After a recent screening of my new documentary Why We Fight, I was asked if I considered the film a ‘Republican’ film. The hero, Dwight Eisenhower, is a Republican, as are many of the film’s main characters. So the question makes sense. My answer is yes, I do hope Why We Fight is seen as a Republican film, but not exclusively so. The very reason I featured Eisenhower was that, throughout a complex career, he seems to have cared more about principle than party. Eisenhower prided himself on ‘reaching across the aisle,’ and I hope Why We Fight does the same.
Having said that, I recognize the difficulty films face in escaping the current trend toward polarizing American political discourse. Voices from the American Left and Right are becoming increasingly entrenched in their opposing stances, leaving little room for compromise in trying to understand the challenges we face.
Amid the recent increase in critical coverage of its activities, the current administration charges that such criticism reflects the agenda of a ‘liberal media.’ Media watchdogs call this charge absurd, which, in fact, it is. The idea that America has a liberal media is one of the great myths of American life. Turn on a television in any other Western nation and you will see this. In contrast to that of Britain, Germany, France, or Canada (countries where I’ve worked as a media-maker), the programming on American tv is limited to a narrow spectrum perhaps best described as Center-Right.
So where does this myth of liberalism come from? It is certainly true that some members of the entertainment community have traditionally aligned themselves with Center-Left causes. The values traditionally promoted by American narrative film and television have also comported with those of a liberal world view.
But it is also true that in recent years America has undergone a systemic rightward shift in public policy and attitudes. This shift has correlated with a significant rightward movement in mainstream television news. While members of the media may privately be inclined toward liberal values, these feelings rarely seem to affect content. There are exceptions of course, like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, but these are so outnumbered by Center-Right programming as to prove the rule. Some argue the events of 9/11 gave the overtly Right-wing administration of George Bush license to assert rightward pressure on society and the media. Others see this trend preceding that. Either way, it is simply not true that the American media is dominated by a liberal agenda.
What is true is that the independent movie business – a tiny subset accounting for about six percent of the entire entertainment business – is made largely by and distributed to the Left. The typical art house moviegoer in America is white, lives in a major metropolitan area, and, as the infamous red/blue maps of the 2004 election tell us, votes along liberal lines.
As a maker of political documentaries that typically play to art house crowds, I know that my audience likely reflects a narrow demographic of the American public. People say, ‘Then aren’t you just preaching to the choir?’ My answer is twofold. First, if you believe in something, there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir about it. But if preaching to the choir is all you’re doing, it can be frustrating. You feel as if you are feeding public division and polarization on a subject rather than promoting healthy public debate. In the case of Why We Fight, the subject is war, which touches everyone regardless of party. So if the movie only speaks to ‘the choir,’ I will surely feel I have failed.
So what can I do?
That’s where Eisenhower comes in. Americans of all stripes are weary of the way issues are discussed by pundits on TV. Too often, the rhetoric is absurdly simplistic and overtly biased. But somehow Eisenhower is different. When you look deep into his eyes, you see not a partisan agenda, but a depth of concern for Americans and the world we so define. His warning is about seeking a sane approach to national security no matter what challenges we face. At a time when many Americans are realizing that we face serious threats in the environment, healthcare, education, the economy, and the growing global conflict, it is clear that it will take real soul-searching by all of us to begin to find our way forward. After making Why We Fight, I’m confident that Ike can offer some sanity.