It wouldn't be news if I told you that the term "propaganda" is more commonly used by people these days in a derogatory sense. When did people start doing this? Was it after the rise of Fascism? The Red Scare? The Watergate scandal? The Whitewater affair? The films of Michael Moore? We now live in an age where it's criminal to manipulate anybody. After all, that is the purpose of propaganda: to manipulate.
Shortly after he finished "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", Steven Spielberg was hired to make the short film "A Timeless Call" for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In a way, the Democratic Party was making an odd choice in hiring Spielberg, since he had originally been a supporter of the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton and not that of Senator Barack Obama, whom the video was essentially made for. But overall we are left assuming that Spielberg has jumped ship and is now rallying behind Obama's cause. "As we watch this Steven Spielberg film," announces Rep. Chet Edwards, "let us remember that in the 21st Century, we are the land of the free- because we are still the home of the brave."
This film is, yes, propaganda. But people need to stop complaining about how evil propaganda is in itself and start thinking about the good things it has done in the past. Take for example John Ford's "The Battle of Midway" or Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" series. Both of these were made with the best intentions, which were to inspire American soldiers to carry America through a monumental war. There are other times when propaganda can be admired simply for its style while disregarding the substance at the same time. Leni Riefenstahl's films were great examples of these, as was Stanley Kubrick's "The Seafarers", a sailor propaganda film that can be praised for its camera shots, if not for what the film is actually about.
Hence, "A Timeless Call" mostly succeeds on both fronts- as effective propaganda and as an experiment on the part of the filmmaker itself. The subject of the film is the War in Iraq and the toll it has taken on some of the soldiers who have served in it. One particular soldier, Baldwin Yen, remarks on how he was abruptly sent to Iraq on the eve of Valentine's Day, while others, such as Jeremy Bennett and Melissa Mills, chillingly recall the horrors that they encountered by the time they reached Iraq- a country that they initially believed would be easy to weather and liberate.
The only problem with Spielberg's film is that it tends to go off-topic. There are several relapses in which veterans from past wars are interviewed, from World War II veteran Charles A. Graves to Clinton-era veterans like J.D. Henderson, who says he thought himself obliged to serve his country, to John Ramos, a Mexican who proudly recalls his satisfaction at being treated equally among his fellow white comrades. It seems as though Spielberg merely includes them in this film to portray the Democratic Party as a party that supports the troops as much as the Republican Party does. What the film should have done instead was show why the Democrats support the troops, but also what the Democrats would want the troops to do differently.
Despite the flaws of its content, however, "A Timeless Call" is stunningly well-made. Spielberg has wielded an impressive technical team in the making of this film. John Williams is back, and with an original musical score that is powerful enough to shake the heavens. It is similar to his score from "Saving Private Ryan", but sounds darker at times, as well as more modern and relevant to contemporary issues. Whether or not Spielberg's film can persuade voters to send Obama to the White House is besides the point. Democrats are often so obsessed with calling for an end to the War in Iraq that they forget how important it is to support the troops nevertheless.
"They lay down their lives for the land, and the dream that is America", says Tom Hanks in the closing scene, "a dream that is lifted on their shoulders, and one that lives always. That no matter how different we appear from one another, we are there for one another. One nation, one people living in freedom, freedom that is won and protected by these ordinary, extraordinary Americans."
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