POINTING OUT the sorry state of filmmaking has become a summer tradition over the past few years, usually due to the target market of the movies released during this season. It seems as though half the films released after Memorial Day have roman numerals following the title and the other half are based on a comic books or defunct television series. The story of Hollywood's box-office slump parallels the decline in quality and original thinking.
However, two films released this summer actually aimed at adults, and the mainstream media's reactions to them provide insight into a significant disconnect from reality demonstrated by the film industry and the liberal media that covers it.
The first film, The Great Raid, told the true story of a rescue mission by Army Rangers behind enemy lines near the end of World War II. Scott Johnson recently noted the critical reaction to the film: At the website Rotten Tomatoes, where scores of film reviews are collected, only 34 percent of the participating critics gave The Great Raid positive notices, and the rate drops to 30 percent for prominent national reviewers.
Johnson noted New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden's objection to the stereotyping of Japanese camp commanders as "sadistic, slant-eyed fiend[s]." Others joined Holden in criticizing the realistic portrayal of Japanese treatment of American POWs. The Toronto Star found the picture dull, save for the "predictably sadistic Japanese commander"; Geoff Pevere writes that the movie feels like "a Rambo mission dispatched some time in the months following September 2001." The Village Voice's Mark Holcomb turned up his nose at the mere reminder of the very real atrocities:
Philippines B-movie luminary Eddie Romero wrung greater complexity from similar material 40 years ago, and his movies never trafficked in risible Japanese stereotypes or ultra-expendable Filipino bit players. The Great Raid is ultimately scotched by History Channel-worthy nostalgia.
Nearly all of these reviews take The Great Raid to task for not generating as much interest as fiction. The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, and The Great Escape are frequently mentioned, and although the latter is based on a real escape, the studio rewrote the script in order to meet Steve McQueen's insistence on more action, more screen time, and motorcycle sequences that were entirely fictional.
It seems as though many film critics share an aversion to allowing reality to intrude on filmmaking. Or do they? The summer's other adult film aimed, The Constant Gardener, tells the tale of the murder of a British diplomat's wife who runs afoul of a pharmaceutical company while living in Kenya with her clueless husband.
Based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name, the film rehashes an almost identical plot from the 1993 film version of The Fugitive: a pharmaceutical company kills the wife of the protagonist to keep secret the deaths of its human-trial patients during the trials of its new wonder drug. The wife in The Constant Gardener, just as in The Fugitive, keeps revisiting the screen in flashbacks, although in The Fugitive Sela Ward is killed by accident. Rachel Weisz plays Tessa Quayle as such an annoyingly self-righteous campaigner that no one believes for a moment that her death was an accident. The cover-up eventually leads her diplomat husband (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate his wife's death and to complete her mission.
Instead of setting the human trials in Chicago as a backdrop for an exciting action film, however, The Constant Gardener sets the trials in Kenya as the evil pharmaceuticals companies--this time British--use unsuspecting African AIDS patients to test a new compound which is designed to combat a coming global plague of super-resistant TB. Why a drug company would use test subjects suffering from an unrelated, generally terminal disease to test its new products is never explained, but the rash of deaths among the test subjects creates a need to cover up the "true" test results. This gets explained as a way to avoid spending a couple of years improving the formulation to avoid the death of its patients, possibly missing the start of the pandemic which the drug company predicts will affect two billion people, and giving their competition an advantage. However, with such a theoretically vast market, the film never acknowledges that a single pharmaceutical could not hope to keep up with demand, and that a poisonous product would shortly find itself off the shelves and its manufacturer headed for bankruptcy via class-action lawsuits.
Most laughably, The Constant Gardener has a stunningly naive grasp of politics and culture. Towards the end, Fiennes must find a doctor (Pete Postlethwaite) who helped conduct the trials in order to find his wife's murderer. He winds up in a tribal village which is being raided by horse backed riders. In real life, we would know these killers as the Janjaweed--radical Islamist Arabs who are attempting to drive Sudanese animists and Christians off the land. Unsurprisingly, the film leaves this tidbit unspoken.
Later, when an African girl boards a U.N. plane out of Darfur with Fiennes and Postlethwaite, the pilot refuses her entry. When Fiennes offers to bribe the pilot, the U.N. employee stiffly warns the British diplomat not to "embarrass yourself." Fiennes has found the one U.N. employee not taking bribes. When the girl runs off despite Fiennes' efforts to rescue her, he asks Postlethwaite what will become of her. Postlethwaite replies that "if she's lucky, she'll make it to a refugee center." That doesn't even qualify as a bad joke; U.N. refugee centers in Africa hardly provide luck to young girls, as U.N. peacekeepers and staffers routinely turn such unfortunates out as prostitutes who must sell themselves in order to get food and water.
One might argue that The Constant Gardener should be forgiven its sins, since it is a work of fiction. Many film critics shun this line of argument. Over 90 percent of critics give it positive reviews and their approbation ties directly to their perception of The Constant Gardiner as a film which addresses reality, not fiction. The Toronto Star calls it a "superlative drama . . . [which] deals with urgent issues of globalization and First World complicity in the exploitation of Third World people." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recommends it to "viewers who like real-world issues interwoven with their fiction." The Los Angeles Times approvingly notes John Le Carré non-disclaimer disclaimer:
Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journey . . . progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.
Interestingly, the film industry and its critics have come to the same conclusion: They prefer films that take fiction and pass it off as uncomfortable fact, while excoriating the recreation of real and uncomfortable history onscreen. They consider The Constant Gardener--with its recycled plot and its politically-correct details--a credit to the industry, while a generally faithful recreation of the Cabanatuan raid and the circumstances of Japanese oppression in the Philippines during World War II is derided for its "stereotyping."
Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.