Couch Potato Briefing: Happy Birthday America – and Chinese Communism

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Global Spin’s weekly list of five movies to bring you up to speed with global events focuses this weekend on America’s July 4 holiday, and the 90th birthday celebrations of China’s ruling Communist Party 

Independence Day

“Should we win the day,” the American President thunders, “the Fourth of July will no longer be remembered as an American holiday, but as the day on which the whole world declared with one voice that we will not go quietly into the night, we will not vanish without a fight, we’re going to live on, we’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our independence day.” In Roland Emmerich’s delirious 1996 CGI sci-fi fantasy, Planet Earth’s feuding tribes are forced to suspend their hostilities (yes, even Saddam Hussein and his air force… air force? Never mind, this is all fantasy) to confront a common enemy — the alien invaders who would suck the planet dry of its resources and then destroy it. A giddy celebration of American values and U.S. global leadership, it features computerized renderings of the destruction of New York and Washington, D.C. on a scale that would have had al-Qaeda salivating, before humans figure out — borrowing heavily from Star Wars — how to disable the alien threat. The movie’s message: Can we all just get along? Sure, but only if we can manufacture a common threat.

Born on the Fourth of July

Some 150,000 American soldiers will celebrate this most patriotic of American holidays in Iraq and Afghanistan, their government having asked them to defend the freedom proclaimed on July 4, 1776, many thousands of miles from home soil. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July offers a grittier and more challenging take on the meaning of patriotism. It tells the true story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), a gung-ho American patriot who enlists to fight in Vietnam, where his unit’s involvement in a massacre of villagers and his own complicity in a friendly fire accident raise doubts about the war, before suffering a wound that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. He struggles with the after-effects of the trauma that has forever changed his life, eventually becoming an activist in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the organization in which Senator John Kerry was also a leader. With many thousands of Americans returning home with life-scarring physical and psychological wounds from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Born on the Fourth of July poses some of the questions American society will have to face in the wake of a decade of wars in the Muslim world.

Beginning of the Great Revival

“Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important,” said Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Illich Lenin, who founded the world communist movement in 1921. Lenin grasped the power of the medium even in its infancy and tried — ultimately in vain — to use it to propagandize the citizenry of his Soviet Union in defense of the communist system. But while Lenin’s own party may be a marginal relic of its once fearsome self, but the Chinese franchise of his global movement has fared infinitely better — perhaps by departing from the script, and transforming itself into the great Red hope for global capitalism. In the process, the Chinese communists have also embraced the production values of Hollywood, meaning that its own propaganda output is infinitely more slick than that of its old Soviet counterparts. And this week, the Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 90th birthday with a massive rollout of a film simply known as Founding of the Party, an epic that is — quite literally — showing on every screen in that country, but gets an art-house showing on selected screens across the U.S. under the title Beginning of the Great Revival. Sure, it’s self-serving propaganda, but it also offers a glimpse at how the Party, arguably the most important leadership institution in the contemporary world economy, views its own history and place in the world.

The Last Emperor

For a more nuanced, intimate account of some of the horrors that accompanied much of the epic history of the Chinese Communist Party’s rise, try The Last Emperor by that most accomplished of Eurocommunist auteurs, Bernardo Bertolucci. A bounteous visual feast in the best traditions of Kurosawa, it tells the story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, who ascended to the throne as a boy and was then caught in a turbulent history always beyond his control. The Japanese invaders prop him up in a puppet state of Muchukuou, but at the war’s end he is imprisoned by the triumphant communists, and eventually released into the life of an ordinary peasant in Mao’s People’s Republic. The movie captures the ironies of the Chinese Communist Party’s own history when Pu Yi stumbles on to a Maoist rally on the streets of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where the commander of his prison camp — a pillar of ideological correctness — is among those being humiliated for being insufficiently revolutionary.

Circle of Deceit

The indictment this week of senior members of Hizballah in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is a reminder of the murky politics of Lebanon’s 16-year civil war. Hariri had been credited with rebuilding Beirut after the devastation of that war, and his assassination — which was initially blamed on Syria — is a reminder of its multiple competing agendas and everyday treacheries. Volker Schlondor’s 1982 movie Circle of Deceit captures the dark complexities  of the civil war through the eyes of a Germany journalist (played by Bruno Ganz). It was filmed in Beirut at the height of the conflict in 1980, its protagonists — and perhaps its director — finding the brutal realities confounding their political  preconceptions about the conflict. The backdrop of a city at war is more interesting than the psychodramas of its expatriate characters — and as such it’s a rare cinematic document of a dark era in Lebanon recalled by Hariri’s murder.