During my undergraduate studies in video production, one textbook included a story about a legal dispute. Two parties argued over whether or not one of them could erect a business sign on a busy thoroughfare, since there were arguably too many business signs already in place there.
Both parties hired their own photographer to prove their claims. Both photographers took pictures of the same plot of land. One used a narrow-angle lens to compress the images, making the existing signs look as cluttered and close to each other as possible. The other used a wide angle lens to make the existing signs look as far apart as possible. Confused by the disparate results of the photographs, the judge dismissed the evidence entirely.
Similarly, in our current highly politicized culture, the lens of partisan assumptions can distort the movie-watching experience. This lens, often operating unconsciously, can cause misinterpretations of, and inappropriate responses to, a film’s story. If we don’t cultivate careful discernment, our political biases may sweep us along in their wake, leading to confusion, anger, and maybe even a rejection of what we see and hear.
There are at least three ways in which these distorted lenses operate. Recognizing them can help us to better interpret, enjoy, and discuss the movies we watch.
The first distorted lens is derogatory labeling. Even though “propaganda” is supposed to be a value-free term, we don’t conceive of it as having positive connotations. As such, the word is often used pejoratively: if we wish to condemn a film, it helps if we can label it as having an “agenda” with an “obvious message.”
The thing is, films with agendas and obvious messages are neither inherently wrong nor inherently bad. As I have written elsewhere, propaganda “involves the dissemination of ideas or information that promote(s) a particular cause or movement. It can be positive (as when used by Harriet Beecher Stowe) and it can be negative (as when used by Adolf Hitler).”
Films like Gosnell and Unplanned are explicitly pro-life. Films like Risen and The Case for Christ are explicitly Christian. These movies can and should be evaluated holistically, not merely on the presence or lack of an “agenda.”
Now, it could be argued that the most powerful films are ones without a dogmatic commitment to a particular message. Themes that flow out of a story—rather than a story that flows out of a manufactured theme—tend to resonate more honestly, powerfully, and lastingly. For example, films like Arrival and A Quiet Place communicate life-affirming messages more organically than some films constructed around a pro-life message.
In any case, too many people view films as mere tools to promote a moral; thus the tendency to reduce a film to its intended message (whether it actually has one or not). If we like the lesson of the story, we give it high marks. If we don’t like it, we assign it the stigma of “propaganda” and reject it wholesale.
The first problem leads directly into the second one: double standards. Because it is easy to overlook the faults of a film you agree with, and to exaggerate the faults of a film you disagree with, it’s possible to apply different standards to different stories based on our political persuasions.
A personal example: when I saw an advanced screening of Bella (a pro-life film) back in 2007, I initially tried too hard to paint the movie in a positive light. As a pro-lifer, I felt almost obligated to magnify Bella’s few strengths and minimize its many weaknesses (something I certainly wouldn’t have done for a pro-choice film). Since I published my review on my personal blog, it was easy enough to revise it after the fact.
On a larger scale, there was a massive push in the pro-life community to support Bella. Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi observed a “mind-numbing bandwagon” that almost seemed to threaten the faith community to “get behind Bella if you love Jesus and care about the babies!” In fact, she says,
A producer on the film subsequently left a message on my voicemail noting that my refusal to support the film had its source “in the demonic.” Really? “Demonic”? It couldn’t just be that I found the film plodding, easy, sloppy and uneven?
Of course, progressives are guilty of inconsistent standards as well. One recent case in point is when film critic Jeffrey Overstreet bemoaned the “objectification of women as trophies” in Top Gun: Maverick—a strikingly odd posture, considering that he extolled the virtues of The Wolf of Wall Street without even mentioning its propensity toward the objectification of women as playthings.
It’s no secret that Top Gun: Maverick has proven especially popular in conservative circles, whereas Martin Scorsese’s films resonate with the American left. And over the years, Overstreet has not kept his left-leaning politics private. Furthermore, Overstreet finds offensive several political elements in Maverick, including its glorification of “the ascendant Ageless White Man.”
