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For Freedom! The Politics of Transformers 3…

This is part of the “Morality Bites” blogathon being hosted by the always awesome Ronan over at filmplicity and Julian at dirtywithclass. It is, as ever, a joy to be asked to take part.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to tackle politics (or any thorny issue) in cinema. Documentaries are the obvious exception, but very few people go into a major motion picture (or even an indie one) expecting a personal diatribe of the creator’s controversial political opinions construed as absolute fact. It’s often more interesting to hear a rant in spoken form rather than structured into three acts at well over an hour with awkward plotting and characterisation designed to outline a particular world view. Don’t get me wrong, many great film makers have used their films as clever points of interest on a particular topic, but those that succeed often do so through clever construction, honest analyse and a decent amount of subtlety. However, such an approach is far too rare in Hollywood, as I thought to myself emerging from Michael Bay’s Transformers 3. I’d made my piece with the fact I was attending a two-and-a-half hour toy commercial, but I didn’t expect it to be a two-and-a-half-hour toy commercial delivered as a declaration on American foreign policy.

Transformers: Politics in Disguise...

By the way, I should probably break one of my key rules around here and talk about something other than movies for a second. You’re reading an article on Hollywood’s obligation to philosophical and political discourse, so it’s only fair you know where the author stands without having to do a metric tonne of research. I fancy myself a moderate and a pragmatist, probably like most Irish people – after all the only real difference between our two major political parties is the stance they took on a document signed almost a century ago. We’re halfway between Boston and Berlin. I believe in social welfare and the obligation of the state to protect those who cannot protect themselves, while I believe that reckless taxing and excessive regulation can stifle economic growth. It’s all about balance. I am smack bang in the middle of the political spectrum. I respect Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. I admire both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, anti-American, as it occasionally seems cool to be.

In fact, I’m quite pro-American. I love the culture. I love the food. I love the movies. The music I could probably live without to be honest, but you can’t win it all. It’s the same deep affection I feel for our neighbours in England or in France, for example. I don’t believe that any sophisticated analysis of American involvement in the Middle East could use the word “occupation” or “imperialism”, nor do I believe that there aren’t all manner of complicated social and political factors at work behind military policy we see in action. I have never attended a march for any cause, nor have I signed a petition of any kind. So, that’s who I am and that’s where this article comes from.

It's always a Rocky road to travel...

However, it’s worth outlining some of the more obvious political super-text of Bay’s film:

I have to admit, though, that the movie’s politics and brazen second-grader patriotism give me pause. This sort of junior high political theory – where Optimus Prime vows to effectively commit genocide “for freedom” (“it ends tonight”) and the Transformers “keep sneaking out at night” to do things like dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme – would be almost endearing if it wasn’t so downright terrifying. The movie even ends on a monologue about how important it is to keep the world safe even when your closest allies let you down, as if you didn’t get the gung-ho subtext of the film.

Let’s ignore the fact that Bay’s political point is somewhat undermined by the fact that this global peace is being enforced by a squad of self-appointed alien robots with superior firepower, instead of the world’s most powerful democracy. Indeed, the fact that the Autobots are aliens acting without any democratic authority kinda eats away at their moral high ground, but doesn’t discount Bay’s notion that they’re the good guys no matter what:

“You taught me that freedom was everyone’s right!” Optimus Prime shouts at his mentor at one point, but the problem is that Optimus’ Autobots don’t act like they believe any of those ideals. As they capture an enemy patrol outside a fallen city, Optimus has his team literally tear their prisoners limb from limb. The irony is rich when the captured Autobots claim to be “prisoners of war” to avoid execution by their opponents. Later on Optimus himself executes a defeated enemy combatant with a shotgun blast to the head, despite the fact the bad guy can barely crawl. Being entirely honest, it’s hard to know why exactly the Autobots are the good guys and the Decepticons are the bad guys, since they adopt the same sort of ruthless combat strategy and are just as blood-thirsty and self-righteous.

Let’s call a spade a spade: the Tranformers stand in for American foreign policy, as Optimus narrates about how they will keep saving the world no matter how many of their friends betray them. The fact there’s a star-spangled banner in the background makes the point even more obvious.

Hmm... would anybody really miss Paris?

