I was talking with a good friend the other day and we were lamenting what recent budget cuts have revealed about American priorities: our political discourse has become so captured by the austerity-shrieking, tax-avoiding, infrastructure-eschewing members of the Tea Party that we no longer can even pretend to believe we have the ability to plan for, build for, or pay for the future.
Nowhere in the federal budget is this more clearly illustrated than with NASA. Back in the 50's and 60's, America was all about being the Country of Tomorrow, Baby! We were gonna land a man on the moon, we were gonna get flying cars, we were gonna be the Jetsons with better furniture and a hipper soundtrack. Even in the 70's and 80's, we had the space shuttle and were busy getting satellites into orbit so we could make long-distance phone calls and watch soft-core porn on late night cable movie channels. When SkyLab came crashing back to earth we shrugged and started making plans to build a new & improved International Space Station. Hell! We invested billions in a radar telescope array -- SETI -- just to have a couple of very bored people sit out in the desert for years listening for evidence that we were not alone in this Universe. The Universe was a weird, wacky, wild place and we couldn't wait to embrace it.
And it was this can-do, anything-is-possible attitude that was on display back in 1998, when Michael Bay captured it in his disaster-porn summer blockbuster Armageddon. (Don't look at me like that, you saw the movie -- we all saw the movie at some point, Michael Bay movies are the reason people invented the phrase "guilty pleasure.")
And you remember the plot, too. A giant "planet-killing" asteroid is on a collision course with earth and only Bruce Willis and his plucky band of eccentric oil-rig drill monkeys have any hope of intercepting the asteroid, drilling into its core, planting a nuclear bomb, and blowing it the hell up in time to avoid The End of All Life on Earth. And you remember those scenes toward the end of the movie too, after the mission was on its way and the entire rest of the planet was waiting with bated breath to see if John McClane could actually pull this off. Of course you do. From France to Italy to India to South America to Africa, the entire world was sitting on the edge of its seat to see if Bruce and his wacky group of modern American cowboys would pull the entire world's collective ass out of the fire.
The sheer arrogance of those scenes -- that of course the rest of the world would have to wait and watch and pray that the Americans pulled off this tremendous save -- never even registered for the American audiences watching this flick. 'Of course the world needs America to save it,' the American public reflexively thought, 'that's what America does.'
But that shit wouldn't fly today. If Michael Bay wanted to make Armageddon today he'd have to film a bunch of oil rig workers -- still jittery with post-traumatic stress syndrome after their oil platform blew up underneath their feet thanks to shoddy safety inspections by BP -- trying to cadge a flight out to the ISS with the Russians or the Chinese because, hey! America doesn't have a manned space program any longer. Audience members wouldn't buy the movie today because when Billy Bob Thornton called up the Russian embassy to ask if Willis could hitch a ride out to space to save the planet the audience could only expect the Russians to laugh at the suggestion. "Spasiba, Billy Bob," the Russians would say, "but why don't you let a real country handle this one?"
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Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a real big fan of jingoism, or even nationalism, but there is something sad about the way every time I turn on the TeeVee I have to listen to our leaders tell me about more and more things that America "just can't afford to do." I heard a report the other day that China has surpassed us in its number of supercomputers and in raw computing speed. I know that Hong Kong is planning to roll out new high-speed broadband capability easily 100 times faster than anything we have here. And I was in Hong Kong, briefly, nine years ago and let me tell you . . . flying out of Hong Kong's airport and into LAX is like leaving the Jetsons' cartoon for the Flintstones'.
So, no . . . I'm not what you would call "jingoistic" by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is a shame that in just over a decade we've managed to engineer a country, a society, where good ol' dumb American characters like the kickass modern cowboys featured in Armageddon really just can't carry a summer movie anymore.
Not because those characters don't still have the power to stir us, but because not even 90 minutes of Michael Bay explosions can distract us long enough to suspend our disbelief that we might still be capable of kicking ass on an epic scale.