Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Hollywood Runs—and Ruins—U.S. Foreign Policy

| July 27, 2023

U.S. films entertain the world—and distort policy at home.

The United States is exceptional in many ways—size, wealth, openness, isolation from other major powers—and one of them is a cultural predilection for the "Hollywood ending." You know what I'm talking about: the climactic moment in a movie when the outnumbered and outgunned heroes turn the tables on their wicked foes and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The good guys win, the bad guys lose (ideally in a humiliating and painful fashion), and all is right with the world. Oppenheimer notwithstanding, this is the kind of plotline that American audiences lap up like cold beer on a hot afternoon.

Examples of this trope are too numerous to count, and I'll freely confess that I'm a sucker for them. I want to see Frodo destroy the One Ring and watch the Tower of Sauron come crashing down. I beam when Harry and his fellow wizards kill Lord Voldemort, when Indiana Jones outwits the Nazis, and when the Rebel Alliance blows up the newest version of the Death Star that the latest edition of the Empire chooses to deploy. I’ll choke up when Rocky rises from the canvas in the 15th round, when Inigo Montoya avenges his father's death at the hands of cruel Count Rugen, or when the Guardians of the Galaxy or the Avengers thwart some world-destroying foe, and I'll chuckle as the Men in Black agents somehow save Earth at the last minute (again!). And who doesn't cheer when Andy Dufresne escapes from Shawshank Penitentiary and the evil warden and thuggish prison guard who have tormented him get what they deserve? When I watch a rom-com, I count on the star-crossed lovers to overcome every mishap and misunderstanding in the script and end up blissfully entangled at the closing credits. Rick doesn't get Ilsa back in Casablanca, but Maj. Strasser gets a bullet and the movie closes on "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

As the name implies, the Hollywood ending is a predominantly American invention, although William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen were on to it long before movies were invented, and one can find similar endings in other cinematic traditions. As a rule, however, I'd argue that films made outside the United States tend to be darker, more ambivalent in their portrayals of right and wrong, less triumphant in tone, and more willing to end on a note of ambiguity. To be sure, there are American films with these features (e.g., The SearchersChinatownThe GraduateNo Way OutMillion Dollar Baby), but they are exceptions rather than the box office rule.

America's fondness for the happy ending isn't that surprising when you consider the remarkably fortunate course of U.S. history and the way it is typically recounted. In our collective memory, the plucky rebels defeat the British Empire at Yorktown (see under: The Patriot) and then go on to establish a new nation based on lofty ideals. The ever-expanding republic decimates and subdues the Indigenous population, whose resistance to Manifest Destiny is typically portrayed in Hollywood as both cruel and unjustified. The virtuous North defeats the slaveholding South in the Civil War, supposedly ending a deep stain in the fabric of the country. Then the United States rides off to save the world in both world wars, helping defeat imperial Germany in the first conflict and compelling Nazi Germany and Japan to surrender unconditionally in the second. Small wonder that we love to look back on these "good wars" and assume that this sort of outcome is the norm rather than the exception.

Hollywood endings have been in rather short supply since 1945, however. The Korean War ended in a draw, and the Vietnam War was a defeat, as movies such as PlatoonFull Metal Jacket, and The Killing Fields make clear. The Cold War ended favorably for the United States and its allies, but the Soviet Union's slow death-from-exhaustion wasn't the kind of stirring victory that Hollywood likes. The Gulf War was a triumph, but the war on terror and the costly failures in Afghanistan and Iraq were not. Director Clint Eastwood tried to turn the invasion of Grenada into a rousing war film (Heartbreak Ridge), but even he couldn't turn the outmatched Cuban and Grenadian forces into a sufficiently daunting foe....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Hollywood Runs—and Ruins—U.S. Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy, July 27, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt