EDITORIAL: Why Armageddon is the Most American Movie Ever

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.

Image result for armageddon bannerNo, 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.

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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.

Related imageThe 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.

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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 Image result for armageddon harry stamperbest 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.

REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)

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Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

Image result for armageddon rockhound

All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.