In today's Washington Post, Stephen Hunter bemoans the lack of heroism in modern action heroes. (Free registration required.)
Initially, his taste in movie heroes looks pretty good. Effusing over John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Hunter looks for the qualities D.H. Lawrence identified in his survey of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales ("The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer"). But he finds them so lacking in today's leading men that he can only assemble them in a Frankenstein compilation of traits culled from the men who ruled the silver screen in the 1960s and early 70s, when Hunter was presumably coming of age. He devotes a lot of attention to individual body parts, until the whole column reads like a mash note to the strictly heterosexual crushes of his puberty.
But he can't swoon over the tough guys of his past without first running down the presumably softer heroes of the present, implying that we're suffering some sort of manliness shortage. He never really explains why Matt Damon (star of the admirably unsentimental Jason Bourne movies) and company aren't tough enough except to say that Ben Affleck is "too pretty"; the production department pitches in by running a picture of Johnny Depp in all his kohled-up Jack Sparrow glory. Hunter wants but cannot permit himself to say that the new stars are just too goshdarned effeminate, although again the production department comes through for him. In the illustration that accompanies the print version of the article, they've pasted the features from a half-dozen older stars onto a shaved, waxed, faux-hawked male body that looks like it's walked straight out of an underwear ad.
Since he won't directly voice this masculine anxiety, Hunter's case is mostly hypothetical and mostly negative as he inventories the things the new heroes won't do:
Today's stars need love. They don't want to be feared, they want to be hugged. They want to be told, "It's okay, big fella." They don't want to shoot anyone, if possible; they certainly won't beat a confession out of a suspect [...]
In other words, today's male action heroes are wusses because they won't torture people. By the end of the paragraph, this celebration of brutality isn't even subtext anymore:
They never get even, they don't punish, they see the folly of vengeance, they inflict pain only on special occasions. (Last year's "Sin City" was one such occasion, where the point of the film was its removal from a moral spectrum, thus allowing its brutish heroes the freedom to torture, which they did.)
Sin City must be a tough case for Hunter, providing exactly the kind of swaggering, suspect-beating, bitch-slapping heroes he pines for yet rendering them as moral and physical grotesques. I didn't much like Sin City but if it troubles Stephen Hunter by holding up a mirror to his ethic of abusive toughness then it did exactly one thing right. (It also foregrounds and amplifies the misogyny of those old-school heroes, something Hunter studiously dances around in his paean to them.)
Elsewhere in the same paper Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan (our freedom-loving partners in the Global War on Terror), provides another perspective on interrogation and torture as seen from outside the comforting darkness of a cineplex:
The next day, an envelope landed on my desk; inside were photos of the corpse of a man who had been imprisoned in Uzbekistan's gulags. I learned that his name was Muzafar Avazov. His face was bruised, his torso and limbs livid purple. We sent the photos to the University of Glasgow. Two weeks later, a pathology report arrived. It said that the man's fingernails had been pulled out, that he had been beaten and that the fine line around his torso showed he had been immersed in hot liquid. He had been boiled alive.
And, if this should seem far from home:
According to a press release distributed to local media by the U.S. embassy in Tashkent in December 2002, the [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov regime received more than $500 million in U.S. aid that year alone. That included $120 million for the Uzbek armed forces and more than $80 million for the re-branded Uzbek security services, successor to the KGB.
In other words, when the prisoner was boiled to death that summer, U.S. taxpayers helped heat the water.
But I'm sure the authorities got their confession, administered by torturers with the eyes of John Wayne, the lips of Clint Eastwood, and the callused, manly hands of Lee Marvin.
Hunter gives away his game when he writes that "Only a few boys seem to have the man-junk that can get them through the heavy lifting of a hero's role." (The first one he lists is Samuel L. Jackson. Mr. Hunter, I offer you this advice: you might want to reconsider any sentence construction that has you referring to fifty-seven-year-old Samuel L. Jackson as a "boy.") There it is, surfaced at last--the man-junk. He wields the words with all the dexterity of a middle-aged dad picking up slang from his son, but the meaning is clear: our generation of sensitive, torture-averse heroes just don't have the balls for the job.
His essay provides yet another reminder of the inadequate, appalling, embarrasingly Freudian explanation for the Bush administration's misdeeds in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and "black prisons" all over Europe. We have inflicted horrible violence on the world, our principles, and ourselves because on September 11, 2001 our masculinity was threatened. With the White House occupied by the worst possible people under those circumstances--a pair of guys who ran on a hawkish platform but had ducked the military conflict of their youth--our leaders became desperate to reassert our (their) manliness by any means necessary. Too many of us, equally threatened, fell right in step behind them. (Hunter, by the way, is a conservative movie reviewer and novelist who praised Dick Cheney's "samurai" qualities after the VP shot his hunting/drinking buddy in the face. Apparently the modern samurai can coast by on draft deferrals--the important thing is the steely resolve with which he sends other people to fight.) And so a bunch of the softest, most cowardly bastards in history play at hard men by ordering their subordinates to shock, drown, strip, beat, and humiliate prisoners, while the Stephen Hunters berate our fictional heroes for not joining in.
Which brings us to one of the most puzzling things about Hunter's piece: our culture currently has no shortage of torture heroes. From movies to TV to comics, you don't have to look far to find entertainment that luridly dramatizes, justifies, or outright glorifies the business of inflicting pain on captives. (An aside to my academic friends: another sign that most culture doesn't "subvert" a damn thing. An aside to my conservative friends: still more evidence that "liberal Hollywood" doesn't just make liberal product. Popular culture eagerly offers itself up to whoever's in power, ready to spread whatever good news they dictate.)
We would all do well to remember another piece of film criticism from New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels:
In even the most morally unsophisticated forms of popular storytelling, it is certainly not violence in itself, not even killing, that unmistakably separates good guys from evil ones. It is torture. Heroes may kill; villains torture [...]
Our government would like to obliterate that difference in its desire to excuse its own crimes. We don't have to help them.