Mondoweiss – 7 July 2017
For a while I have been pondering whether to write a review of the newly released Wonder Woman, to peel back the layers of comic-book fun to reveal below the film’s disturbing and not-so-covert political and militaristic messages.
There is usually a noisy crowd who deride any such review with shouts of “Lighten up, it’s only a movie!” – as though popular culture is neither popular nor culture, the soundtrack to our lives that slowly shapes our assumptions and our values, and does so at a level we rarely examine critically.
My argument is that this much-praised Gal Gadot vehicle – seemingly about a peace-loving superhero, Wonder Woman, from the DC Comics stable – is actually carefully purposed propaganda, designed to force-feed aggressive western military intervention, dressed up as humanitarianism, to unsuspecting audiences.
In short, this is straight-up propaganda for the military-industrial complex. It would have looked and sounded identical had it been scripted by a joint team from the Pentagon and the Israel Defense Forces.
My reticence to review the film has lifted after reading the latest investigations of Tom Secker and Matthew Alford into the manifold ways the U.S. military and security services interfere in Hollywood, based on a release of 4,000 pages of documents under Freedom of Information requests.
In their new book National Security Cinema, the pair argue that the Pentagon, CIA and National Security Agency have meddled in the production of at least 800 major Hollywood movies and 1,000 TV titles. That is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg, as they concede:
“It is impossible to know exactly how widespread this military censorship of entertainment is because many files are still being withheld.”
They write that their book “details how U.S. government involvement also includes script rewrites on some of the biggest and most popular films, including James Bond, the Transformers franchise, and movies from the Marvel and DC cinematic universes.”
The need for Pentagon toys
This isn’t just about minor adjustments, but wholesale collusion between film-makers and the military: “If there are characters, action or dialogue that the DoD [Department of Defense] don’t approve of then the film-maker has to make changes to accommodate the military’s demands. If they refuse then the Pentagon packs up its toys and goes home. To obtain full cooperation the producers have to sign contracts — Production Assistance Agreements — which lock them into using a military-approved version of the script.”
The fact that script-writers, producers and directors on these mega-budget pictures know their film may never make it into production if it does not get a thumbs-up from the Pentagon inevitably influences the choice of subjects, the political and military premises of selected films, and the story lines.
One movie, Countermeasures, was ditched after the military objected to a script that “included references to the Iran-Contra scandal … Similarly Fields of Fire and Top Gun 2 were never made because they couldn’t obtain military support, again due to politically controversial aspects of the scripts.”
One can imagine just how stringent the conditions imposed by the Pentagon must be, if it felt compelled to reject a movie like Top Gun 2, the sequel to the “flyboys with toys” killing fest that starred a young Tom Cruise.
The two authors add: “The documents also record the pro-active nature of the military’s operations in Hollywood and that they are finding ways to get involved during the earliest stages of development, ‘when characters and storylines are most easily shaped to the Army’s benefit’.”
Bad apples, not bad institutions
In addition, film-makers are pressured into changing scripts that suggest institutional or systemic problems in the U.S. security agencies.
The two authors observe that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has admitted that the script of the film Enemy of the State was changed under pressure from the NSA so that the wrongdoings at the heart of the film would be the responsibility of a single individual, not the agency itself.
“This idea of using cinema to pin the blame for problems on isolated rogue agents or bad apples, thus avoiding any notion of systemic, institutional or criminal responsibility, is right out of the CIA/DOD’s playbook,” they observe.
So not only are movies critical of U.S. and western politics and militarism almost certain to be off-limits for a big-budget production, but that void is certain to be filled by film proposals the studio is confident will win approval from the Pentagon, CIA and NSA.
And this is, of course, on top of the fact that the Hollywood money-men are themselves part of a larger globalized financial elite that depends on the proceeds of the homeland security industry, arms manufacturers and war profiteers. These financiers are certain to prefer funding films that support a neoliberal worldview at home and a neoconservative policy of warmongering abroad.
As Secker and Alford conclude: “In societies already eager to use our hard power overseas, the shaping of our popular culture to promote a pro-war mindset must be taken seriously.”