When I describe how uncomfortable I was with the surreal political arguments that Michael Bay seemed to be putting forward, it comes from somebody who recognised the patriotic subtext in his earlier films. The Rock centred around the heroism of American service men, ignored and abandoned by those in power and a commanding officer doing his honour-bound duty to them. Armageddon saw a bunch of Americans save the world, with the help of a Russian they adopted when his shabby space station exploded. There didn’t seem to be much room for other nationalities in that effort to save the planet, to the point where the diverse cast of Sunshine seemed like a rather conscious challenge to the earlier films.

I can see the undertones there, but they don’t really bother me. I don’t mind America saving the world because it’s a film made by an American studio that will probably make more money in America than in any other country. Bay is playing to the gallery with all his shots of dangling flags and optimistic young children, and all that sort of cheesy Americana. However, “America is awesome!” is a generic subtext for a film, and one that most rational viewers will forgive from a particular film. I can live with, for example, the fact that Doctor Who, for example, treats the British Prime Minister as the most important person on the planet at any given moment – because it’s an Anglo-centric production.

World police?

Indeed, a lot of these sort of political bullet points are easy for an audience to digest if they’re built into the basic premise of the work, and mixed in at the most initial stage of production. Most adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will adopt a conservative philosophy that there are some things that man is not meant to know. Indeed, a huge portion of science-fiction horror is based around the idea of man crossing a boundary that they really shouldn’t and suffering as a result. And then there’s the argument that slasher films adopt a puritanical view of sexuality, punishing the sexually active and sparing the virgin, endorsing a very strict traditionalist ideology.

However, audiences tend to ignore these basic points because they are necessary for the story in question to really work. They’re somewhat passive models of discourse, with a particular ideology forming the basis of a given plot, but never really expressed. Very few horror films, except the self-aware ones, will actually literally express the idea that casual sex is a horrible thing that must be punished – and, if they do, it’ll usually come from a deranged psychopath rather than a voice of reason. In short, the core idea isn’t rammed down the viewer’s throat, and attention isn’t consciously and repeatedly drawn to it.

A sharply observed point...

You might argue that such passive philosophy is even ruder than directly addressing your chosen topic, but I disagree to an extent. While actually articulating the film’s point in clear and concise terms (as Bay does repeatedly in Transformers 3) might be deemed to be more honest, it’s also more intrusive. It runs the risk of politically alienating a large chunk of the audience, who might otherwise be willing to suspend their disbelief and go along with an unspoken assumption, but react when the argument is made outright. It also, quite simply, tends to load a film, and make the movie seem more like a lecture than a diversion. There’s a marked difference between how we perceive, for example, a film about robots knocking the hell out of each other, and how we perceive a movie about robots acting out Michael Bay’s thoughts on American foreign policy. One can arguably be enjoyed without question, while the other invites critical thinking and analysis.

Here’s the thing, though, that second part isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some movies thrive the more you think about them. Some people have interesting ideas that might make you consider or re-evaluate your own. They might raise questions you never honestly thought would occur to you. In short, they might end up being more than just a stream of moving images synchronised to sound. That’s a great thing, but it’s something that doesn’t necessarily happen easily when film makers adopt a particular issue or stance.

The sands of time might be kinder to the film...

I think the key difference between a successful movie tackling a controversial political subject and one that doesn’t handle the subject matter especially well is the way that it phrases its particular stance. Transformers 3 adopts the model of a lecture. Bay is a professor, and class is in session. There is no ambiguity in the world. Optimus Prime is a good guy. Those who stand against him are bad guys. A nuclear facility in the Middle East is “wrong”, and must be dealt with. Foreigners getting their hands on alien technology leads to disasters like Chernobyl. The Autobots will always do what’s right and stand up for a good cause. They do what they do “for freedom!” to quote Optimus himself, and only traitors would dare disagree.

It’s the same approach adopted by, for example, Syriana – which has a contrasting political opinion, but phrases it in the same manner. “This is how the world is,” it seems to assure its audience, “and these are bad people, and these are good people – and the good people die and the bad people thrive.” There’s no shades of grey, despite the murky political climate, and there’s no sense that characters or situations are ever so nuanced they can escape the simple classification of “right or wrong.”

