Valor Without Irony

This weekend, American soldiers have once again stepped into harm’s way, as Operation Odyssey Dawn begins in Libya.  Coincidentally, we’re also passing through a pop-culture moment of some significance, as a sizable portion of our cultural elite find themselves strongly at odds with audiences over an unexpectedly popular movie, Battle: Los Angeles.

Pop-culture criticism can be a tricky affair.  Critics often praise a film that audiences ignore, or vice versa.  What’s interesting in this case is how profound the disconnect has become.  Battle: LA passed the $60 million mark at the box office this weekend, but many critics don’t just dislike this movie, they hate it.

Most notoriously, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Tribune went absolutely berserk, writing a review that begins:

“‘Battle: Los Angeles’ is noisy, violent, ugly and stupid. Its manufacture is a reflection of appalling cynicism on the part of its makers, who don’t even try to make it more than senseless chaos. Here’s a science-fiction film that’s an insult to the words ‘science’ and ‘fiction,’ and the hyphen in between them. You want to cut it up to clean under your fingernails.”

So it’s not just a poorly-made film – it’s an act of cynicism, an insult, a piece of celluloid garbage fit for nothing except scooping out toejam.  Ebert concludes his review by calling anyone who “admires” Battle: LA an “idiot,” and advising women to break up with men who take them to see the film and profess to enjoy it.  He later went on Twitter to announce that the success of the movie had resulted in “the loss of millions of hours of human life” and “dumbing down of audiences.”  I would pause to note that the critic who serves as Michael Moore’s shoeshine boy has absolutely no room whatsoever to insult anyone else’s intelligence.

It’s not just Ebert, though.  Check aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, and you’ll find bile pumping by the gallon.  No film is everyone’s cup of tea, but this one has enemies.  What’s going on here?

I had a chance to see Battle: LA over the weekend, and speaking as a lifelong fan of science fiction, I found it no more implausible than most other alien invasion flicks.  Let’s put it this way: nobody blows up the alien mothership by uploading a virus from Macintosh, and the aliens don’t dissolve in water.

In fact, the aliens are evidently after our water, and that’s about all we really learn about them.  This is appropriate, because the story follows a small unit of Marines, led by troubled Staff Sergeant Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart with flashes of old-time movie-star charisma), who are swept into pitched combat against a powerful and merciless invasion force.  Aside from some radio chatter, TV news reports, and intelligence from friendly soldiers, they don’t know much about the Big Picture, so neither does the audience.  They’re just trying to rescue some civilians and avoid soaking up extraterrestrial bullets.

The nameless aliens have nothing to say to us.  They come down in a shower of meteors and immediately begin gunning down everyone in their path.  Their technology is formidable, but not mystical.  They’re more enigmatic than most Hollywood alien invaders – even the locust-like villains from Independence Day paused to exchange a few menacing words with the heroes – but no less “believable.”  As for the special effects, this movie gets a lot done on a limited budget.  The production values are no insult.

It’s not really the aliens that people like Roger Ebert are so upset about.  It’s the Marines.

Battle: LA is extremely positive in its portrayal of Staff Sergeant Nantz, his men, and an Air Force tech sergeant they sweep up along the way.  They have their moments of doubt and fear, but their bravery and dedication to duty are forged of steel.  After a devastating initial encounter with powerful, bloodthirsty enemy forces, they study the foe and learn how to fight back with impressive skill.  Their battle cry, whose history Nantz explains to a rescued civilian, is “Retreat, hell!”  They mean it.

I’m a connoisseur of movie moments that convey quiet nobility, simple scenes with minimal dialogue that showcase powerful and eternal values.  There is such a moment in Battle: LA, right after Staff Sergeant Nantz rappels out of a helicopter.  If you’re an average American – especially if you’ve served in the military, or have loved ones who serve – you’ll be deeply moved.  If you’re a snide blue-state film critic, you’ll want to throw up into your popcorn tub.

Our cultural elites do not know how to handle valor without irony.  Their taste runs more to stories like Avatar, where the last decent man in the galaxy turns traitor on the evil military-industrial complex that hired him to be an oppressor.  They also underestimate the spirit of the American people, who refuse to lie back in their comfortable caskets and decompose, no matter how often the smart set explains how the best days of the United States are behind it.  Courage is not stupid, sacrifice is not a mistake, and the people of this country have a knack for solving “impossible” problems.

No wonder our betters have such trouble understanding why so many of us enjoy this movie.  Battle: LA reminds us that Marines don’t rest, they reload… and the Marines are America.