The Common Good
June 2011

Fight or Flight

by Gareth Higgins | June 2011

Gareth Higgins reviews Batle: Los Angeles, Saving Private Ryan, and Chinatown.

Battle: Los Angeles is the American shadow writ large on a movie screen. An alien enemy invades from the sky, tearing apart the beaches of Santa Monica and Malibu, destroying the Los Angeles skyline, incinerating skyscrapers and tiny apartments alike. The military is immediately mobilized, and goes to work. The city has never looked so terrible; the urge for violence never more integrated into the psyche of the protagonist. It is, simply, kill or be killed; so go ahead and kill. Kill a lot.

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Critics who denounce the film as nothing more than a video-game, shoot 'em-up nightmare are missing the point. Battle: Los Angeles is far more subtle than this reception suggests -- after many attempts at serious films about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we finally have one that’s distilled down to purest essence: unadulterated fight or flight. No questions asked, no quarter given, no imagining of why the enemy invaded, how to prevent it, or how to resist without destroying ourselves. The lead character lost men in Iraq due to an impossible choice; the alien invasion is an opportunity to salve his conscience. So he makes up for previous horror by creating more, while soldiering is presented as nothing more than a job -- experimenting with the best way to kill an alien, skipping breakfast to get back in the fight.

Battle: Los Angeles is also as honest as Saving Private Ryan about the trauma of war, and refreshingly open-minded about who gets a stake in America’s future. The combat units are racially integrated (and have two women with them too); the only voice that speaks up for a nonviolent response comes from a Latino child -- respecting both ethnic diversity and the wisdom of innocence.

Los Angeles, of course, is the center of our cinematic dreaming (and, if Chinatown, the best L.A. film, is right, then whoever controls Los Angeles controls America). Here, it becomes the center of the shadow of our moral universe -- the place where our nightmares go to work themselves out. It's a frightening vision, but it might also be a healthy one. Spiritual guides and psychologists alike tell us to face the shadow or it will overwhelm us. Battle: Los Angeles is certainly facing the shadow; it's for the audience to decide what to do with it. Can we be opposed to violence and still respect the humanity of those who join the military to protect others? Can we be committed to nonviolence and also embrace the necessary forcefulness of standing in faithful, even dangerous, opposition to injustice? Can we look at a film like Battle: Los Angeles and recognize that, if we are to ever embody peace, we need to promote an alternative to war that is at least as exciting as blowing up the Santa Monica pier?

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.

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