Gal Gadot and the IDF
All of this is the context for deciphering the egregious propaganda in favor of western military violence, and the portrayal of peace-seeking as “appeasement”, that is Wonder Woman.
There has been plenty of guffawing at Middle East countries, including Lebanon, for seeking to ban Wonder Woman because it stars Gal Gadot, an Israeli beauty queen turned actress.
In fact, it is understandable that the Lebanese might object to a film heavily promoting Gadot as the world’s savior, given that she served in the Israeli army, one that brutally occupied parts of their country for two decades, until 2000, and continues to maintain a belligerent occupation of the Palestinians.
But there is also an undeniable irony to Gadot playing an Amazonian goddess who opposes the militarism of men, and cannot bear to see the suffering of children in war, when in real life she publicly cheered on the Israeli army’s massive bombardment in 2014 of the imprisoned population of Gaza, which led to the killing of some 500 Palestinian children there.
But more importantly, it is not just that Gadot, a former IDF soldier, is now the face of Wonder Woman; it is that the film’s superhero character too almost perfectly embodies the shared militaristic values of the IDF and the Pentagon. If there is one film whose script suggests it was jointly engineered by the Pentagon and Israeli army, it is Wonder Woman.
Hillary Clinton as Wonder Woman?
The film is set near the end of the First World War, a cataclysmic confrontation between two colonial powers, Britain and Germany, each trying to assert its dominance in Europe. The film-makers blur their focus sufficiently to gloss over the problem that there were no good guys in that “war to end all wars”. Instead in true Hollywood fashion, the First World War is presented simply as a prelude (or prequel) to the Second World War and the rise of the Nazis.
The Germans are murderous villains, while the British are the flawed – until Gadot shows them the error of their ways – defenders of humanity. In fact, the film prefers to cast the anti-German side as “Allies”, the humane members of the world community, represented by the U.S. – Chris Pine is the male lead and Gadot’s love interest – and a ragtag support group that includes a Scot, a native American, and a generic Arab, presumably symbolizing “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
The British leadership is trying to find ways to make peace and bring the war to an end, but is stymied by an evil presence. A German super-general, Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), believes he can win the war decisively by developing a horrifying gas that will wipe out men, women and children, forcing the British to surrender on his terms. To demonstrate his power, he tests the gas on innocent villagers on the front lines in Belgium.
All of this might sound disconcertingly familiar to anyone who has been following the western media-scripted coverage that has for several years now been trying to promote more aggressive “humanitarian intervention” in Syria – and before that, in Libya and Iraq.
Is Ludendorff supposed to be Bashar Assad, the evil Syrian president who – as long as we discount the dissenting voices of some experts – has twice used the chemical weapon sarin against innocent civilians?
Are the British leaders, seeking a peace deal with the Germans, supposed to be those “appeasers” in the West who have stood in the way of “intervention” in Syria, blocking no-fly zones and bombing runs that could bring down the Syrian government?
And in an even more disturbing, if now outdated, parallel, given the film’s insistent identity politics, is Wonder Woman – the Amazonian who brings peace through overpowering military violence – a stand-in for Hillary Clinton? When the movie was in production, the filmmakers must have assumed it would be released as Clinton was enjoying her early months in office as the first female U.S. president.
The use of Wonder Woman to justify Clinton’s well-documented blood lust–the woman who laughed as “our rebels” murderously sodomized Libya’s Col Gaddafi, saying: “We came, we saw, he died” – would have proved timely had the U.S. election turned out differently.
War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength
Those who have not seen the film, and take it seriously as entertainment, may wish to skip this section, which includes a significant spoiler.
The source of man’s evil in Wonder Woman is the only surviving Greek god, Ares, who is hiding somewhere in the human world. Wonder Woman believes she can end all war and human suffering only if she can locate Ares and kill him – before he kills her.
No one in the human world, of course, believes Wonder Woman, and foolishly they dismiss her ideas as lunacy. And for a while Wonder Woman makes a terrible mistake in thinking the German Ludendorff (Saddam / Gaddafi / Assad) is Ares. It is late in the film that she discovers she has been on the wrong scent.
