#MovieMonday – Libertarian Themes in CinemaMay 7th, 2012
Despite the widespread perception of Hollywood as dominated by progressive “liberals,” there are many recurring themes in Hollywood movies that are extremely anti-government and libertarian. There is certainly some truth to the characterization of Hollywood as “left wing,” insofar as many big name actors tend to be vocally active in support of the Democratic Party, its candidates, and its political platform, yet without fail, the movie capitol of the world continues to crank out movies with libertarian themes and messages, no doubt because these resonate with American movie audiences, and whatever their government may be doing, the voting habits of most Americans (who are perennially kicking out the party in power and rewarding the libertarian rhetoric of the party out of power with their votes) suggests that they have vaguely libertarian instincts and perspectives.
Let’s examine some of these libertarian themes in Hollywood movies:
From the wildly popular Die Hard (1988) franchise, Bruce Willis’ masterful portrayal of Irish-American detective, John McClane, with his trademark phrase, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf***er!” created one of the most beloved characters in American cinema. Audiences, especially American audiences, strongly resonate with and admire John McClane. He represents “the common person,” a hardworking citizen with personal problems (like a failed marriage) that many Americans can relate to, as well as a strong sense of justice and duty, not to mention a resourcefulness, tenacity, and competence that audiences admire and that most working-class Americans share.
Throughout the first Die Hard movie, which centers on McClane’s struggle to save his ex-wife and her co-workers from German terrorists who have taken them all hostage at their company Christmas party in a high rise in LA, this common man does everything in his power– including walking over broken glass in bare feet at one point– to fight the terrorists and save his wife and her co-workers. Here’s where a common libertarian theme comes in: every step of the way, McClane’s efforts are frustrated by a bungling and incompetent police force. While McClane is a police officer himself, the movie paints a clear picture of a local police force that is hopelessly bungling and incompetent. The strong implication is that individuals like McClane are smart and competent, but overall, collective government organizations and their agents typically are not.
If Die Hard’s writers were unforgiving to the government, they were positively brutal in their portrayal of the media by way of character Richard Thornburg, a zealous TV anchorman who also frustrates McClane’s efforts with his incompetence and his single-minded quest for ratings. This is another increasingly-common theme in cinema that many libertarians will sympathize with and understand– ever since the 1970s, movies have increasingly portrayed the news media as mercenary, heartless, sleazy, out-of-touch, and always pushing an agenda (more examples at the link), a trend that reflects– and continues to trend downward with– decreasing public confidence in mainstream journalism.
So what’s the libertarian message here? You’re on your own. The government isn’t going to make things better (in Die Hard, it can’t even fight terrorists better than a single, competent individual can), and it’ll probably make things worse. Meanwhile, the mainstream media doesn’t get it either, and can only be trusted to make things worse in its quest for ratings. Instead the wrongs in society will only be righted by the individual efforts of a “common man” who could be any of us (including a “common woman” such as Erica Bain, Jodie Foster’s character in The Brave One (2007), who after surviving an attack by three violent criminals that leaves her fiancé dead, finds empowerment by illegally acquiring a handgun and killing violent criminals on a spree of vigilantism). Furthermore, John McClane’s ultimate purpose is to save his ex-wife, whom he still loves and cares for, making Die Hard a love story and emphasizing that the wrongs of the world are righted not by government programs and government agents, but by individual people looking out for themselves and their families.
Having used Die Hard as an example to define this general template, it’s easy to discern this libertarian message throughout Hollywood’s cinematic offerings. One of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films is Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008). It is replete with these same libertarian, anti-government themes of vigilantism, a single citizen righting the wrongs of Gotham City, and an impotent and corrupt government. Another top-grosser, the Harry Potter franchise, simply puts a fantastical twist on the same libertarian message: three young students spend movie after movie saving their world of more often than not, clueless and unhelpful adults, and their efforts are constantly frustrated by the corruption and ineptitude of the wizarding world’s government, the Ministry of Magic.
The wildly popular Spider-Man movie franchise also depicts a vigilante who fights criminals despite the best efforts of the government to find and arrest him, and again, the theme of an out-of-touch, corrupt, agenda-driven, ratings-hungry media is strongly prominent in this particular story. In the 1982 blockbuster, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a young boy must help an alien from outer space to safely return home when government agents attempt to capture and study him. Again, the themes of government callousness, cluelessness, corruption, and incompetence are present. Again, a good-natured and resourceful individual, standing in as the “common person” who could be any of us, saves the day and makes things right again.
Turning our attention away from fantasy, comic book, and science fiction films where plenty more examples abound and back to somewhat more realistic dramas and action films like Die Hard– the 1994 classic, Forrest Gump, depicts the power of a genuinely good-hearted individual to change history and improve the world amid the backdrop of a corrupt government that drafts young men with dreams like Benjamin “Bubba” Blue to die in Vietnam fighting a foreign civil war while combating racial integration and equality back home. This film is particularly instructive, because its stand-in for the common individual is technically mentally retarded, yet because of his genuinely good heart and his entrepreneurial willingness to take risks and chase dreams, he does more good throughout the film than the government, whose destructiveness is on clear display for movie goers to ponder and disavow.
Meanwhile, a bevy of movie classics like Death Wish (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), The Boondock Saints (1999), and Taken (2008), among others, also all bear the same anti-government, libertarian-leaning message and beat it unrepentantly into the movie goer’s head: the government cannot be expected to fix the very most basic problems of crime and violence that it exists to solve in the first place. In fact, through a combination of incompetence and corruption, it’s more likely to make them even worse. Instead, a vigilant and competent individual operating outside the existing political and power structures, becomes a hero and saves the day.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this ever-present theme is that the movies that employ it never work hard to introduce or defend it. They never belabor the point. It is taken for granted, assumed, and effortlessly used as a template and foundation for their characters and story lines. The individual-as-hero and government-as-bungler motif is paradigmatic and already subconsciously accepted by movie-going audiences as true and without need of further explanation or substantiation. Hollywood movies, despite the vocal “progressive” activism of many Hollywood actors, are often very libertarian, because Hollywood writers have found a way to tap into and profit from a widespread and very libertarian perception of government held by the majority of movie-going Americans.
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