An American Carol, a comedic parody of Michael Moore and other lefties in Hollywood, has the oddest closing shot I can recall seeing in a Hollywood film. First, we see John F. Kennedy making a speech from the Oval Office. Then the actor flubs one of his lines. The camera pulls back to reveal a movie set and a couple of crew members irritated by the actor’s mistake. Sounds fairly conventional, but the crew members are a pair of former Afghan terrorists still partially dressed in desert garb.
We pull farther back and see the director of the movie-within-a-movie. He’s an ex-leftist documentary maker. He and his sickly nephew gleefully decide to fire the actor. Then the camera widens to a landscape view. And we find out the Oval Office set has been placed in the middle of…Monument Valley.
It’s tempting to list all of the oddities in An American Carol, such as the opening shot in which “Sweet Home Alabama” plays behind a waving American flag. Or how the film swings between irreverence and solemn piety. (In one scene a man is getting his anus searched. In a later scene George Washington stands in the ashes of the Twin Towers and warns us not to ‘abuse’ freedom of speech.) Or how its conservative filmmakers want us to remember something Rosie O’Donnell once said about Christian fundamentalists while it avoids any mention of George Bush and Iraq.
However, let us examine intent rather than results, here. An American Carol is supposed to be a statement – a declaration of cultural independence, if you will – made with the help of Republicans working in the entertainment industry. The cast includes famous McCain supporters such as Kelsey Grammar, Jon Voight, and Robert Davi. The film is directed by Jerry Zucker, best known for his collaboration on Airplane! A former Democrat, Zucker moved toward the right after 9/11. Both he and his cast have criticized what they perceive as the unthinking liberalism of their fellow entertainers. (For more about their political viewpoint, see “Hollywood Takes on the Left” by Stephen F. Hayes, The Weekly Standard, 11 August 2008.) With An American Carol, they attack the most prominent of mass media liberals – Michael Moore.
In this comedy Moore is represented by lead character Michael Malone who, yes, is a fat slob motivated by a hatred of America, particularly its military, and creates misguided documentaries that reflect his hatred. He unwittingly becomes involved in a plot by terrorists who long for a filmmaker that will make better propaganda than what they can create. However, as the title suggests, he is visited by three ghosts who teach him the error of his leftist ways. (In this case, the ghosts are JFK, General Patton and George Washington.)
Moore learns to love America. Or the military. Or being protected from terrorists. Something along those lines, anyway. There isn’t a whole lot of love expressed in An American Carol for other American institutions beyond the military. (Well, one other. I’ll get to that later.) I would argue there’s a difference between patriotism and survival instinct – a difference between love of country and fear of death—but I’ll take the film’s ideology as it is.
Having presented its ideology, An American Carol insists that more Hollywood filmmakers should follow its path. The country needs movies that encourage Americans to love their country and ‘support the troops’. It cites one particular filmmaker as an example to follow: John Ford.
Before his ideological conversion Malone expresses a desire to leave the under-watched genre of documentaries and make sprawling epics in the Ford vein. (Considering that the real-life Moore has made, according to Box Office Mojo, the one documentary that crossed the $100 million mark in sales, it’s doubtful that he has a similar impulse.) His agent reminds him that Ford’s politics were more conservative. Leftists, the film argues, cannot match their cinematic betters until they acquire an optimistic view of their nation.
See it as a noble country, and the films will become nobler. That’s the point of the final weird shot. (Of course, this simplifies the iconography of John Ford’s movies where Monument Valley could also represent the danger that threatened civilization. In The Searchers, the great peaks standing alone in the desert symbolize loneliness.)
In any case, An American Carol wishes for more patriotic affirmations in American cinema. To what end, though? The answer can be found in another strange scene. Malone has achieved political conversion so, keeping with the original Charles Dickens story, he rushes to make amends with his estranged nephew. The nephew is a patriotic Navy volunteer, as well as the subject of the film’s venerating gaze. (Even though An American Carol shows a leftist organization giving out something called The Leni Riefenstahl Award, its worship of soldiers along with its climatic rally makes the film closer to the Riefenstahl aesthetic than any Moore documentary.) As Malone sees his nephew off to war, he pledges to use movies for good. Solemnly the nephew replies, “Welcome to the fight, Uncle Michael. This time I know our side will win.”
This time? I thought while watching this scene. What other time do you mean? (Maybe it’s a reference to the “Do we get to win this time?” line from First Blood 2.) And how exactly will more patriotic films help the United States win wars? To understand this, you have to do a little extracurricular reading.
In an article for Reason Magazine, producer Myrna Sokoloff said this in relation to An American Carol, “Last year you saw a bunch of anti-military movies like Redacted and In the Valley of Elah. All of them had big stars, and, thank God, they bombed. America didn’t want to see that stuff on screen. We have to show up to a movie that has our values. If this succeeds, it could change everything.”
Interestingly enough, Sokoloff waters down her own urgency. If America doesn’t want to see anti-military propaganda, then pro-military propaganda has no rationale as a counterweight. However, you have to view her comments less as a statement about liberals and more of a challenge to conservatives.
Note this in the context of statements from other conservative film activists. They accuse their fellow conservatives of neglecting this important ‘front’. Jason Apuzzo of the Liberty Film Festival writes, “We know many talented writers, directors, actors, etc….who desperately want to make films to support the war, but the right-wing elites with the money and the power to help them refuse to do so out of a lethal mixture of arrogance, apathy, and stupidity.” (“Why I Have no Sympathy for Republicans in Washington,” Libertas Forum, 16 November 2006) Mystery writer Andrew Klavan complains, “Many conservatives often seem to have given up on culture or not to care. There’s a strong strain of philistinism on the right.” (“Story Time”, City Journal, Spring 2008, vol. 18, no. 2) And Andrew Breitbart, creator of the Big Hollywood blog, argues that “you’re going to get better-behaving Americans … if you treat Hollywood like the important entity it is.” (“Breitbart’s big, red Hollywood” by Kris Kitto, The Hill, 2 December 2008)
An American Carol lists many Americans who should, in its view, behave better: college professors, George Clooney, and organizations such as Move On. However, its filmmakers are also looking for a change of behavior from neglectful conservatives.
In the end two Muslims who had first seen Hollywood as a chance to further terrorism have learned to love America through popular culture. Or, rather, conservative American culture as opposed to the ‘traitorous’ work of Hollywood leftists that encourages the likes of Saddam Hussein and evil Muslims. This, the film argues, is what Hollywood conservatives are fighting and how we can fight. So why aren’t we getting more funding from Republicans? Help us! You’ll lose the public without our help!
Unfortunately for Hollywood conservatives, the public wasn’t particularly drawn to An American Carol. Its $7million in ticket sales failed to cover even its relatively low budget. Trying to guess the reasons behind the limp grosses of a film can be a fool’s game. However, it may be that no one really wants to be lectured by cultural activists as to why their particular activism is important. An American Carol is what right-wingers accuse Hollywood liberals of making: a vanity project intended to please a small, select group.