Where Have All the Heroes Gone? - by Michael A. Walsh

Why Hollywood has forgotten about the good guys.


It’s a truism among conservatives that contemporary Hollywood hates America, and it’s easy to see why. From needlessly vulgar comedies like Good Luck Chuck, to the sickening brutality of Hostel and Hostel II, to the implicit defeatism of the spate of anti-war movies that bombed at the box office the past couple of years, Hollywood seems to have made a conscious decision to turn its back on what, for lack of a better phrase, might be termed “traditional America,” embracing instead every transient social and intellectual fad, cause, and nostrum in its desperate attempt to remain competitively relevant on the coasts. Many of the movies today are almost a parody of contemporary liberal thought – political correctness by committee, with additional dialogue by J. Fred Muggs – with their obligatory ranks of 100-pound women who can beat up men three times their size, saintly gay couples who offer object lessons in love and fidelity to their flawed, bigoted breeder neighbors, and stunningly accomplished minorities who can easily outperform a white person at just about anything, from basketball to brain surgery.

These elements, however exaggerated, are not the real problem: to a generation raised on comic books and still unweaned, reality is strictly optional, and the picture business does nothing so well as to cater to its audience’s fantasies. No, the great divide between the coast and the heartland audiences comes not in the realm of social fantasy – east- and west-coast liberals are generally stunned when, on the rare occasions they venture into the territory west of the Hudson, south of Washington, D.C. and east of Vail they encounter not the raging racist gun nuts of the “Christian Right” they expect, but people whose educational attainment and moral friskiness inevitably stun them – but in the need for heroes.

Beyond the routine vulgarity and reflexive impiety of the modern progressive, a virulent strain of sadistic nihilism stalks the minds and imaginations of many of our storytellers. The bastard children of Sartre by way of Sade, for them no story can have a happy ending. The Strangers (2008), written and directed by Bryan Bertino, ends with the brutal stabbing of the captive couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), changes the hopeful ending of the Stephen King novella into one of useless tragedy. No mercy, no grace, no redemption: we are in a reverse-Alice in Wonderland world in which the results of the Caucus Race are: “Everybody is guilty, and all must suffer.” Even in the highly successful Bourne franchise, Matt Damon’s character is a one-man wrecking crew, directed not against America’s enemies, but against the CIA that spawned, trained and eventually tried to terminate him.

So whatever happened to heroes? Pace Michael Medved, not a single studio suit, producer, agent or fellow writer of my acquaintance “hates America,” and that includes present and former heads of studios, heads of agencies and writers whose movies have collectively grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide. Swimming in the waters of the most purely capitalistic enterprise in the country, they are some of the smartest and most ambitious people I know.

They are also, how can I put this… older. While they may still be refighting World War II or the Civil Rights movement, they remember America as she was, warts and all.

Young Hollywood has no such memory. Drawing its talent from the same pool as every other elite institution in the United States, which is to say the East Coast and the Ivy League, Hollywood today most closely resembles its ancestral cousin, journalism, and has experienced the same ride on the class elevator. Where once reporters and screenwriters were tough, street-smart, verbally facile Jewish and Irish kids, who had grown up in the same immigrant milieu as the priests, thieves, rabbis, gonophs, barkeeps, and gangsters they wrote about, today’s professionals are Harvard lads and lassies who graduated cum laude in anomie, post-modernism, deconstuctionism, moral equivalence and snark. Not a one of them has any working-class friends. Not a one of them knows anyone in the military, much less served in it. Not a one of them ever studied to be a priest or a rabbi. For these secular Supermen, it really is all about Truth, Justice… and all that stuff. Because when contemporary screenwriters go looking for heroes, they write what they know: their proudly unheroic, non-teleological selves.

Hollywood doesn’t hate America – Hollywood doesn’t know America. Which is why it doesn’t know any heroes.

Fortunately, in the book business, the situation is very different.  Vince Flynn’s CIA stud, Mitch Rapp – who is about as subtle as his surname – Brad Thor’s Navy SEAL, Scot Harvath, and Robert Ferrigno’s brilliantly imagined American Fedayeen warrior, Rakkim Epps, have all found strong favor with American readers. Indeed, the mass-market list can be seen as the literary equivalent of AM talk radio, directly appealing to an audience that feels disenfranchised by The New York Review of Books, MSNBC and whatever Sam Tanenhaus is editing these days.

It is into this arena that I have brought a new hero, Devlin, in my recently released thriller, Hostile Intent, currently #3 this week on the Barnes & Noble mass-market bestseller list. When, at the request of Gary Goldstein, my editor at Kensington Books, I pondered the creation of what we hoped would become a new franchise to rival Flynn, Thor and Ferrigno’s, I quickly decided that my hero would be grounded in an admittedly extreme version of the reality of military life (I grew up in the Marines and attended two high schools 5,000 miles apart, one in Honolulu and the other in Arlington, Va.): the loneliness, the lack of friends, the endless succession of duty stations and, most important, the knowledge that only another kid who’s grown up the way you did can really understand you. Hometown, what stinkin’ hometown? We’re citizens of the world, although not in the way the progressives understand the term.  We’ve seen it, we speak its tongues, and we know that our country, for all its flaws, is where we want to live and work. We draw our conclusions based on our own experiences, not by reading Howard Zinn: that’s not jingoism – that’s empiricism.

Naturally, Devlin – his code-name; we don’t know his “real name – has all the necessary attributes of the thriller good guy – lethal in a fight, amazing in the sack. Completely anonymous in real life, he’s also computer-savvy (he works for the Central Security Service, a division of the National Security Agency), is a master of disguise, has balls of steel, and is as adept at fighting in cyberspace as he is mano a mano with the bad guys. He has a Muslim Iranian girlfriend (or does he?), lectures for the RAND Corporation, and speaks pretty much every language on earth except Esperanto.

I’ve been amused, as all authors these days are, at some of the comments about the book on Amazon (where it’s the subject of a fierce critical war), the nay-sayers caning me for an “unlikable” hero, or for using “big words” (“antidisestablishmentarianism” nowhere appears in the book, much less Klassenzimmerverschoenerungswettbewerb) or, in general, for being the suckiest writer on the planet. As print journalism dies and, with it, professional reviewers (I was one myself, for 25 years), that is to be expected: we are now all at the mercy of Tanenhaus and the logrolling, back-scratching crew of Morning Joe; or the amateur trolls who lurk under the Kindle bridge, clubs at the ready, their jealousy meter cranked up to Chernobyl level; or the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference/Iowa Writers’ Workshop poetasters, who think there is something sinful about actually making a living as a writer without a government grant as they polish their first novels about Brazilian dwarf lesbians struggling against the patriarchy on a rice farm in Meiji Restoration Japan – a reverse Gaijin with an Upper West Side sensibility.

But so what? Devlin will live again next year in a sequel I’m calling Black Widow (that’s the nickname of the Cray supercomputer that NSA uses to eavesdrop on everybody), back once more to save truth, justice and, yes, the American Way.  As in Hostile Intent, he’ll be battling a monstrous plot to destroy western civilization and usher in a New World Order, although I’m having a hard time staying abreast of the news. I can’t tell you much about the plot, but I can tell you the story will move like the bat out of hell (the screenwriter’s model of choice), surprise you as it dips and swerves, horrify you as it lands in your hair and, finally, leaves you screaming for more.

Devlin is my hero. I hope, for all his flaws, he’ll be yours. Because you know him, even if you don’t recognize him.