hero's newfangled and self-defined hierarchy of values.
But Hollywood is, in the long run, responsive to the dictates of the almighty dollar. This is one case where mammon serves a good cause - because the public so often rejects the Hollywood anti-hero with box office collapses, but still rewards movies that tap into more traditional notions of good and evil.
The good news is that recent months have seen a series of blockbuster movies that celebrate faith, patriotism, and integrity. First, Denzel Washington's character in the superb Flight is horrendously flawed - but his redemption, at the end, is a paean to personal integrity and to the ideal of dignified repentance. Second, in Argo, even the outspokenly liberal Ben Affleck produced a gem of a movie (aside from its tendentious and historically inaccurate first five minutes) based on the true story of American ingenuity and courage in rescuing six hostages from Iran in 1979. Patriotism in it is straightforward rather than ironic.
Third, there is Steven Spielberg's Lincoln: The soon-to-be-martyred president is portrayed as fully politician but also fully man of faith: His devotion to God, and to the noble cause of full emancipation even when expediency would have dictated postponement of the cause's redemption, is an essential part of the president as portrayed by actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Again, this was no celebration of a super-hero, a cartoon-figure hero, an "ironic hero," or an anti-hero, but of an ordinary man acting heroically for a worthy cause. Whatever one's views of the full conduct of the war, the emancipative impulse was unambiguously laudatory. This is the sort of hero we used to celebrate.
Fourth, consider the incredibly powerful, decidedly patriotic Zero Dark Thirty, about the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. Again, there is no subtle undertone of anti-American judgment. There are, of course, the moral ambiguities of "torture," but they aren't judged pro or con; what is inarguable is the extreme worthiness of the ultimate American cause of freedom, and of justice not as much in vengeance as in the name of protecting the innocent. This is straightforward story-telling at its old-fashioned best.
Finally, the much-acclaimed Les Miserables is a mixed bag in some ways - but in the most important way, it is a wonderful marvel. There is much about the movie that is, well, over-the-top. It is overly Hollywoodish by luxuriating in the depths (and grunge) of the suffering of some of its characters. Yet not only is its heart in the right place, but so is its faith. All too often, Hollywood finds itself unable to portray faith, or religion, or clergy as anything but hypocritical. But not here. In Les Miserables, again and again and again, the church, the priests, the nuns, and the faithful are presented as kind, generous, forgiving, merciful, and an unfiltered force for good and for redemption. The hero, Jean Valjean, owes everything he becomes to the intervention of the Lord in his life.
In short, recent evidence indicates that Hollywood itself, flawed as it is, is not irredeemable. If even some of Hollywood's most active "progressives" can produce quality, traditionalist-friendly fare like these five movies, then imagine what cultural conservatives could do if conservatives put money, effort, and time into the film industry. The "big screen" could, in the long run, become a powerful force for civic renewal.
Again, the thesis here is that Hollywood responds to public desires, and that the American public still desires quality of theme and principle as well as of technical movie-making skill. The common culture, even under assault, still favors old-fashioned virtue. This is reason aplenty for traditionalists to continue engaging the culture, and to transmit our values to a wider audience in younger generations.
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About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.