Propaganda on the Big Screen

According to Wikipedia, propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Hell, there will probably be some propaganda in my commentary.

One major reason people choose to make art is to get a point across. Maybe it’s not a universal, cosmic truth point, but sometimes it is. People use poetry, novels, paintings, movies, and countless other media to share their ideas or to say something about the world in which they live. Social and cultural commentary is a huge part of the arts

In these instances, subtlety is usually more readily welcome than the blunt and repetitive propaganda we sometimes find.

The problem with propaganda in movies is that it gets annoying. It feels like the writer or director is preaching at us. And though that may be the case, we shouldn’t feel like we’re being preached at—nobody likes being preached at. It’s a movie; we should be entertained. And if the director or writer feels the need to preach, let them do it in such a way that no one notices.

In The Lorax, for instance, I knew going in that it would be about saving the environment. I didn’t know how much it was going to beat me over the head with being eco-friendly, though. But I didn’t really notice just how adamant the Lorax was about his trees until a friend pointed it out to me. She complained about there being too much propaganda, especially for a children’s movie.

But there is such a thing as good propaganda. As annoying as it may be, The Lorax does have a pretty good message: Don’t wreck the environment. It’s bad for everyone. Personally, and I hope most people feel this way, I would rather my children be exposed to that kind of message than one that told us to do with the environment what we want.

Even with the endless talk about preserving the environment, The Lorax was very enjoyable. Some movies, however, are not so enjoyable.

I had no desire to see Act of Valor, but it was a friend’s birthday. The movie follows members of the United States military as they go on secret missions murdering terrorists and drug lords. I say “murdering” because that’s what it is.

First of all, it probably didn’t help that everyone who was cast was a terrible actor (as they were actual soldiers). Secondly, there was very little plot—and what little there was wasn’t very good or original. But once I got past that, the movie seemed familiar, like I had watched it before. But I hadn’t. It took me a while to figure out, but the movie played just like a first-person shooter video game. That’s fine; games like Call of Duty and Halo sell quite well. I don’t blame them for doing that.

But when they finally get the big bad terrorist at the end, they don’t just kill him, they obliterate him. Two or three shots would have done just fine, but the troops pump a seemingly endless supply of ammo into the terrorist.

When everyone in the theater stood up and clapped, I realized that Act of Valor was merely glorification of war and the military. Not only that, but first-person shooter video games were too. I was appalled at the overwhelming amount of propaganda in the movie.

Other movies like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series carry strong messages that get across without being too preachy. The Hunger Games is about standing up against an oppressive government even if it means risking your life or the lives of others. It’s about correcting injustice in a system that should be built on justice. Harry Potter is about racial tension (wizards and witches vs. muggles vs. mudbloods). Voldemort is basically a modern Hitler.

These two movies/series have a lot of plot and action. The action distracts from the message just enough so that it doesn’t get to be too much, and the plot makes the message more meaningful and helps the action to stay relevant.

These are just a few examples of the different ways propaganda can be used in movies. Be careful not to mistake a single incident with propaganda though. Propaganda is usually repetitive, and can be approached from multiple angles. A single detail does not make a movie propaganda.

Fox News attacked The Muppets recently for containing anti-capitalist propaganda. The primary antagonist is an oil tycoon named Tex Richman. He’s a stereotypical wealthy villain. Fox was trying to say that using a wealthy oil tycoon as a villain made the movie anti-capitalism. That single instance doesn’t mean the movie wants viewers to become socialists, and it doesn’t make the movie anti-capitalism.

Now, had the characters blown up gas stations and boycotted Wal*Mart while carrying anti-Romney signs, you might be able to say the movie had a lot of anti-capitalist propaganda. But as I remember it, none of those things happened.

Propaganda is sometimes a necessary evil, so be prepared to watch it on television and in movies. And don’t be afraid to have some of it in your story if you’re writing a screenplay or something similar. Just think about your audience, and you should be fine.


  1. Blake September 11, 2012
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