Tropic Thunder, Apocalypse Now, and the debate over who’s offending whom

I confess at the outset that I enjoyed much of Tropic Thunder before it largely boiled down to an extended fight scene (as Pineapple Express did) towards the end. I can also see why many critics liked the film, since it starts off with several ads that mock Hollywood’s pretensions, its bad case of sequelitis, and its tendency to profit off of mindless fat jokes and scatological humor. For film buffs oppressed by a long summer of cinematic calculation, Tropic Thunder’s satire is a delightful acknowledgement of a cynical world we know too well. The fake trailers, complete with studio logos, leave one wondering if the actual Dream Works movie is another joke. When the film opens with some helicopters moving through the jungle in formation to attack, I was cheerfully reminded of Apocalypse Now’s famous cavalry scene where Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore uses Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to blitzkrieg a peaceful Vietnam village so that his men can surf.

In the beginning of Tropic Thunder, the platoon attempts to save the hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), who majestically appears in slow motion as he's riddled with gunfire, causing him to convulse ludicrously. He raises his arms to look properly crucified, and then Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr. in blackface) runs over to save him. Tugg says he can’t feel his legs. He then asks Kirk to take his hands, but Kirk notices that his hands have been strafed to silly-looking ribbons. Kirk starts to cry. Tugg flubs his next line, and the point of view shifts across 180 degrees so we can see the director (Steve Coogan) and the entire film crew trying to shoot the scene. When Kirk realizes that Tugg is not cooperating, he stomps off in a huff to a porta-potty just when several jet fighters napalm a gigantic swath of jungle nearby. The napalm also refers to a similar moment back in the Ride of the Valkyries scene of Apocalypse Now, but now I could revel in the way the film crew evokes Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary of the many years of difficulty Coppola went through to make the war film.

So, yes, Tropic Thunder ridicules the movie industry gleefully, and yet it has also offended enough people to picket the film, and even boycott other studio releases of Dream Works studio, mostly due to the jokes relating to Tugg Speedman’s previous “film” called Happy Jack wherein he plays a retarded young man. Critics have split into various camps on the issue. In one, Jim Emerson cannot understand the protests because Tropic Thunder makes it clear that the jokes are meant to mock action star Tugg Speedman’s attempt to gain legitimacy (and an Oscar) as an actor by playing such a role as Jack, not mentally disabled people per se. Emerson makes a strong, valid point. He and other mystified critics such as Bill Wyman even wonder if all of the controversy is in part a cynical way for the film’s promoters to stir up more attention, and therefore sell more tickets.

On the other hand, if one reads the posts of those who are offended, they can be persuasive too. I was struck by Steve Gorelick’s article “Bravo Dreamworks! What courage it must have taken to make fun of `retards.’” He ends his grievance by saying: “But never, ever — if you claim to have even a minimum of guts or decency — mess with people who cannot speak back.” Also Patricia E. Bauer, writer for Disability News, neatly summarizes the debate about Tropic Thunder, and she makes her point clear about how viewers will take mockery of the disabled and continue to use it on victims outside the theater.

I was intrigued by how both sides have their compelling points. The issue boils down to different levels of perception. If everyone in America’s cineplexes got the nuanced mockery of pretentious actors, as Emerson understands was Ben Stiller’s original intention, then there would be no debate. But, others may miss the satire and focus on the rude treatment of the mentally disabled alone, and thereby justify the indignation of those who feel that the film is a larger campaign to negatively skew the perceptions of the disabled. As a teacher, I once was confronted by a student who took offense at students in class using the word “retarded.” He went on the write a persuasive argumentative paper about his younger brother who has downs syndrome. He found his brother to be one of the sweetest and most amazing people he has ever known, and he did not like the way he was characterized with that word. After getting the paper, I remember being struck with the force of his case.

Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface routine could also offend, of course, but Tropic Thunder is much more sensitive to the implications of his performance. I was reminded of Jack Black’s character attempting to wear blackface in Be Kind Rewind and then getting a stern lecture from Danny Glover’s character. In this case, an African American, Brandon T. Jackson (as rapper Alpa Chino) does respond at length to Downey’s impersonation by mocking it and calling it into question. Kirk even apologizes to Alpa at one point, and asks him if it’s okay. Alpa does not give him the satisfaction. Thus, as viewers we can laugh at Downey’s performance but also feel exonerated from the uneasy implications of his act.

One could compare the various perceptions of the mentally disabled to the perception of Tugg Speedman himself. On one level, Ben Stiller’s character is a joking variation on Sylvester Stallone in Rambo and any attempt Stallone has since made to gain greater legitimacy as an actor. Tugg is a vain buffoon who stubbornly heads off into the jungle by himself because he thinks that it is rigged with cameras. He thinks he’s really still in the picture (even though he isn’t, at least within the film’s story framework). So, the more sophisticated film critics can laugh at him, but on another level, Stiller knows that he looks “ripped,” that his body-building has made him action-star handsome, and therefore his audience can appreciate and identify with his machismo too. At one point, he bravely shoots machine gun fire into the jungle as some stereotypical enemy Asians look on in amazement and say to themselves “He does not fear death!” On one level, we can laugh at his stupidity, but on another Stiller builds for himself a nicely congratulatory role that has little in common with the fat jokes of Jack Black. And as the movie stars make their way into the jungle, they can evoke comparisons to the boat crew in Apocalypse Now (with Brandon T. Jackson channeling a young Laurence Fishburne) even as they are also play ridiculously spoiled and self-absorbed actors. The point is, Stiller knows that his character deserves scorn, but he also knows he can still look good. When it comes to his treatment of the mentally disabled, they have no such luck.


Unknown said…
I have yet to see it, but I hear a ton of controversy over it like you mention. I don't think I would be offended, only because there is nothing in the movie that I could relate it. Perhaps if there was, I'm sure I would be pissed off too. Give it a few months, it should pass over. Remember passion of the christ?
Tropic Thunder left me split between responding aesthetically and politically. I mostly liked it due to the many references to Vietnam war movies, but I can see why it could be offensive for those sensitive to the general tendency to mock the mentally disabled. Perhaps Ben Stiller assumed that his audience would respond in a more sophisticated way than your average gross-out humor merits.
Anonymous said…
Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up... he's got a knack for not taking himself too seriously