Earlier this year, I found myself unwittingly made the subject of a segment produced by Fox News, aired one afternoon beneath the headline “Editorial calls Lone Survivor movie military propaganda.” The editorial in question was an essay I had written the week before for The Atlantic, in which, as accused, I had described Peter Berg’s then-recent blockbuster war film as essentially propagandistic, or “a feature-length recruitment ad” possessed of “excessively nationalistic elements” that was “almost pornographic in its excess.” Needless to say, the right-wing Fox News anchors who saw fit to profile my piece found these conclusions distasteful. Many of the program’s conservative viewers agreed, and flocked to social media to let me know: I was inundated for several days thereafter with emails, tweets and even private Facebook messages attacking my apparently unpatriotic opinions, which had of course been rapidly shorn of nuance and reduced to something more palatably simplistic. The experience, while irritating, proved instructive. Lesson learned: where entertainment is concerned, ideology is a sensitive subject.
This dimension of my argument seems to have been lost in the ensuing controversy, but it’s worth clarifying that I never intended to criticize Lone Survivor for simply being a work of propaganda—indeed, I’m not even sure why the term has developed such intensely negative connotations that its mere mention provokes indignation. I think perhaps we’re apprehensive about the suggestion that we might be deceived by a film, that our pliant minds might somehow be bent by the prying hands of indoctrination, and therefore we resist the implication that it’s possible. We don’t like to believe that our entertainment has ulterior motives. We prefer to conceive of propaganda as something veritably Orwellian: we think of it only in terms of the extreme cases, ideally seen from the other side, like Triumph of the Will. In truth the concept is more complex. Consider the Oxford definition: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” I think we’ve come to overemphasize that “misleading”—we’ve come to think of it as synonymous with “untrue.” And when it comes to art we want the truth.
We tend to be more sympathetic to the notion of propaganda when we find ourselves aligned with the ideology being promoted—part of the reason, I suspect, why enthusiastically pro-military audiences seemed to embrace Lone Survivor so warmly. This effect is further complicated when we begin to look at films historically, both as reflections of the period (which sometimes yield antiquated views) and as products of the state. For several years during the second World War, in particular, the cinema become widely appropriated as a vehicle of state ideology, with many fine films designed from the top down to endorse a nation’s war efforts and to promote emotional, psychological, and even financial support. Naturally, some of these films were good and some of them were bad, but it hardly seems reasonable to dismiss any simply on the grounds that they were produced with a political agenda in mind. Wartime propaganda emerged from Axis and Allies alike, and spanned much more than merely newsreels and appeals to buy war bonds. Many filmmakers were bound by responsibility to the state to produce feature films that can only be described as propagandistic. And yet somehow through this they managed to produce great art anyway.
Perhaps most notable, to this end, are Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who together made more than a half-dozen great films with the support of their British government during World War II. Their second collaboration, and one of their most overtly propagandistic, is Contraband, a comic spy mystery from 1940 made in the taut but jubilant style of early Alfred Hitchcock. Produced at the behest of Britain’s Ministry of Information, Contraband was, like the duo’s The Spy in Black before it and The 49th Parallel after, intended to encourage support for the Allied war efforts, further attesting to the ruthlessness of the Nazis and, even more vigorously, the valor of those who risked their lives to oppose them. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Powell and Pressburger were not uncomfortable with the idea of making films which expressly promoted an agenda—indeed, in Powell’s autobiography, A Life in Movies, he would say of these efforts that while “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, I’d show him a thing or two.” Propaganda wasn’t some insidious aspect of the project. It was the name of the game.
Seen today, of course, Contraband is hardly a call to arms. But its propagandistic thrust may account for the vigor of its action, which deftly sweeps us up the mix of romance and espionage intrigue. The film seems great today not for or in spite of the state-sponsored argument it mounts, but for the same qualities by which many great films impress themselves: for the wit of its screenplay, by Pressburger; for the verve of its direction, by Powell; and for the allure of its co-leads, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, who share an inexorable chemistry. Veidt here plays a Danish merchant sea captain laid over for inspection at a British Contraband Control Port off the coast—an organization whose function and significance are elaborated to us at least partly for educational reasons—while Hobson, with whom he was successfully paired in The Spy in Black, plays an English spy and traveller aboard his ship. Docked for the night while its cargo is laboriously surveyed, the ship and its passengers are entrusted to Veidt and warned not to leave; Hobson, eager to deliver a time-sensitive message to London, quietly slips away, and it’s therefore up to Veidt to pursue her and return her before morning.
From this familiar premise Powell and Pressburger derive considerable pleasure, furnishing their otherwise traditional spy-thriller adventure with the flourishes of a screwball romance. And, by setting the action during a night-long, city-wide blackout (enforced frequently during the period but rarely seen on screen), they devise a novel view of a city seen countless times before. What is evident through all of this is the artistry of the pair—their brilliance eclipses the requirements of the state agenda, which they fashion toward their own ends. I might suggest that there is a lesson here. To put it frankly, the difference between Contraband and Lone Survivor (among others) is not that one is more or less propagandistic than the other, nor is it the message being propagandized. The difference is that Contraband has been artfully crafted while Lone Survivor has the most part not. Peter Berg felt compelled to reduce his Taliban villains to one-dimensional cartoons, the better to facilitate our desire to seem them blown to smithereens. Powell and Pressburger, whose villains are Nazi spies, don’t need to resort to such gimmickry: they present them as people and let their actions speak for themselves. This isn’t a moral distinction. It’s an artistic one: it’s the difference between richness of imagination and creative bankruptcy. Both films function as propaganda. Only one is animated by genius.