In a recent Salon article, writer Matthew Rozsa criticizes the new World War I drama “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes. Rozsa’s primary issue with the film isn’t artistic, however, but political. He feels that the movie is too nationalistic and that it doesn’t do the thematic heavy lifting required of a modern war movie.
Rozsa states that the Great War didn’t necessarily spring from a larger, black and white issue – such as slavery or fascism – but instead from different countries attempting to assert their own dominance. As such, claims the author, any WWI story – like “1917” – told from the perspective of a single country is perpetuating a dangerous mindset; one that assumes the superiority of one’s own country. In other words, a movie like “1917” has a responsibility to think globally, even as it tells a limited story.
Of course, Rozsa is entitled to his opinion. We all have ideas of what a movie should or shouldn’t do, especially when it falls into a specific genre, such as horror or, in this case, war. But, of course, just because we have opinions doesn’t mean they’re valid, particularly if they start to become prescriptive. Suddenly, a personal preference becomes the ultimate standard by which a movie is measured and, if it falls short, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to engage with a movie on its own terms.
Early in the article, Rozsa writes, “Any film set during that conflict has a responsibility to account for the horrors of nationalism, much as a film that takes place during the Civil War must deal with slavery, and one that occurs during World War II must acknowledge fascism.” While I agree that for certain movies to ignore overriding themes or events can be less artistically satisfying than if they acknowledged them, I really dislike the schoolmarmish tone that Rozsa strikes here. He is attempting to dictate how any film that has the temerity to take place at a certain time in history should go about portraying that period, and he does this from a place of assumed 20/20 hindsight. When we have a clearer view of history, surely a filmmaker should try to incorporate that view into their work, right?
Film critic Roger Ebert, when defending the Asian American-centered film “Better Luck Tomorrow” against the claim that the film should do a better job representing its demographic, bellowed out, “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be! They do not have to ‘represent’ their people!” What Ebert was advocating for was the right of a filmmaker – any artist, really – to have their own point of view, limited though it may be.
When writers like Rozsa, who would appear to approach art first through the lens of politics, insist that a movie has a responsibility to “account for the horrors of nationalism” or “deal with slavery” or “acknowledge fascism,” I’m reminded of that wonderful quote from Roger Ebert. Sure, we may prefer that movies discuss their subjects a certain way, but a director is under no obligation to do so. To require a movie to approach its material the way we’d like is to ignore the notion that a filmmaker may actually have a reason for not doing so.
Many of the best movies ever made have willfully omitted certain facts or different points of view in order to better express the opinions of the filmmaker. This is the very nature of art. We may like it; we may not. But it’s this kind of variety – the opportunity to allow an artist to do something we may not agree with – that makes art so valuable. It is about engagement between the artist and audience, who may have differing opinions. A film has the right to be whatever the hell it wants to be. And the day that art is only considered acceptable when it affirms a pre-approved narrative is the day that art is rendered pointless.