What makes a movie "American"? Besides being made in America or financed by American money, it seems the "American" moniker can just be slapped onto any movie about an American man achieving his dreams — however questionable they may be. This fall, audiences will get two movies, American Assassin and American Made, which follow the journeys of white, American men who work with and for the U.S. government in various grey areas of the law. Following in the footsteps of other "American" films (American Pie, American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Hustle, The American President, Wet Hot American Summer, American Psycho, and American Sniper, to name a few) these new movies use the title as a way to classify the stories of their white male protagonists. As a result, it often seems like the only stories worthy of being described as "American" are those of white men chasing after some version of the American dream — whether it's losing your virginity or killing terrorists.
Touting a story or a film as "American" leads to an immediate follow up question: whose version of "America" is it representing? n+1 film critic A.S. Hamrah suggested that the answer is whatever version the audience wants. "Hollywood loves things that appeal to both the left and the right equally," Hamrah told Newsweek. "By adding the adjective American, you can appeal to the right by making it seem nativist and jingoistic and uniquely important. And to the left, you can make it seem ominous, heavy, dark and potentially evil."
This quote mirrors the current reality of the political right using patriotism as a litmus test for conservative values. Alex Norwrasteh, an immigration policy analyst, recently dubbed this phenomenon "patriotic correctness" in a piece for The Washington Post. In fact, many figures on the conservative side of American politics have been claiming patriotism as a Republican value for years, particularly post-9/11. And the domination of right wing patriotism has only intensified with the growing gap between Democrats and Republicans, culminating in the increasingly partisan world of 2017.
In the world of 2017, any derivative of "America" has political connotations thanks to the president's conflation of nationalism with patriotism — "Make America Great Again." Throughout his 2016 campaign and presidency, Donald Trump has attempted to disguise racism and bad policies with patriotism (i.e. the Muslim ban, DACA).
Neither Trump nor conservatives own the term "American," of course. However in today's political climate there is an unavoidable truth that by virtues of their titles and basic plots, movies featuring the title, like American Assassin and American Made, are making political statements, whether intended or not. In American Made, Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, an airline pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to spy on Central American drug dealers and ends up smuggling drugs across the border for Pablo Escobar. It's a kind of Cinderella story, only instead of a fairy godmother, Barry gets CIA agent Schafer, instead of a night with a prince, he is given unimaginable wealth, and instead of true love, he's driven by a sense of patriotism.
While American Made appears to be more drug dealing drama than political critique, American Assassin leans more towards making a political statement with its story about a young CIA assassin who kills blindly for his country. The two might sound different, but they actually have a lot in common. Not only do they both have "American" in the title, they are also both about white men who work with the CIA. Both celebrate a strange version of the American dream — the everyman who changes the world, all in the name of country. The basic message is clear: a white man's patriotism is an "American" story.
In American Assassin, the connection between the title of "American" and patriotism is perfectly clear. The film follows Mitch Rapp, a young, white man with an axe to grind against the terrorists who shot and killed his fiancée (also white). He becomes a covert CIA assassin under the tutelage of fellow white man Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), who hates his penchant for unnecessary violence, but recognizes his obsession to kill terrorists as potentially valuable. Together, Stan and Mitch go on an international hunt to stop Iranian forces from attaining a nuclear weapon by any means necessary, including torture and murder. All of this for the "American" agenda of defeating terrorists.
"The movie doesn't have a political agenda," star Dylan O'Brien (Mitch) said in an interview with Bustle. Though the actor said that the title could cause the film to be mistaken as a kind of "propaganda," he added that he viewed the film as "a neutral and realistic depiction of terrorism today." It's true that American Assassin does not celebrate specific U.S. policies, and the heroes' murder-happy tactics are somewhat questioned by the reveal of — slight spoiler alert — a homegrown terrorist originally trained by Stan himself. However, the bottom line in the film is that audiences are supposed to connect with Mitch, and be on his side. And this means that we are meant to look at Mitch, a man who has no reservations about killing people without due process, as the ultimate "American assassin."
American Assassin presents violence in the name of country as patriotic, not unlike Clint Eastwood's 2014 hit American Sniper. At the time of its release, American Sniper was both praised and criticized for glorifying the real life of Chris Kyle, one of the most deadly snipers in the U.S. military. Like O'Brien, American Sniper star Bradley Cooper denied that the movie had a political agenda, saying, "It's not a political movie at all, it's a movie about a man — a character study," at a press conference, via The Guardian. Eastwood himself called the film "anti-war" in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Nonetheless, the movie became a kind of rallying force for conservatives in media, earning praise as a film about patriotism from outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, the latter of which called it "a patriotic, pro-war on terror masterpiece" in a review. Other, more left-leaning publications like The Daily Beast and Vulture pointed out the film's appeal to the right going into the 2016 presidential primary; Vulture even called Sniper "a Republican platform movie."
This, in turn, begs the question: if putting "American" in a movie title makes it political, does it now make it representational of conservative values? If the film is about the military, odds are, the answer is to be yes. American Assassin and American Sniper both embrace the the conservative platform that the United States can beat the world into submission with a superior military. It's a belief that President Donald Trump has endorsed frequently and with enthusiasm. "Hopefully we'll never have to use it, but nobody is going to mess with us. Nobody," Trump said in February, via The Chicago Tribune, speaking about his plan to increase military spending. Moreover, the films' political leanings are underlined by those of the creative minds behind them. Eastwood, a longtime Republican, famously spoke at the 2012 RNC and publicly supported Trump's campaign for president. And Vince Flynn, the author of the novel upon which American Assassin is based (also titled American Assassin), made no secret of his pro-torture, right-leaning politics.
American Sniper was the highest grossing film released in 2014 and was subsequently nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture. The filmmakers behind American Assassin, meanwhile, are already working on a sequel, and there's no doubt that many people hope American Made will be another blockbuster to add to star Tom Cruise's long list of hits. These films, which tout a macho and white depiction of "American" patriotism, are made to be huge hits. They are made to be influential, to become part of the fabric of American pop culture, a consequence of which is that they promote one very specific view of what it is to be "American."
Calling a movie "American" is not inherently bad, nor does it mean that the film automatically has a Republican agenda. Just take movies like American Honey, American Gangster, or any of the films made off the American Girl Dolls properties, which all star women or people of color. But, for the most part, it seems that like the Republican Party base, movies with "American" in the title are pretty white man centered.
And it's problematic if the overall trend of "American" films align with white male conservative views. Not only does this promote the idea that patriotism belongs to one political party, it also helps create a wedge between the overwhelming majority of white men serving in political positions and everyone else (aka women and people of color). The picture created by these films of what is "American" is a frighteningly uniform one made up solely of white men. And in reality, it is white men who are at the forefront of our current government, and white voters who arguably won Trump the election.
In an era where patriotism is constantly being used as a political weapon, it is increasingly troubling to see "American" being defined on screen as white and male. Maybe one day we'll get to see an "American" movie about people of color or women, but, alas, 2017 is not that day.