I don’t think that approach works for movies, because movies are a fundamentally different medium than lectures. Lectures, at least the ones I attended, are structured around statements to generate discussion and discourse. This might be the way the world is, but you can ask for clarification, or get a bit of shading on a particular point. The lecturer has a chance to add more depth to the parts of their statement that you take issue with, and it’s ultimately a far more interactive experience. Lectures aren’t just about the lecturer talking at you, but about a structured and reasoned discussion around the facts. Movies can’t do that.

The centre cannot hold...

Which is why I always find movies more interesting when they ask questions or float possibilities, rather than stating what they deem to be cold, hard facts. The climax of Transformers is set against a destroyed Chicago, that couldn’t help but remind me of The Dark Knight, a movie which tackles the American political discussion in a much smarter and more interesting light. Batman does some immoral and illegal things, that allow him to save lives, but the film makes it clear that he isn’t necessary right. He’s quite possibly broken, quite possibly gone too far. The question of whether liberty is worth sacrificing for security is broached, but not answered – how you feel about Batman at the end reflects your own opinions, and it’s possible for some to love him, some to hate him, and for most to hold a more nuanced opinion.

Similarly, for example, it has been argued that The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on the destruction of Native American culture by the European settlers, but it’s never explicitly stated, and is only there if you really dig deep enough into the film. It doesn’t rant and rave, it doesn’t create a token character to articulate the point, it just sorta throws it out there and lets the audience bite if they want to. It doesn’t over-write the film, and one could leave the cinema without even noticing it.

I hate it when directors have an axe to grind...

It has been argued that mainstream cinema is braindead. I’d disagree. I think that mainstream cinema can be a wonderful vehicle for society to explore its own moral demons, but that the best approach is not for filmmakers to manufacture two-hour infomercials about their opinions. I find the best results are phrased as incisive questions that leave the audience to discuss, think about and make up their own mind. Nuance which invites the audience to make up their own mind – because anybody who adopts a particular perspective based on a two-hour film probably needs to give it a bit more thought anyway.

Bluntly offering a manifesto as a feature film is not a good idea, but throwing a few questions in never hurt anybody.

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14 Responses

  1. Yeah… it certainly wasn’t subtle was it?

    I tried to focus solely on the special effects and that got me through.

    • That final sequence was incredible, wasn’t it? Bay can’t handle humans or even characters, but his action is impressive.

    • Funny how extremely insane leftist movies are criticized too much but when there is a something a little bit right, its soo very political.

      Haha I love the hypocrisy the left always seems to provide.

      • Hey now, I’m just as quick to call out the other side. Hell, I am actually quite ticked at the way Marvel is pandering to anti-Americanism by (pointlessly, given the costume) dropping “Captain America” from the title of “The First Avenger” in certain markets. And I cite Syriana in the text as an example.

  2. I never thought i would see the day when a movie about transforming cars would be too political, or be compared to Syrannia(I personally didn’t find the politics in that one too over-the-top, but i did see it a while ago)

    And i’ve actually had the idea of making a horror movie or tv series to specifically counter the “everyone who has sex dies and the virgin lives” cliche in horror.

    Btw, me and Ronan are both hosting the blogathon(we worked on it together)

  3. “Transformers 3” was as obtuse with its message as Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” maybe more so. Most of his films equate to three-hour Marines commercials.

  4. Wonderful article, Darren. Well spoken. Thanks.

  5. I love your commentary, well said. You seem to forget however that this movie is NO different than any of the other ANTI-American Hollywood films that spew from the cinema these days. I may not back all of the ideals put forth, but it was refreshing to see a film that slammed the Communist Manifesto, and expressed an idea of Freedom is worth “FIGHTING” for as it did.

    • Thanks Grant. I think that I at least referenced it in discussing Syriana, but it could be equally made about most modern Robert Redford films or Body of Lies, or other films like that which are, as you observed, consciously anti-American foreign policy before anything else, even being a good movie.

  6. I think Roland Emmerich is another propenent of this manifesto movie-making, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 were like two sides of a double-sided coin. Whichever way you flip it, Emmerich’s assertion that we are killing our planet, though arguably based on popular evidence still makes you feel a bit icky because of the way he chooses to ‘phrase’ his discourse.

    • Yep. It doesn’t help that there’s enough actual science to back up the claims without Emmerich adding “pseudo-science” to cloud the debate. I’m fairly sure when skeptics dismiss the science of global warming, they’re talking about The Day After Tomorrow.

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