This 4th of July will be celebrated across the nation of the Untied States like every other one has–in a million different ways. Most citizens will be doing it the old fashioned way at barbecues with beers aplenty or at large, open fields, eagerly awaiting the colorful explosions of Independence Day fireworks. But a select few will probably be like me; when not otherwise engaged with outdoor festivities or (sadly) work, some will probably put on an appropriate movie or two.
What makes an appropriate movie seems to be up to debate among us cinephiles. Some prefer films with a heavy patriotic edge, like Rocky 4 or Born on the Fourth of July. Others ironically pick films that focus on big bangs and nationalistic machismo, like Independence Day or Olympus Has Fallen. While I like to mix it up with my July 4th marathon, by the time of the big day I put on a film that I think best exemplifies both qualities, one that has made me a black sheep within the rabble of filmic patriots. That film is Armageddon.
No, I’m not kidding.
Michael Bay’s third film and released in 1998 in direct competition with the similarly-plotted Deep Impact, Armageddon is not widely thought of as a “patriotic” picture per say, let alone a good one; most moviegoers tend to dismiss it along with Pearl Harbor and the Transformers films, although I believe this is a sorely unfair comparison. Namely, Armageddon is much smarter and more meaningful than Transformers, and definitely more fun. But most of all, for the purposes of this article, I submit to you, dear reader, that Armageddon is the quintessential Independence Day film, solely because of how it captures the essence of the American Dream.
Crazy, you call me? Well, prepare to have your minds blown (away).
The first indication to Armageddon‘s rather bombastic American identity is the fact that it is on visual display everywhere throughout the film. I kid you not; there are American flags everywhere.
Even Will Patton’s kid is wearing an Old Glory t-shirt in the end.
But this is a Michael Bay trademark by now, I grant you, and simply not enough to support my argument. That’s why a second go-around of the evidence reveals even more subtle visual hints, like a large hay barn on a farm, an old barber shop on Main Street, a woman listening to the radio of a 1940s pickup truck while yet another American flag flutters in the breeze. The inclusion of these iconic sights of Americana serves to connect Armageddon to our nation’s past in a way that, say, Independence Day or Rocky 4 could never muster.
A most interesting observation of these shots is that most of it seems firmly rooted in the 50s-70s era, the so-called “good old days” of the Boomer generation, but more importantly, the age of the Space Race, when the United States was locked in an idealogical battle with the Soviet Union over both the world and its ultimate high ground, outer space. This front of the Cold War brought us probably the greatest achievement not only in American history, but in the story of the human race; the manned landing on the Moon. How fitting then that Bay’s film, stuffed to the brim of iconographic sights of American exceptionalism, is centered around NASA and a manned space mission? Very fitting, indeed.
The shuttles are even called Independence and Freedom.
However, unlike other certain films which deal with this uniquely American pride in space like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, Armageddon depicts the scientists of NASA as being unable to pull of the job themselves, and so they resort to calling in outside talent, namely the oil drilling team of Harry Stamper. Setting aside all concerns about believability or scientific accuracy, this reveals Bay and the screenwriters to be employing an old, epic cinematic trope: the working man rising to save the day.
The following has been taken from the liner notes of the Criterion Collection DVD, written by Jeanine Basinger, one of Bay’s professors of Film Studies at Wesleyan Univerity:
“At its core, Armageddon is a genre picture, and like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation. Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie, I see it as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines—productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940). The “science fiction” or “disaster movie” elements of Armageddon fit into the epic form—a form that exists to make movie stories we already know grander, larger, and more “real” in historic setting. (A failed epic settles for the definition put forth in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film In a Lonely Place: “. . . a picture that’s real long and has lots and lots going on.”) Armageddon is grand, large, and set at NASA, but, the story of Stamper, his daughter, and his hard-living, oil-drilling buddies is the kind of movie that has previously been smaller and tighter. This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.”
Quite the analysis, there. But even a cursory look-over of the film proves what Basinger is saying. Stamper and his crew are coarse, uncouth, and horribly politically-incorrect, representing the lowest rung of the working class of America, employed in one of its biggest industries: oil drilling. When NASA’s chief director (played in a very down-home, country-boy drawl by Billy Bob Thornton) realizes that they need the best drillers in the world to execute their mission, they look to Stamper, first to help them iron out the kinks in their drill design, stolen from Stamper himself. In a scene typical of Bay’s alpha-male wit, Stamper crushes their inefficiencies with his no-nonsense approach, and negotiates bringing his own men along.
These men aren’t the well-spoken, foreign elites of Truman’s scientific team, but are men you could picture all hanging out in a small town bar. They come from all walks of life: Chick is a Nevada native who is addicted to the craps table; Bear is lone biker; Oscar owns a ranch in Nebraska, and A.J. seems to be walking in Harry’s footsteps as an oil driller. A lot of the men even have rocky and sordid histories, best exemplified by Rockhound’s continuous inside joke of being…uh, “horny.” Together, they are truly a motley crew and one that not everyone can trust…not unlike a group of immigrants waiting to enter through Ellis Island, rough from a life of work and sometimes sin. But in taking the job and surviving NASA training, they blast off in defense of humanity, but more importantly, in symbolic defense of the American dream that they so benefit from.
Bay may have dumbed-down the dialogue of the past epic examples Basinger provided, but the spirit of these films is very much intact. In Armageddon, we are seeing a classic ideal, the American Dream, made into visual form. These men, woefully unqualified and completely out of their element in a world of intelligentsia and privilege, save the day, in fact, the entire world, with nothing but their indomitable will and hard-worked hands. And when they triumph, what are they greeted to, other than another serving of Americana:
Feel free to consider me wrong, but I can’t help but feel patriotic in a way that The Patriot or Air Force One never could. All arguments about how well the message came across aside, I for one believe that Michael Bay intended for Armageddon to spur these feelings as the best allegory he could manage. Is it nuanced? Hell no. Is it good? This is subjective. But if you are one of the few who still likes to watch Armageddon, go ahead and give it a viewing this 4th. Chances are you’ll be watching it after a few beers and before fireworks, so it should fit quite nicely.