For the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who watched Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969, there are few moments more iconic than the vision of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag into the lunar surface.
While the first steps by man on an extraterrestrial surface were a magnificent accomplishment for the human race – indeed a ‘giant leap for mankind’ – it was the planting of the flag which proved a powerful symbol of the West’s technological superiority over the Communist powers in the East.
So it is no surprise that a supposedly anticipated new film about the life of Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission reportedly neglects to include a scene portraying that very moment. The star of First Man, Ryan Gosling, went as far as to suggest that the film’s purpose was to transcend ‘countries and borders’.
This can of course be contrasted with the words of US president John F. Kennedy in 1962, who committed the United States to putting men on the moon: ‘For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.’
That mainstream Hollywood would do this is a natural consequence of the shift of funding from domestic to foreign sources. Much ink has been spilled discussing the growing power of non-Western money, and in particular how red China is flexing its muscle to see changes in the industry. Unfortunately, the analysis is usually superficial, and lacks an appreciation for the strategic importance of Hollywood as a means of presenting and spreading Western ideals around the world.
China is a huge and increasingly wealthy country. Studios frequently see China as an opportunity to supplement falling audience numbers in the United States. China is also a totalitarian and hypersensitive regime that won’t hesitate to censor content, so giving Hollywood access to its market doesn’t come without a cost to film producers.
Pleasing Chinese audiences (or more accurately, censors) is now a priority for Hollywood studios. And there is a litany of examples that demonstrate what this looks like in reality: the 2012 remake Red Dawn, originally to feature a Chinese invasion of the American mainland, was edited at the last minute to feature North Korean armed forces. In 2013’s Iron Man 3, classic supervillain Mandarin was re-imagined from a Chinese-born evil genius to a drunken British actor, who was actually a diversion for the true villain of the story – a white male, of course.
2014’s Transformers 4 was partly filmed in Hong Kong and featured the resolute Chinese Communist Party standing against invading robots, while the Americans flounder. This years’ Avengers 4 collected over $1.3 billion from non-US sources during its cinematic run, making it one of the biggest financial success stories in film history. The rumours that a representative of the Chinese Communist Party was present on the set of that film is strongly reminiscent of political commissars assigned to Soviet military units to ensure the correct political opinions were being adhered to (or the Commonwealth government’s proposal to embed agents from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission in financial institutions to ‘proactively’ enforce regulations…)
Given all this, it’s not too strange to hear veteran martial arts actor Jackie Chan himself note that ‘these days, they ask me, “do you think the China audience will like it?”All the writers, producers – they think about China. Now China is the centre of everything’.
Surrendering artistic integrity in the pursuit of Chinese audiences proves that Hollywood is as profit-driven and capitalistic as any other. The hypocrisy of then producing films that usually portray economic liberalism in the worst possible light is bad enough. But the consequences of this shift present special problems for the West. Hollywood is unique due to its role as a source of ‘soft power’, which refers to economic and cultural influence in international affairs. While the impact on the content of the films is frequently analysed, the strategic ramifications of China effectively colonising an important source of Anglo-American soft power receives too little attention.
Historically, the US relies on Hollywood to underwrite Pax Americana, the post-war peace characterised by widespread Anglo-American cultural norms and the economic and military position of the United States. By popular acceptance, Hollywood became the lens through which the United States and its allies were seen by the rest of the world. Through this, the US has been able to spread its values around the world, such that American archetypes have become globally-understood tropes.
This is not to say that American cultural values are perfect or that Pax Americana has been without flaws. The West rightly coalesced around the United States after the Second World War as it was obviously superior to the powers of the Warsaw Pact as a force to protect liberty and economic prosperity.
Since the end of the Cold War, the cultural rot within the West has become more pronounced. It is just one symptom of this problem that Hollywood does not recognise its role as custodian of a uniquely Western tradition. The values that were once a feature of Hollywood must now be sacrificed to accommodate the prejudices of the Chinese market and the sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party.
The West is now in the position of effectively disseminating the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. This is not an accident. The Peoples Republic has not been shy about its aggressive efforts to build up its own soft power, and Hollywood is undoubtedly a part of that agenda. Closer to home, a report of an investigation launched by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, allegedly outlining ‘brazen’ Chinese government infiltration at every layer of the Australian government, remains classified.
What’s happening in Hollywood isn’t just a nuisance for consumers; it’s an underestimated threat to the West. It’s not easy to predict what a fall of Pax Americana would look like, but one should not expect a Hollywood ending for Australia.