In the face of evil

Posted: Sep 14, 2004 12:00 AM
What is courage in the face of evil?

On Oct. 1, American moviegoers will be offered two diametrically opposed answers in two movies. One I've only read about in The New York Times: "Upriver," a pictorial account of John Kerry's courage. The other, "In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed," I saw a few days ago at an advance screening in Manhattan arranged by writer/producer/director Steve Bannon.

These two are just the beginning of a coming wave of commercial documentaries, inaugurated in part by Michael Moore's success, but also because of campaign finance reform's attempt to outlaw political speech in this country. People with strong political passions are going to be drawn to media in which they can make money (rather than spend it) spreading their ideas.

"In the Face of Evil," one of the first serious contenders by an avowedly conservative filmmaker (a former Navy vet turned investment banker turned artiste), is bound to be the must-see movie of the season for zeitgeist watchers. Bannon plans to open first in a handful of "red-state cities," hoping the buzz will persuade theater owners nationwide there is a market for this kind of film.

What kind of film, exactly? Steve Bannon likens it to a horror movie about moving from darkness to light amidst the bloodiest century mankind has ever known. I'd call it a film that is simultaneously annoying, disturbing and deeply moving.

The central conceit of the movie is to collapse communism, Nazism and what it calls "Islamofascism" into one great blob of evil: "The Beast." The Beast always attacks the same things: religion, free speech, intellectual inquiry and artistic expression. The Beast switches faces and ideologies, but underneath the thirst for power remains. Defeating The Beast requires the leadership of men -- and women (think Margaret Thatcher, Jeanne Kirkpatrick) -- who are not afraid to see evil, to name it for what it is, in order to call up the courage to fight against it.

Is The Beast really one and the same thing at all times and all places? Of course evil, being evil, has a certain similarity across time and space (the Christian allusions are hard to miss), but are we best served by imagining a hot war against Hitler, a cold war against communism and the war on Islamoterror as really one and the same?

The incessant voiceover drove me frantically searching for the mute switch. Why chop up Ronald Reagan's magnificent words with someone else's minuscule explanations? A third of the way through, though, just as I was about to write the movie off as "Triumph of the Will" manque, suddenly I found myself weeping.

No fancy footwork. Just Winston Churchill at war saying: "Let us therefore ... so bear ourselves so that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour.'" Later, from Ronald Reagan, we hear the film's central theme: "Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid."

This is faith, pure and simple. Too simple for pseudo-sophisticates who imagine that black and white does not exist. They get it half right, perhaps. Nothing is wholly good except God, and the line between good and evil runs straight through every human heart. Often, we need to be reminded of that truth.

But sometimes when great leaders call us to fight evil in our time, we are tempted instead to shoot the messenger. Sometimes, we prefer to believe our adversaries are ordinary people who want to avoid war if possible. Sometimes it is even true. Sometimes.

Could I imagine a better movie about the drama of good vs. evil in our time? Yes. But I emerged nonetheless grateful to spend a few hours in the company of great men, such as Reagan. Sometimes you can tell how great a vacuum exists only when it is partly filled. Millions of people in this country almost never see our sensibilities, our lives, our heroes, reflected to us in art, literature, plays and the ultimate contemporary storyteller: the movies.

Is there an unserved market for films that tap into these kinds of aspirations, narratives and worldviews? Yes.