The new cowboy doesn’t arrive on horseback, and if he wears a hat, it’s probably part of an official uniform. He might tote a gun, but he doesn’t always need one to defend himself. He’s no superhero – just a guy with an unshakable dedication to his job. He is many men, but this week, he’s Mark Wahlberg and he’s here to save the Gulf of Mexico.
A particular strain of highly patriotic blockbusters (or at least movies affecting the outward appearance of patriotism, depending on which side of the aisle you poll) has cropped up in recent years, and these Americana-courting pictures — from Clint Eastwood’s political flashpoint American Sniper to Peter Berg’s bravery-porn spectacle Deepwater Horizon — have vaulted the everyday guy into an especially accessible brand of champion. Our most beloved heroes wear blue collars instead of capes, and carry lunch pails instead of magical weaponry. Whether you agree that these movies reflect the U.S. of A.’s opinion of itself with full clarity or not, one thing is certain: our cinematic saviors have moved out of the stratosphere and into the house next door.
The latest example of this trend, the true-story disaster movie Deepwater Horizon, casts Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams, one of the noblest workers aboard the British Petroleum oil rig that exploded in 2010, endangering lives and poisoning the Gulf coastline for months to follow. He’s a clean-cut man of the people who loves his wife and daughter – the sort of typical working-class hero that this emergent type of patriotism favors. He seems perfectly average, until the inevitable crisis (plane crash, rig explosion, insurgent attack) requires that he springs into action and transforms into the pillar of courage that has captured the American imagination again and again.
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A natural-born leader, Williams shows great courageness and grace under pressure as he scrambles to evacuate the malfunctioning drilling vessel. He handles the situation the way we all like to think we would, a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy with which Wahlberg is all too familiar. This is a dude who’s decisive yet accessible, willing to make the difficult choices for the good of everyone else — the idealized conservative’s President mixed with Jack Bauer and your weekend drinking buddy. Like Chris Kyle’s traumatizing sniper assignments, or Chesley Sullenberger’s emergency crash-landing into the Hudson in Eastwood’s more recent Sully, heroism is a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. And these movies tacitly suggest that society would buckle if such bold and frequently complicated guys were not around to guard it.
But how this wave of films treat their heroes also provides a crucial insight into their fundamental American-ness. While terrorists gifted Lone Survivor with its ready-made villains (does it really get much more American than that?), the more commonplace bad guys in these red-white-and-blue blockbusters is The System. For Deepwater Horizon, it’s the craven BP suits who cut corners at the expense of workers just to save a buck, personified in John Malkovich’s amusingly James Carville-ian executive. For this past January’s 13 Hours (a.k.a. Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie), it’s the lily-livered government contractors who come off looking like pond scum while our valiant soldiers fought for freedom, liberty, etc. For Sully, it’s the National Transportation Safety Board, a department of bloodless pencil-pushers Eastwood paints as incapable of understanding what Sullbenberger went through. (They dare to question his methods!) Larger networks of authority can never be trusted, these movies tell us; they’re always looking out for their own interests and leaving the little guy to fend for himself. And if there’s any lesson to be learned from the unending Veep episode that is this election, it’s that pervasive distrust for the Establishment always plays well with the masses.
In a moviegoing era where selling concepts unaffiliated with a pre-existing brand becomes a steeper uphill battle every summer, these populist pictures have routinely cleaned up at the ticket counter. While Deepwater Horizon‘s opening weekend wasn’t quite what its makers were hoping – pulling in $20.2 million and coming in second behind Tim Burton’s YA-novel adaptation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Eastwood’s huge paydays for Sully ($105 million) and American Sniper ($350 million) illustrate the earning power of these films with paying audiences. Chris Kyle’s biopic was another lightly-buzzy Oscar contender until political types claimed it as a partisan expression of the American way; that didn’t stop millions of viewers, invigorated by red-blooded patriotic duty, from heeding the call. Even Berg’s previous collaboration with Wahlberg, the 2013 military drama Lone Survivor, netted $154 million domestically, making it the second-highest-earning January release ever, trailing only Cloverfield. (Truly, nothing unites us as a nation quite like giant alien attacks.)
Because such neo-patriotic pictures extol a red-state-friendly set of values — self-determination, the wielding of great power, courage under fire — they tend to click with more conservatively-aligned folks. Some liberal audiences bristled at the ambiguity of American Sniper and Lone Survivor, concerned that the gravity of war may be lost while watching in awe at the men who make it happen. But polarized reception or no, there’s no denying that these films have tapped into something powerful, and vitally of the moment. In times of great uncertainty such as these, it’s cathartic to believe that there are still people willing to cut through the bureaucracy and sacrifice themselves to keep us safe, and yes, even to keep America great.
Movies like Deepwater Horizon sell an idea that builds on the American Dream of self-sufficiency and bootstrap-pulling: Once we’ve clawed our way into realizing that dream, there will be guardians to defend it. In the face of external foes and internal red tape, the men of American Sniper and Lone Survivor fought for truth, justice, picket fences, apple pie, baseball – the whole Rockwellian shebang. Sully and Deepwater Horizon go one step further and bring that military heroism into the everyday workforce, adding a more relatable dimension to an already resonant vein of storytelling. Mike Williams is the hero America desperately wants right now, but more crucially, he’s the hero we all could be. We may not be like Tom Cruise’s constantly moving men of action, Harrison Ford’s gruff swashbucklers or any actor who’s played James Bonds. We are all potential Mark Wahlbergs.