Douglas Kellner came of age at Columbia University during the student demonstrations of 1968, and his work has a political drive that continually harks back to the protest ethic of that period. His latest book, Cinema Wars, is no exception. Focusing on films that either directly engage with or seem subtly to comment on issues related to the "stolen" election of 2000, the events of 11 September 2001, the "War on Terror" and right-wing politics in America under the George W. Bush Administration, this volume will be a valuable source for students.
Discussing over 250 films, mostly from 2000 to 2008, Cinema Wars provides a provocative and at times lucid analysis of the cinema industry in the light of major events of the Bush-Cheney era, covering genres from documentary and thriller to animation and science fiction.
Arguably the most valuable sections are to be found in the first and fifth chapters, which detail lesser-known documentaries focused on the background of Bush and Dick Cheney's rise to power and the appalling reality of war in Iraq. As Kellner correctly asserts, it was commendable that Hollywood produced many unprofitable films on the Iraq war while it was "still ongoing and a festering sore in the body politic".
Many readers will no doubt take issue with his political and aesthetic analysis, however, as it is at times inconsistent and partisan to the point of being blinkered. Describing the era in question as an "eight-year nightmare" and aiming regular broadsides at both Bush and Cheney, Kellner calls So Goes the Nation "lame", The Path to 9/11 a "ludicrous and despicable piece of extreme right-wing propaganda", and Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America a "film that would have made Joseph Goebbels proud".
Kellner passes judgments on many films that he claims deliberately interact with events of the era, although he frequently illustrates his point with a single paragraph and relies on a binary structure of whether each film is, in his view, a liberal or right-wing response. I would not criticise this on any political grounds, but rather for the fact that the author sometimes seems confused about whether he supports "one-sided" or "reductive" views of major political issues in films or feels that such perspectives are always flawed.
Telling examples of this confusion can be found in his discussion of Oliver Stone's films World Trade Center and W., and Michael Moore's documentaries. Kellner slates World Trade Center for "extolling the humanity and courage of ordinary Americans but (failing) to explore the reasons for the attack" and W. for being "too sympathetic" to Bush. The chapter on Moore's "provocations" is mostly laudatory, praising the film-maker's deconstruction of the "decadence, shallowness and class privileges of the rich". There is no comment on the artistic weakness of Moore's films, born out of a strong tendency to pour ridicule on those he sees as wrongdoers rather than attempting to endow them with a human or "sacred" element as satisfactory counterparts to his "innocents" (the poor and exploited).
This is why many moderate commentators are left cold by Moore's documentaries. They may contain trenchant political satire, but once the point is made there is little possibility of opposing sides building bridges because one side is beyond redemption. When Kellner states that in Bowling for Columbine Moore "questions one-sided or reductive explanations", he actually means that Moore questions right-wing explanations. And yet when Kellner discusses Michael Franti's I Know I'm Not Alone, he commends his ability to connect with both sides of tense political rivalries.
Such inconsistencies may raise eyebrows, but the provocative political stances taken and wide range of films discussed here will stimulate debate for academics and students alike.
Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era
By Douglas Kellner. Willey-Blackwell. 296pp, £50.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781405198233 and 98240. Published November 2009