Commentary: Hollywood 2012: What Messages are the Movies Sending Us?
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Commentary: Hollywood 2012: What Messages are the Movies Sending Us?

“If I had cash to spend on promoting the values and ideas and policies that I believed were best for this country, you can bet that I would be out finding talented directors, writers, and producers who shared those values,” writes R.J. Moeller. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Hollywood 2012: What messages are the movies sending us?

by R.J. Moeller

batmanThe list of the twenty-five top-grossing films (worldwide) of 2012 has been released, and I believe there are a few important lessons that proponents of free enterprise, limited government, and traditional Judeo-Christian values can learn from its inventory.

First, let’s take a look at what types of stories drew the most attention in 2012. The top three – Avengers,Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall – are all superhero/action flicks.  At their core, they are “good vs. evil” morality plays. They are about the pursuit of justice and defense of the defenseless. They are about sacrifice and loyalty and love.

Of course much has already been written and said about Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise and the “controversial” plotlines and themes therein. (By the way, anytime the word “controversial” is used by the mainstream media to describe a popular movie, what they’re really saying is “there’s stuff in this that doesn’t comport with our progressive view of the world.”) In Dark Knight Rises, we see yet again that when evil people do terrible things, when good people remain silent and allow society to decay from within, the result is not pretty. Nolan even addresses, to some extent, the dangerous, mob-like mentality that manifests itself when class-warfare is used by those wishing to “bring down the system.”

Mankind’s fallen nature is an ever-present reality in these three films. In Avengers, the spiteful jealousy of a younger brother (Loki) leads him to sell-out his family, his home-world, and planet Earth. The collection of heroes assembled to combat this pressing darkness do not like one another, have egos and prejudices of their own, but come together because they value human life. They realize that the importance of the talents they’ve been given outweighs the “curse” of the responsibility that comes along with them. Even the slightly darker Skyfall is in part a character study of what happens to a hero when he finally begins to falter (and perhaps even fail a time or two). James Bond’s motives are noble, even if his extracurricular activities are not.

Also in the top 10—and after only a few weeks in theaters—is the film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, brought to us by the same team that masterfully crafted the Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago. The honorable, traditional, and even Biblical values infused in Tolkien’s epic tales should be well-known to all. Throughout this Top 25 list there are movies that project similar values. It isn’t dark and pessimistic Indie films, or the next Martin Scorsese downer, that sells tickets like these flicks do.

Which brings me to my next point: There is money to be made in producing top-of-the-line, compelling, PG-13 movies (and, yes, movies rated for even younger audiences). This isn’t a ground-breaking discovery, by any means. But given how much influence we know Hollywood has on our kids—and even on ourselves if we’re being honest—this “You can turn a profit doing good, family-friendly work” point needs to be reiterated.

This is especially so in light of how few of us who champion traditional values are in the movie-making business. Conservatives and libertarians spend a lot of time and money on rallies and events and conferences and Ann Coulter books, but very little on influencing culture. If I had cash to spend on promoting the values and ideas and policies that I believed were best for this country, you can bet that I would be out finding talented directors, writers, and producers who shared those values. I’m not talking about simply churning out pro-free market propaganda, or only financing films that invoke the name of “Edmund Burke” a pre-determined number of times. I’m talking about recognizing where we’re losing the ideological and cultural battles and entering the fray where the fighting is fiercest.

We are supposed to be the entrepreneurs. We are supposed to be the ones who care about “free and virtuous” societies. And we are. I know that we are. But there is a bigger war for the hearts and minds of Americans—especially young people—and we’re being routed because of our nearly total absence from the entertainment industry. Even with the risks involved in making something that people will actually watch and enjoy, to do nothing—or next to nothing—is unacceptable.

My final point piggy-backs off the first two: Even in “tough economic times” people still go see movies. This was a huge year for films at the box office, and a number of quality pictures were released. Hollywood is resistant to many of our values and ideas, but you’d be foolish to miss the writing on the wall with the types of movies that are making money (and with the impressive success of smaller, independent, religious films like Fireproof).

We can and must do better in projecting our voice in the public square. The opportunity is there. Our beliefs and convictions are not only better than those of the Hollywood Left, they are needed now by our country if we’ve any hope of turning things around.

Go West, young conservatives!

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).