Thanks to some questionable foreign policy, America isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the block these days. But just how bad is it? Well, if these five films, all released in the past twelve years, are any indication, we’re lucky we have any friends left at all.
Valley of the Wolves: Iraq
Based on a popular television show of the same name, this 2006 film was at that time the most expensive ever made in Turkey. It was hugely popular, both in Turkey and in European countries with large Turkish populations, and it went on to spawn a very successful movie franchise.
Set in Iraq during 2003, the first scene of the movie actually occurred: American soldiers searched a Turkish military outpost, put hoods over the heads of the soldiers there, and led them outside at gunpoint before eventually deporting them. Because of the inclusion of this scene, the filmmakers got away with saying the whole movie was “based on a true story.” Which, considering the rest of the movie, says a lot about what the Turks think of America. One patron in Istanbul who was waiting in a long line to see the film for a second time said, “It is anti-American, but we already know what they’ve done in Iraq. That’s the reality. Now we can see it on screen.”
Billy Zane plays a born-again Christian American military commander who supposedly ordered the raid. He kills people at random, for seemingly no reason at all. Trigger-happy US troops slaughter a wedding party. A mosque is firebombed during evening prayer. The events at Abu Ghraib prison are made to look even worse than they actually were. But the absolute pinnacle of the movie is, wait for it, Gary Busey playing a deranged Jewish doctor. In just a few brief scenes, Busey amps up the crazy to new levels, even for him. His psychotic physician demands Zane bring him a constant supply of Iraqis, usually alive, so that he can harvest their organs and send them to Jews around the world. (The bit about actually packing up the organs and sending them overseas was cut from some theatrical versions.)
Reaction to the film was obviously mixed, with The Wall Street Journal calling it “a cross between American Psycho in uniform and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while a member of the Turkish parliament called it “an extraordinary film.” At a screening in Istanbul, a prominent businessman said, “It should make Americans see why the world doesn’t like them.” And that reason is obvious: Because Gary Busey is fucking insane.
The Turkish, being our NATO allies and all, are not usually our go-to bad guys in films. That distinction belongs to our good friends the Russians, so it’s no wonder they pay us back in kind. And while the Cold War may be long over, with the rise of Putin came a return to propaganda-style movies and accepted conspiracy theories. In a country where legitimate news stations run as fact segments about how 9/11 was an inside job, America is back to being evil incarnate in popular films.
However, sometimes these movies take it too far even for audiences prepared to believe almost anything about the US. The 2008 film Strangers was hyped up for months with the slogan, “The Most Topical Movie of the Year.” A widely reported but untrue rumor said that the movie had been banned in the US. One reviewer said that given the anti-American atmosphere in Russian at the moment the movie was sure to do well. She was wrong.
Set in an unspecified but Middle Eastern-y place meant to evoke Iraq or Afghanistan or both, the film follows a group of stupid, debauched, and outright cruel American medical personnel. Sent to vaccinate children living near a war zone, these health professionals are introduced dancing to music blasting from their SUVs and throwing water on each other. But as one Russian film critic noted, “If, in the beginning, the Americans are depicted as being ‘friendly but stupid,’ then later they seem to be possessors of all the most abominable qualities found in homo sapiens.”
A young female medic quickly seduces a guard, despite the presence of her husband. A gay couple traumatizes a native child by having sex where they can be seen. An old lady cruelly forces Western ways on the Arabs. And everybody rails against the kindhearted Russian team of mine removal experts. The Americans eventually do become pure evil, purposely letting an injured Russian die, and killing another outright. In the end, (um, spoilers?) it turns out that even their reason for being in the area is a sham; rather than inoculating the local children with important vaccines, they have been using them as Guinea pigs for an American pharmaceutical company.
While the director said the movie was meant to show how Americans “place themselves higher than all other peoples of the earth,” the movie bombed at the box office, being beaten out in its opening weekend not only by The Quantum of Solace but also by Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Even in pre-9/11 Russia, though, America was already being reviled on the big screen. Brother 2, as the name implies, was the sequel to the 1997 film Brother. But unlike the heavy-handed Strangers, this 2000 release and its predecessor broke box office records.
Brother 2 introduces a lot of villains, some of whom are Russian, but the overriding theme returns to that of Stalinist propaganda: the rich are evil and the West is rich. Everything bad about Russia is because it is trying to be like the United States. The badass hero, Danila, eventually heads to Chicago in order to rescue a Russian who was lured there under a bad hockey contract (because if there is one thing that America is known for, it is unfair hockey contracts). Most of the American residents of the city are horrible human beings, with one or two exceptions. After settling his scores and rescuing Dasha, a Russian prostitute, from her owner, the hero and his new lady head to the airport ready to fly back to Moscow. When told by customs officers that her visa is expired and she can never return to the States, Dasha flips the country the bird and they fly off into the sunset together.
While viewers have argued to what extent the film should be seen as anti-American, most Russian reviewers and film scholars commenting on the movie agree that it is predominantly a negative portrayal of the country, with at least one Russian film festival in New York admitting to being hesitant to screen the movie because of its anti-American subject matter.
In the Name of God
This 2008 film received mixed accolade and censure. Americans are not the only villains in it, and the representation of some of the Muslims in the film lead to a fatwa passed against it in Pakistan, causing the director to leave the country for a while.
The film, originally titled Khuda Kay Liye, looks at the problem of being a modernized Muslim. In fundamentalist countries they are seen as too western, while in America and the UK they are seen as terrorists. One of the subplots of the film is about a young man who travels from Pakistan to Chicago to attend music school. Although completely innocent and progressive, after 9/11 he is captured by the FBI for no reason, and held without trial for years. During that time he is tortured repeatedly. Eventually one last beating leaves him brain-dead. When it becomes obvious the damage is permanent, he is deported.
While American racial profiling is one villain, fundamentalist Islamism gets a similar treatment in the other subplot. So this film managed to piss off just about everyone, while simultaneously winning numerous awards for its brave storytelling. The controversy and buzz surrounding it led to it being the first Pakistani film to screen in India in forty years. At the time of its release it was Pakistan’s second highest grossing film ever.
This 2006 film is South Korea’s highest grossing of all time. While the real villain is the titular monster, the action of the film is set in motion because of poor old evil America.
The opening scene, inspired by an actual incident in 2000, shows an American military pathologist forcing his Korean assistant to dump hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain ( because the bottles are “too dusty”) despite knowing it will end up in the Han River. Eventually this chemical mutates one of the animals in the river, and the Host is born. Despite knowing that the existence of the creature is their fault, the American military is shown as totally indifferent to the terror it is causing locals. And when they finally attempt to stop the monster in the end, the Americans use “Agent Yellow,” obviously meant as political commentary on their actual use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
In response to a famous Korean critic calling it “Korea’s first legitimate anti-American film,” the director insisted, “It’s a stretch to simplify The Host as an anti-American film, but there is certainly a metaphor and political commentary about the U.S.”
But perhaps the best indication that the film is decidedly anti-American: it was lauded in North Korea for its theme, something virtually unheard of for a South Korean film.