Movie night rolled around, as it often does, leaving me with no fruitful suggestions. To prevent the otherwise inevitable lapse into a profound sofa stupor, the gathering resignedly settled for the good-old-fashioned American standby: the action movie. A modern, fast-paced one, of course, replete with guns, blood, a dash of jingoism and quite a few more guns. The film was "The Old Guard," which was released in 2020 and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The movie is interesting not only for its particularly militaristic narrative elements but also because it represents the values of the audience it was intended for which imbues it with meaning in many places so fundamental they are often overlooked.
As a superficial escapist piece of entertainment, "The Old Guard" stuns with its slickly-choreographed and brutally violent action sequences, and it convincingly portrays the angst of virtually-immortal mercenary antiheroes. But implicitly, it is an ode to the military establishment's imposition of order through violence, so unreservedly presented that the film quite easily qualifies as a piece of militaristic propaganda.
Popular media is a reflection of popular values. According to a Gallup study from 2020, 40% of Americans have a "great deal of confidence" in the United States' armed forces. "Quite a lot of confidence" and "some confidence" follow at 32% and 20% respectively. Overwhelmingly, Americans are reluctant to cast a skeptical eye over the military and military spending — 50% of Americans find military expenditures to be "about right" — and, naturally, action films of the military variety will reflect this public opinion in their depiction of the military as an unequivocal force of good, easily capable of wielding altruistic violence to make the world a better place. Otherwise, the majority of viewers might be offended by a cynical or even morally ambiguous portrayal of the armed forces, which is quite bad for business.
Indeed, the military is always ready to lend a helping hand to studios which produce this positive publicity. Rebecca Keegan of The Los Angeles Times notes, "The Department of Defense regularly cooperates with Hollywood on projects large and small," and why not?
The protagonists of "The Old Guard" possess the ability to heal spontaneously, even from exceptionally grave injuries, making them practically invincible to both natural and unnatural causes of death. These characters serve as a thematic proxy for the American military, so naturally, their motivations are charmingly altruistic, though sometimes heavily overlaid with fashionable, edgy cynicism.
How, then, might one better the welfare of humanity with immortality? Once again, quite naturally, with violence. The centuries-old antiheroes are shown in dramatic montages to leap through historical events, bloodied weapons in hand, slaughtering the presumed evil-doers and making the earth a better place for democracy and freedom, one kill at a time. But to keep this from being too blatantly rosy at the start, the film depicts the Guard's collective decision to slow down its mercenary activities with the wooden leader Andy, played by Charlize Theron, speculating perhaps their many years of hand-to-hand ferocity might not have been so good for humanity after all. Reluctantly, the Guard is roused from this despondency by the appearance of a new immortal superhero, U.S. marine Nile Freeman, who is deployed in Afghanistan to ostensibly combat the local terrorist insurgents.
She storms a building, unquestionably occupied by some evil armed men. Exactly what she and the other marines are doing is ultimately unclear. This ambiguity refers to a phenomenon in which people hold a "reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military — we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them," as noted by James Fallows of The Atlantic. They shoot bad people. We might not know exactly who or where, but that information is irrelevant.
The military is good, and should we ever wonder if its use of violence is counterproductive, we can set up an appointment with CIA agent James Copley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Copley, at first unnerved by the Old Guard's violence, scoured the history books to discover their seemingly random missions actually saved the world. Multiple times. And if you do not believe it, he even has a bulletin board with snapshots, handwritten notes and newspaper clippings, all conveniently connected with string stretched between thumbtacks.
The moral of the story? The best way to address the world's problems is via militaristic violence. The value of human life, or the potential avenues of negotiation and cooperation, simply do not factor into the equation, and you might even be unpatriotic for protesting their conspicuous absence in "The Old Guard." But thank goodness we seem to be on the winning side!