To be sure, there is much more going on in Wolf and Maverick than their treatment (improper or otherwise) of women. Even so, when one film gets called out for including a minor component of female objectification, whereas another gets lauded in spite of its rampant female objectification, it reveals a double standard. While the reason for this disparity likely involves more than just politics, it evidentially involves nothing less.
In any case, critics and audiences of all stripes should be able to acknowledge a film’s strengths and point out its weaknesses, regardless of its political ideology. We should be able to critique a flawed film even if we agree with its good intentions. Whose “side” a film is on may not necessarily be a moot point, but it also isn’t the only factor. In many cases, it’s not even the most important factor.
The third distorted lens is reactionary interpretation. In a hyper-partisan climate, it’s easy to become hyper-sensitive to harmful beliefs and ideologies in the culture around us. Sometimes this can lead to paranoia: seeing messages in places where they don’t actually exist.
For example, while it might seem bizarre to us now, there was a time when It’s A Wonderful Life was under investigation by Ayn Rand, the FBI, and the U.S. House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee. Why? For promoting a subversively Communist ideology. Frank Capra’s now-classic film was accused of “deliberately [maligning] the upper class,” “attempting to show [that] people who had money were mean and despicable characters,” and displaying “a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers… [which] is a common trick used by Communists.”
It’s one thing to consider Communism as contradicting Christianity (as evangelical Christians still believe today); it’s quite another to label a pro-individual, anti-atheist film as Communist.
A more recent example is the Pixar film WALL-E, which some condemned as anti-capitalist propaganda for its “save the earth” themes. National Review called it “a 90-minute lecture on the dangers of over consumption, big corporations, and the destruction of the environment.” But as The American Conservative pointed out, the problem in WALL-E isn’t big business; it’s “big business wedded with big government.” Or, as Townhall’s Paul Edwards put it:
If the intent of capitalism is to cater to the basest instincts of the human heart, requiring us to indulge our every whim and desire, leading to a dependence on government, then I guess I, too, am an anti-capitalist. However, capitalism can only arrive at that end when all of the restraints of personal responsibility are removed. In this sense, WALL-E is a brilliant exposure of liberalism’s flaws.
WALL-E is the story of what results when a liberal vision of the future is achieved: government marries business in the interest of providing not only “the pursuit of happiness” but happiness itself, thus creating gluttonous citizens dependent on the government to sustain their lives. The result is a humanity consisting of self-absorbed, isolated individuals with no affection for others, who thus defy what it means to truly be human.
One might argue that WALL-E wasn’t designed to be an indictment of either conservatism or liberalism. It definitely functions as a critique of consumerism—a critique both warranted and welcome to all sane individuals, capitalist and socialist alike. In any case, it’s a brilliant piece of visual storytelling worth watching and discussing.
Rather than slap pejorative labels on films, making them appear worse than they seem, we should critique them honestly—just like we would any other movie. It should be sufficient for us to address legitimate issues rather than manufacture issues to make our position seem stronger. And even if we must oppose a film’s ideology, we can still defend our position “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Rather than employ double standards, we should practice fairness toward movies we agree with (which, at times, may necessitate constructive criticism) and movies we disagree with (which, at times, may necessitate commendation). The Lord loves just—not unequal—weights and measures (Prov. 11:1; 20:10).
Rather than default to critical judgments, we should exercise thoughtful discernment and not rush to assume or read into a film’s message. It is foolish to be hasty with our words and accusations (Prov. 29:20). As often as is possible, we can assume the most charitable motives of a filmmaker, even if their end product is problematic—or, ultimately, condemnable.
In light of Scriptural imperatives, may we avoid “foolish, ignorant controversies,” and “not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone,” and “[correct our] opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:23-25). May our speech “always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that [we] may know how [we] ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6). And may our words not be “corrupting… but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
In a tribalistic culture, disagreement is inevitable. But being disagreeable is not—especially not for those of us who profess submission to the meek and humble Lordship of Christ.