Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Uncritical praise

To the extent that I do critical reviews on this website, I mainly concentrate on movies. (Hence the website’s name.) And by “movies,” I generally mean theatrical releases that play in cinemas, as opposed to, say, made-for-TV movies. I reserve the right, however, to comment on anything because what’s the point of being the one to make the rules if you can’t break them once in a while or even all the time?

For example, once (some 40 months ago) I even critiqued one of those videos that terrorists groups occasionally release on the internet. The spirit of my comments were a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I made a serious attempt to criticize its execution and content. And, quite interestingly, it came to my attention recently that The Washington Post does the same thing.

And that leads me to another type of criticism I have done on occasion. Sometimes I like to review the reviewers, as I did three months ago, among other occasions. So, by all means, allow me to weigh in the quality of the Post’s terrorist film criticism.

The piece in question was written by Philip Kennicott, appeared a month ago today and had as its subject a video by insurgents in Iraq that had “surfaced” the day before. The video purported to chronicle “the planning and execution of an attack on American forces”—ending with the display of personal effects of two soldiers who, the video claimed, had been killed. (As of this writing, their official military status is “missing-captured.”) Speaking purely aesthetically (which is fair enough), Kennicott praised the quality of the film with phrases like “disturbing power” and “a compelling visual document.” The video, he says, offers a “discomfiting lesson” with its “pitch-perfect sense of humor, drama and pacing that these images demonstrate.” This respect for the technical prowess of the guerilla filmmakers may well be justified, but it is a little jarring to see the propaganda arm of a group fighting and killing American forces offered praise that would be generous even for a prize winner at Cannes—and in an American newspaper. It got worse a few days later when Kennicott was a guest on National Public Radio’s On the Media program, and host Bob Garfield summed up Kennicott’s view with “for all its implicit horror, the video is a sort of cinematic breakthrough, complete with narrative, humor and a denouement of heartbreaking subtlety.”

But I don’t actually find anything wrong with this per se, since a reasonable reader shouldn’t and wouldn’t necessarily confuse praise for film work done by insurgents with praise (and by extension moral support) for the political and military aims of the insurgents. Indeed, there is value in analyzing objectively and dispassionately the propaganda methods (and Kennicott allows that this is indeed propaganda) of such a group.

The critic goes on to place the video in the context of a tradition of partisan war literature. He writes, “By moving some of the most lengthy passages of the video into the outdoors—a particularly inviting, peaceful place—the video attempts to undermine the notion that what is happening is a terrorist attack. These fighters look more like what we would call partisans, part of a long tradition of men who have taken to the hills, or the forests, or the jungles, to fight an alien enemy.” He cites of earlier examples of such literature Ernest Hemingway’s vision of the Spanish Civil War and Soviet novels of the Russian Revolution and World War II. He might have added Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s paen to the Cuban revolution I Am Cuba as well as various movies that have been made about Che Guevara and even the 1984 John Milius speculative movie Red Dawn that had young Americans taking to the mountains to fight Soviet and Cuban occupiers.

What struck me in particular about Kennicott’s piece was a (perhaps throw-away) sentence that preceded one of his more lavish bits of technical praise. It followed a description of a montage featuring President Bush awkwardly waving his arms while directing an orchestra: “Never mind what it says about the attention with which insurgents and their propagandists are following American media and gathering imagery to use in their own cause.” It implies that the U.S. media are providing plenty of fodder for insurgent propagandists, a fact that probably surprises no one. War supporters will see it as more evidence that the “mainstream media” are essentially also functioning as a propaganda arm for America’s military opponents, while those against the war will see the Bush administration as providing the fodder and the media as being a mere conduit. Either way, Kennicott’s article and many others in the press give a definite impression that the anti-American forces in Iraq and elsewhere are winning the war of propaganda. And for many consumers of news, the propaganda war is “the war,” in the sense that the progress of the Iraq war is mainly being charted in the press by the number of U.S. and civilian casualties. In an earlier era, the public “kept score” of who was winning a war by territory seized and held and by which side was suffering the highest number of casualties. An insurgency/counter-insurgency war does not readily lend itself to tracking control of territory, as did the conventional wars of yore. And, as for casualty counts, we reliably get a daily report on the number of U.S. and Iraq civilian casualties. But how often have we heard about insurgent casualties—especially when they do not involve an extremely high-profile figure? In other words, for good or ill, the U.S. media tend to track the progress of the war by the rise and fall of the American death rate. If you, as a consumer of news, value American military lives over American military victory (historically, this has always been an either/or choice and that doesn’t look to be changing soon), then this makes perfect sense. But there is no denying that such reporting fits very handily into the propaganda aims of the insurgents, by battering American public morale.

This essentially gets to a question that has been hanging over the world’s current only superpower for a couple of generations. Has the world and/or America evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) to the point where war is no longer viable because a majority (or a large enough minority) considers life (or at least American life) too precious to squander in military engagements? Some would say yes, hopefully. Others would say, no, but Iraq was not important enough for the cost. And others would say yes, pessimistically—fearing that abandoning Iraq will only mean worse bloodshed further down the road.

Kennicott didn’t get into any of this—and there was no reason that he should. After all, he was only reviewing a movie—not trying to solve the world’s problems. But there is something he could have done, in my opinion, to improve his review. Given that the movie dealt with real events in a real place, it would not have been out of line to provide some context. As strange as it is to be praising film work done by people who are killing your countrymen and who are, in fact, doing the film work for the express purpose of furthering this goal, it would be intellectually dishonest not to point out quality work. But, by leaving it at that, Kennicott leaves its scenario of rural partisans fighting an occupying force essentially unchallenged.

This was even more apparent in his On the Media interview. His final comment about the movie in the radio interview was: “I hesitate to say that it formed any sympathy with me, because, you know, that’s a dangerous thing to say at this point. But in a generic sense, it’s a drama about occupation and resistance. And I think it probably works far better than we’d like to acknowledge.” To which, host Garfield replied, appreciatively, “Wow, Philip, thank you very much.” In other words, the film’s view of things either nearly had him convinced or it had him convinced but he didn’t feel comfortable saying so. But if I had been reviewing the movie, I would have felt compelled to point out that the American-led coalition is not at this point, technically, an occupation force. While it may be argued that no government is truly sovereign with thousands of foreign troops on its soil, the coalition remains in country officially at the request of an Iraqi government that was elected by some 12 million voters under United Nations auspices. It has a parliament that, while not particularly accomplished or efficient, is more democratic than any other in the region, save those of Lebanon and Israel. The insurgents’ undisputed goal (depending on which group or groups ultimately dominates) is, at best, to restore that sort of dictatorship that existed under Saddam Hussein or, at worst, establish something like the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

You don’t have to be a supporter of America’s invasion or an apologist for the Bush administration to point out that, in a comparison with the Spanish civil war, these insurgents have more in common with the reactionary Franco forces than with the partisans fighting in defense of the elected government those forces ultimately toppled. That would only be intellectually honest. The ultimate irony in Kennicott’s movie review is that not only does it state that the quality of the insurgents’ propaganda is brilliant but, by not treating its message critically and by passing it on to a larger audience, he also demonstrates that it actually works brilliantly. Personally, I think a working journalist should have more of a clue.

-S.L., 5 July 2007

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