Humankind’s ultimate enemy is not Ludendorff, but the kindly Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), the British leader who has spent the entire film counseling for negotiations and peace with the Germans.
The ultimate evil, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, Wonder Woman finds, are those among us who preach fraternity, compassion and turning the other cheek. They make possible the killing of the innocents.
Those who appear to care, those who seem to offer a route out of bloodshed and war – those who defeat the aims and threaten the profits of the military-industrial complex – are in truth nothing more than appeasers. Their efforts are certain, even intended, to lead to greater suffering.
Militarism, superior firepower, and an absolute belief in the justness of one’s cause, as Wonder Woman is reminded by her Amazonian tutors during her childhood Krav Maga training (Gadot was herself an Israeli army combat trainer) are the way to save mankind from the evildoers.
There is no time to delay, to stand back, to question or to negotiate. Wonder Woman is outraged by the dithering of the men around her. She wants to be at the front line as soon as possible, to kick ass.
“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” – and all of it is good for business, the film Wonder Woman concludes in truly Orwellian fashion.
A veneer of identity politics
Of course, this story – like all effective propaganda – is supposed to work its magic at a subconscious level, where it cannot be interrogated by our reason and our critical faculties. But even so, a few critics – themselves enthusiastic liberal interventionists – seem to have intuited the movie’s message.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a reviewer with the clearest sense of how the film panders to the pro-war sentiments and identity politics of many liberals is the film critic of the conservative Washington Free Beacon.
Sonny Bunch applauds the way the film “highlights the need for the strong to intervene on behalf of the weak and the oppressed, and treats as villains quislings who sue for a peace that will bring only more destruction.”
But he also understands how the film has been crafted to make its war-mongering more palatable to liberals. Wonder Woman, he writes, proves “you could slap an identity politics veneer on just about any neoconservative policy and progressives would lap it up. … Liberal interventionism is back, baby!”
Drooling from liberals
And sure enough, the community of largely liberal film reviewers has mostly drooled over Wonder Woman. Despite dire acting from Gadot, preposterous dialogue and a risible screenplay, the film has racked up an astounding 92 percent approval rating from critics on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
Here is a brief selection of their assessments:
Dana Stevens, of Slate: “This is a movie about battling evil that pauses to ask what evil is and whether it’s necessary to understand its nature in order to defeat it.”
Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle: “What lingers … is the feeling of hope that the movie brings, that it someday might be possible for female rationality to defeat male brutality.”
Richard Brody, of the New Yorker: Wonder Woman is “an entry in the genre of wisdom literature that shares hard-won insights and long-pondered paradoxes of the past with a sincere intimacy.”
A. O. Scott, of the New York Times: “Her sacred duty is to bring peace to the world. Accomplishing it requires a lot of killing, but that’s always the superhero paradox. … Unlike most of her male counterparts, its heroine is not trying to exorcise inner demons or work out messiah issues. She wants to function freely in the world, to help out when needed and to be respected for her abilities. No wonder she encounters so much resistance.”
The paradoxes of power
Wonder Woman grapples with the paradoxes of military power every American interventionist and Israeli patriot understands. To save the “beautiful children”, she must sometimes rush to intervene and kill with extreme prejudice, even if the other side’s children are among those who are sacrificed.
Wonder Woman wants to “function freely”: she must enjoy the right to go wherever her interests take her. She cannot be shackled by borders in her quest for justice. She is there to “help out” others in trouble, even if she alone gets to decide who needs help and what counts as trouble. And she needs “respect”, and is prepared to force others to accord it to her, through her superior strength if need be.
She will face “much resistance” because others are jealous of her power and her freedoms. They are the evildoers, and they must and will be defeated.
Is it any surprise that in the Hollywood-Pentagon-IDF world of Wonder Woman, the values of a female superhero sound exactly like those of the military men who run the West’s wars?
Now roll on “Wonder Woman 2: Time to Intervene (Humanely)”.