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Friday, September 16, 2022

September 16, 2022: War is Hella Funny: Tropic Thunder

[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ll AmericanStudy wartime comedies in various media, leading up to a special post on M*A*S*H!]

On whether and how the Hollywood meta-comedy is also a wartime meta-comedy.

I could write a whole different weekly series about Hollywood meta-comedies and satires, and to a significant degree director and co-writer Ben Stiller’s very funny (and quite frequently offensive) Tropic Thunder (2008) would fit better in that series than it does in this one. The main characters (including Stiller alongside Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, and Brandon T. Jackson) are all actors making a film that goes terribly wrong; the supporting characters include the film’s director (Steve Coogan) and its special effects man (Danny McBride), the author of the book being adapted into the film (Nick Nolte), the overbearing studio head (Tom Cruise), and the sleazy agent (Matthew McConaughey) for one of the actors. Add in the fact that each of those characters is played by a talented comic actor giving an extremely exaggerated performance—yes, I do mean extremely exaggerated—and you’ve got all the makings of a very funny Hollywood meta-satire.

As I imagine you already know, and as each and every one of those hyperlinked clips reflects, the movie that all those characters are making is a war movie, the Vietnam War-set Tropic Thunder. That means without question that the satirical, meta-comic elements are consistently directed at other war and Vietnam War films—it’s not a coincidence for example that the film’s trailer begins with the uber-familiar notes of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (probably the second most consistently used track in Vietnam War- and 1960s-set films, after “Fortunate Son”). Many of the film’s other central elements, such as the team’s diverse collection of personalities who butt heads constantly but have to come together to achieve their mission, are drawn from the traditions and stereotypes of war films more generally, making this a comedy that parodies that longstanding cultural genre on multiple successful levels.

But beyond those two successful and funny levels of film meta-comedy—a satire of Hollywood and a parody of war films—is Tropic Thunder a film about war in any way? I’m not entirely sure that it is, but I would say that there’s one interesting and easily overlooked layer which qualifies: the mythologized source material on which the film-within-the-film is based. It turns out that the wartime memoir written by “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte) was entirely invented—he served in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War and never left the U.S., and his hook hands are also fake, an affectation to amplify his faux-authenticity as a vet. Partly that adds yet more to the meta-commentary, since it turns out that however far down we dig, Tropic Thunder (the same of Tayback’s memoir as well as the film-within-the-film and, yes, the actual film) is an invented, fake story. But I’d say this telling details also reminds us of just how many of the narratives around war are always similarly invented, revealing more about our need to believe in them than about the histories they purport to portray. That ain’t so funny, but it’s a lesson worth learning to be sure.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?

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