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Behind the politics of ''The Patriot'' and ''The Perfect Storm''

Mark Harris says there’s one election year blockbuster for Republicans and one for Democrats

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Behind the politics of ”The Patriot” and ”The Perfect Storm”

What would a presidential election year be without the attempted co-opting of pop culture by both major political parties? And what more appropriate time to begin it than on Independence Day weekend, when voters will cast their ballots with their wallets? The candidates in this week’s box office showdown — ”The Patriot” and ”The Perfect Storm” — are two visions of America (both, incidentally, brought to you by German-born movie directors). And when you buy your ticket, you’ll be purchasing a political agenda for free. Put simply, ”The Patriot” is Republican and ”The Perfect Storm” is Democratic.

Consider this: ”The Patriot,” which stars outspoken conservative Mel Gibson, belongs to a favorite Republican genre, the ”let’s refight this war the way we WISH it had been fought” pic. (Remember how they managed to pull off that surprising victory in Vietnam back in ”Rambo: First Blood, Part 2”?) And, without giving away too much of the plot, it’s no stretch to see the film as a two and a half hour commercial for the NRA. ”The Patriot”’s entire story line, in which American soldiers bravely defeat the Redcoats, explicitly credits their victory to the heroism of arms-bearing citizens who take their very own muskets off their mantels and create their own parallel (and vigilante-led) people’s army — also known as a ”militia,” a word the movie’s script uses so often its intent to resonate contemporarily is unmistakable.

Reviews of ”The Patriot” have been mixed, but it already comes with a ringing endorsement from amateur movie reviewer George F. Will, who calls it ”a delight… an antidote to a recurring misinterpretation of the American experience, our supposed ‘loss of innocence.”’ That alone is likely to put the film high on Dubya’s gotta-see list. But it’s interesting that Will, in lavishing praise on what he sees as the film’s corrective accuracy, never mentions its ”laughable unto offensive” treatment of slaves, who — in a movie, mind you, that’s set in the 18th century South — are portrayed as well-fed, cheerful, benignly amiable domestic help who are treated with unfailing courtesy and respect by the good guys and basically just seem to hang around out of a desire to help out. It’s hard to imagine that African Americans will view this particular case of historical ”get me rewrite” quite as casually as the movie does.

”The Perfect Storm” doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve with nearly the brazenness that ”The Patriot” does, but it has its own quiet agenda. Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction account of a tragic fishing accident off the New England coast enters waters that very few Hollywood movies paddle in — namely, the economic lives of its characters. The blue-collar working men depicted by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and John C. Reilly are explicitly portrayed as victims in an economic boom that’s stopped short of their doorsteps, and their fateful decision to go out to hard labor at sea one more time is depicted as a financial necessity imposed on them by a combination of personal need and unsympathetic management. Democratic voters — specifically blue-collar workers who have long been a party stronghold — should feel right at home.

Before you gripe that I’m reading too much into these movies (that’s a favorite post, ranking right up there with ”This opinion column has too much opinion in it”), wait and see if at least ”The Patriot” doesn’t show up in the rhetoric of some political contests. Remember, it was the Republican Party, a scant four Presidential elections ago, that tried to purloin Bruce Springsteen’s scorching ”Born in the U.S.A.” as an upbeat ”my country tis of thee” anthem. Back then, the tactic (not to mention the Boss) blew up in their faces. This time, faced with such a tempting cinematic bill of fare, will they be able to resist?

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