SEALed with a Myth BY WILLIAM GIBSON NAVY SEALS Directed by Lewis Teague ICAN HEAR your groans and sighs all the way out here in LA: “Oh my God, not another shoot’em-up. Do we really have to hear this story again?” Well, pilgrims, the road to the Promised Land winds its way through many a strange territory, and Navy SEALs is one. This movie is about the Navy’s Sea-Air-Land commandos, successors to the WWII “frogmen.” President Kennedy authorized the Navy to develop this unit for “riverine and coastal” operations in 1962 as part of JFK’s emphasis on “special operations” and “counter-insurgency” warfare as the solution to peasant revolutions in Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa. By the late 1970s the Navy managed to add counter-terrorist and hostage rescue missions to the SEAL repertoire. As the years went by, the SEAL legend grew and grew; they became known as the elite of the elite. Navy SEALS is but the most recent addition to the men’s “action-adventure” movie genre. Scores of these films, such as the Rambo epics and Top Gun, have been produced since the United States lost the war in Vietnam. To most Observer readers, these films depict nothing more than mindless violence. But millions of Americans find much more meaning in them than the simple accumulation of a high enemy body-count. They, too, are troubled by many of the changes the United States has been through over the past 15 years, and the “warrior mythology” created in these movies offers an appealing vision of who men are and what America is about. Navy SEALs is true to the basic themes of the genre and delivers its message clearly. Situated in “the present day,” the movie opens with a U.S. Navy helicopter shot down by gunboats in the “Eastern Mediterranean.” The surviving pilot and co-pilot are taken to a warehouse in Lebanon. There we see the terrorist leader, a tall, lean, olive-skinned man with a black beard and dark eyes. He orders the two surviving Americans executed. As the first shot blasts open the head of the poor co-pilot, the window and skylight to this hell hole shatters into a thousand shards of glass. SEALs swing into the room, their faces covered with black ski masks. After all the “terrorists” are killed or captured, the J. William Gibson is the author of The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. to the startled pilot, “We’re a SEAL team: we’re here to get you out.” When the pilot responds, “I believe you! the story of Navy SEALs falls into place It isn’t just that the man has been saved from death, but more important, his faith in America has been confirmed. U.S. political leaders had the guts to order the rescue, and the SEALs, who are “America’s best on the playing field,” brought it off. The old America, the pre-Vietnam land of the winning team, has been resurrected. All this occurs in the film’s first 10 minutes. But that evil commander survives the initial U.S. assault, and is released when the SEALs make their escape. Moreover, the SEALs discover that the Lebanese have obtained scores of U.S. “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles. Locating the missiles and the demonic terrorist leader \(who was responsible for the 1983 truck advances the plot for the rest of the movie. LONG THE WAY we learn what kind of men the SEALs are and what they want. Very early in the film, a black man called “Chief,” \(ostensibly grave doubts about his forthcoming marriage. “I have a commitment to the team,” he tells his mates. Later, just as his bride-to-be walks down the aisle to the altar, the SEALs’ beepers go off as they are summoned for a mission. The bride is left with a mere “I’ll call you,” as the men dash off to their waiting jeep. “There is a god in heaven!” exclaims Charlie Sheen. This god’s name is Mars, and he has saved these men from routine marriage, work, and the suffocating boredom of American life. Moreover, the god of war offers the SEALs the opportunity to become god-like themselves. The ads for Navy SEALs show them in scuba gear, flying their Paracommander steerable parachutes, as they descend toward the ocean. They effortlessly make the transition to aquanauts swimming arm-in-arm towards the enemy coast. Everything about the SEALs announces their magical powers. But at the same time, the SEALs must pay a high price to savor the pleasures and powers of the Olympians. As one high-ranking civilian official explains, while contemplating the hunt for the Stinger missiles, “Navy SEALs are paid to die if necessary.” By the time the movie is over, roughly half the American commandos are killed. The tree of liberty has been watered with more blood. And the survivors, especially Sheen and costar Michael Biehn, emerge stronger, wiser men who embody the spirits of their fallen comrades \(just as in Oliver Stone’s more liberal film, Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss always insisted that myths help people resolve contradictions between the values their society holds to be ideal, and the social reality people confront. What’s especially striking about Navy SEALs, and many other warrior films, is the way in which they offer men a hero who proclaims both his allegiance to American society and his right to live outside the rules that govern society because of his demi-god status. Warrior mythology provides for men a vision of how to transcend the constraints and powerlessness of being an ordinary American, while simultaneously loving America. This myth has political consequences. At one level, it gives rise to men like Marine Colonel Oliver North, and partially explains his popularity. Another way to measure the myth’s political load is to compare it to the progressive agenda. Progressives see contradictions between the professed American ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy, in contrast to a system of concentrated political and economic power. The progressive solution calls for changing the social system to make our ideal values come alive in practice. In contrast, modern warrior mythology handles the contradictions between people’s desire to believe in the old varieties of truth, justice, and the American way by ultimately blaming all the flaws of American society on fantasy devil figures. To save America, men must become heroic warriors and slay these devils. At the same time, the fantasy of fighting evil creates the illusion of living a great adventure. In important ways, warrior mythology channels dissent; it promotes the ideal of being a free-spirited “rebel” who occupies an important place in the system. The right-wing’s near monopoly in appealing to people’s needs for adventure and transcendence of life’s everyday routines must be challenged. Progressives have much more to offer this country than just criticisms of the status quo. As the civil rights movement demonstrated, social change can be an adventure, too, with plenty of room for heroes and heroines and a community of brothers and sisters. People crave that feeling of being fully alive and meeting challenges. We have to compete with the warrior mythology on that level to once again engage the imagination of the American public. Otherwise the right wing will find new “enemies” to slay such as foreign and domestic drug traffickers as a means of mobilizing people toward their cause. 0 20 AUGUST 17, 1990
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