Missing the Point of Mel Gibson's Movie

When a thematically complex movie is attacked by a misguided, politically charged review that tries to pigeonhole and label the philosophy of the film—like the one Benjamin Shapiro recently penned—there is a good chance that ideologues on both sides of the aisle should check it out.

Such is the case with “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson’s pensive (that’s right, pensive) look into the conditions leading to the downfall of the Mayan Empire. In an attempt to stuff the square movie into a round political hole for the purposes of partisan (read: marketable) digestion, Shapiro has failed to perceive or chosen to avoid the complexities of “Apocalypto,” which contains a bevy of material that could be attractive to conservatives. Moreover, it’s one of the most thoughtful films since Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The basic plot of the film involves simple hunter-farmers being kidnapped by the city-dwellers and used as human sacrifices to appease the gods. One of the kidnapped attempts a daring escape, making the movie into a giant chase film.

Shapiro attacks Gibson’s film as a liberal critique on American culture gone awry. Indeed, Gibson has equated the film’s human sacrifice with the war in Iraq, asking, rhetorically, “What’s human sacrifice if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?”

When viewed through such a lens, “Apocalypto” could be whatever your garden-variety, Hollywood-hating conservative wants it to be.

While we’re at it, let’s make sure we acknowledge that Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is an anti-Bush piece, since it was, you know, made by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Oh wait, it was a darling of the conservative media?

Sorry, I forgot.

Using Gibson’s anti-Iraq grandstanding as a guide, Shapiro goes on to blast the picture for using all the acts of violence by the evil, big-city priests against the innocent farmers as a metaphor for Bush sending soldiers to Iraq.

Sorry, Ben. It’s just not that simple.

Playwright Rudolf Besier once mused, through his character and real-life poet Robert Browning, that the pure understanding of a work once written belongs only to God. The artist’s opinion of his own work is not irrelevant, but is unreliable.

A re-examination of “Apocalypto,” without using the artist’s perspective as the sole lens through which to view it reveals a complex picture with no single political philosophy. In fact, if this human sacrifice is a liberal metaphor for our involvement in Iraq, there are just as many bones that Gibson picks with the same liberal ideology.

For starters, who are the villains? PRIESTS!!! It must be an anti-religious film!

No, the villains are not individual men, but rather three ideas to which conservatives should be adverse: an overbearing state, city values, and false religion (Jesus didn’t like false religion either, just FYI.).

The yeomen, rural heroes of the story are taken by men from the city. These men kill women indiscriminately, step over the property rights of others, and come from a place where an inordinate amount of power is concentrated in the hands of a few. The villain, in this case, is an overbearing, authoritative state.

Isn’t it conservatives who normally battle against authority of this kind? It is conservatives who sound the alarm against intrusive government. It is conservatives who fight for property rights and against a government large enough to take them away. It is conservatives who persistently wage political warfare against a centralized state that knows no check against its power.

It is also conservatives who advocate the simple values of rural culture over the groupthink and rampant violence of the city. The heroes in “Apocalypto” are simple, family men, who provide for and love their families. Their values; hard work, diligence, loyalty, and bravery; are the values of red state America.

The final villain is false religion; another enemy of a conservative, Christian audience. The atrocity of human sacrifice is being committed for the sake of appeasing false gods. This is worsened by the fact that the religious authorities use their knowledge of science to trick the masses into worshipping in such a manner. Their understanding of the solar eclipse, to which the sacrifices are timed just prior, allows them to fool the people into a belief in human sacrifice. The eclipse is announced as a satisfied sun god.

Hmm … misuse of scientific knowledge being a root cause of societal breakdown. Where have I heard that argument before? Not from abortion doctors and embryonic stem cell researchers, I assure you.

All sarcasm and political squabbling aside, “Apocalypto” is far too complex to be assigned any one political ideology. The points I have made are but a few that can be made. I am not asserting that the movie is a conservative treatise, but rather that any analysis of the movie that seeks to either understand it through or squeeze it into simple politics, as Mr. Shapiro’s does, is ill advised.

I feel a little sorry for the person that does this.