The last two movies my wife and I have watched have been exactly the same movie, except that one of them was terrible and the other was really awfully good. In the new Red Dawn (which we Netflixed because my wife has a crush on Chris Hemsworth), a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of the (snicker) North Koreans. In Oblivion, a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of Melissa Leo (or, you know, space aliens using Melissa Leo’s voice and presence).
Oblivion‘s better than that. I thought it was one of the better sci-fi action flicks that I’ve seen in awhile. It was thoughtful and smart and although afflicted by massive plot holes and leaps in logic, you don’t really notice them much while you’re watching it. Tom Cruise may be a loon, but he’s a fine actor, and looks great, and it made for a very satisfying night at the movies.
But, here’s the point I want to make, and it requires a pretty massive spoiler alert, so if you haven’t seen Oblivion, stop reading and go see the movie and then get back to me, but there’s a moment in both movies I want to talk about. Both movies are rated PG-13. Both, therefore, get one F-bomb to play with. And both drop their F-bomb at an identical moment in the plot.
In Red Dawn (the plot for which I’m also going to ruin for you, but I feel less bad about it, ’cause, get real, it’s not like you’re going to see the durn thing), the bad guy is Captain Cho, who the technologically superior (snicker) North Koreans have put in charge of their invading forces in Portland, where the movie’s set. (Cho is played by Will Yun Lee, who is from, like, Arlington Virginia. Hey, it’s a gig). And of course, he has to have a final big fight scene with Chris Hemsworth. And at the climactic moment of the fight, Hemsworth gets to drop his F-bomb. “F-you,” he says, or something similar. So okay, in Oblivion, same thing–final confrontation with Melissa Leo, and what does Tom Cruise say? Same thing, right before he destroys the Death Star.
I found it interesting. The same thing happens in Stephen King’s The Stand, where our rag-tag bunch of patriots have it out with the baddies in Vegas; same last line. And while I can’t remember which movies it’s in, I know I’ve seen it other places as well.
It’s interesting how the F-word, once essentially a verb suggesting a kind of violent sexuality, has now become a word suggesting plucky defiance, a cheeky response to oppression. Of course, the F- word has lots of other meanings–it’s plenty versatile, as taboo words tend to become. But of course meaning depends on context, and in the context of PG-13 action films, it’s a positive thing. Sort of uniquely American, even. As we patriotically give the figurative finger to our oppressors.
Of course, that’s also sort of a silly stance for us to take, given that we Americans possess the greatest military the world has ever seen, with military expenditures taking up a preposterously huge part of our budget, despite the fact that like the next twenty countries in terms of military expenditures are also allies. In what sense is America a nation of underdogs? We’re much more bullies than bullied.
And to give Red Dawn its due, that point does get mentioned. Chris Hemsworth is an Iraq war veteran, and he says to his high-school-aged-army ‘in Iraq, we were the occupying force, and the insurgents were fighting us–here, we have to fight like the mujaheddin, we’re the bad guys, we have to fight a guerrilla war.’ Red Dawn does plug into what we might describe as a kind of Tea Party/conservative/Christian right paranoia, in which traditional American values are endangered, and we few patriots are left to fight the encroaching forces of, whatever, Kenyan socialism. That stance, of course, is as ridiculous as the idea that the North Koreans could conquer Portland because of their (snicker) technological superiority. But whatever. Why begrudge Tea Partiers their own action movie?
But we like underdogs. Nobody wants to root for the Yankees; we prefer the plucky underdog Red Sox. We loathe the Lakers–go Jazz! We liked Rocky over Apollo, the Karate Kid over his tormentors, Hickory High over all those big-time schools in Hoosiers. Right now, the NBA playoffs are going on, and although I like basketball, I can’t get that interested; Miami has the best team and the best player, and they’re going to win. It’s depressing. So, in their first game against the Bulls (who had, like, their best four players out with injuries), when Joachim Noah, the Bulls emotional leader said ‘F-you’ to Lebron James (caught on camera; you couldn’t hear him say it, but it was clear enough), I got . . . interested in the series. And the Bulls won . . . one game. And lost the next four. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, saith the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, but generally that’s the way to bet. And we know that, we know that powerful forces usually do actually win over less powerful ones, no matter how gritty and endearingly courageous the underdogs might be. None of that really matters. In reality, the rich beat the poor, big beats little, corporations usually do win. Which is why we like movies (fantasies) where the opposite happens. And why movie-makers go to fantastic lengths to make sure the heroes are underdogs, even when it doesn’t actually make sense.
There’s a terrific ‘F-you’ TV commercial on right now. This skinny little kid, with the world’s awesomest Mom, is bullied by kids who steal his football. But our skinny hero happens to know a kid weightlifter, a kid welder, a kid bear wrestler (!), a kid fire-fighter. And the final line of the commercial, “touch or. . .” “Tackle!” is the F-you moment. Heck, yes, we’ll play you for the ball. By the way, our right tackle wrestles bears.
And yes, I know some people find the F-word offensive. I get that. And yes, there’s absolutely a morality of language. The Ten Commandments forbid ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’ A sin of language. Or ‘bearing false witness.’ A sin of language. But those sins are also sins of context, as must be the case with anything involving language, where we’re always invoking, reflecting, creating culture. I’m a playwright, and if my characters need to drop an F-bomb, I write it. And don’t feel like I’ve thereby sinned.
And sometimes, when facing implacable institutions, all-powerful bureaucracies, entrenched enemies with their castles and their moats, the F word is a battle cry, a shout of courageous defiance. My grandmother was fond of a poem, which she turned into a needle-point sampler: “it may not be classic, it might be profane, but we mortals have need of it, time and again. And you’ll find you’re recover from life’s greatest slam, if you never say ‘die,’ say ‘damn.'” As language has shifted and changed from her day, we might rewrite it as follows: ‘when you find that you need all your grit, all your pluck, never say die, say. . . . ‘