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Popcorn, Twizzlers, and Media Effects: Four Unexpectedly Persuasive Movies

On the surface, I am a scholar of persuasive communication, social influence, and belief/attitude change. I wrote my dissertation on it; I have spent the better part of the last decade studying it; and I have several books about the topic written by people much smarter than me (and in hardback!)

With all this knowledge, you'd think that I'd be able to somehow buffer myself from being persuaded by movies when I watch them--that I'd be better equipped to avoid having my perceptions of things changed just by sitting in front of a screen for two hours. But, owing to the awesome power of media effects, narrative persuasion, and sometimes Rachel Weisz, I'm just as susceptible to persuasion from movies as anyone else.

Even though I've seen the evidence showing the potential for stories to change the way we think about things, I never considered how the books I've read, the stories I've heard, or the TV I've watched have shaped my own beliefs and attitudes. That was until last week, when I re-watched what is (in my opinion) one of the best movies made since 2000...but more about that below.

This line of thinking got me wondering: what movies have changed my beliefs, attitudes, and in some cases, behavior? How have the movies I've seen shaped the person I am? Narrative persuasive effects (and media effects at large) can certainly occur at a subconscious level. However, there are a few movies I can definitively say have affected me in significant ways.

In the spirit of my enjoyment of films and how they affect us, here is a brief list of four movies (in no particular order) that have had persuasive effects on your "expert" blog author:

1. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Before the late 1990s, American war movies had typically depicted battle as a heroic endeavor in which good guys jump through flames to indiscriminately spray opposing forces with automatic rifle fire, set the world right, and return home as living gods. No crisis. No fear. No reflection. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Then, in 1998, two movies were released that showed--in great detail--the horrors of World War II. Although both movies were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, Saving Private Ryan gained wider acclaim among the movie-going public. This wasn't without merit; Saving Private Ryan is an outstanding movie that shows the physical toll of combat in the European theater during World War II. It also raises questions related to warranted sacrifice and whether some lives are worth saving more than others.

The other movie, The Thin Red Line, showed the psychological effects of war and how men react to being alone in their own minds. By portraying the Pacific Theater of World War II (the film centers around the Battle of Mount Austen in the Guadalcanal campaign), the movie had a much more claustrophobic, surreal, and pessimistic setting. In Terence Malick's vision, there is heroism and sacrifice among individual soldiers, but their efforts are hardly glorious. The experience of war is one in which soldiers are alone, despite being surrounded by allies and enemies on all sides. Battles are not opportunities for securing one's place in history, but are instead panicked sprints in which soldiers, though acting according to their training, are reduced to their basest instinct to survive. In Malick's film, the quiet time between battles leave soldiers to reflect on what they've done, what they must do, and what is likely to happen to them. In this movie, all soldiers are already dead; they are just waiting for an enemy bullet to finish the job. Leaving room for hope for one's own survival or faith in mankind's benevolence is foolish.

The Thin Red Line changed how I think about war. It fundamentally altered my belief that war is a large-scale, grand event in which a cadre of brothers come together to fight in accordance with carefully devised tactics, confident in their side's victory. I now believe war to be like Malick's vision- a quiet, lonely experience where is one forced to consider his own mortality at every experience where soldiers develop impossibly strong bonds with one another, fight fiercely to protect themselves, their friends, and their country, but must ultimately die alone.

I know. I started off with a downer. Sorry about that. I'll lighten it up. Kind of.

2. World of Tomorrow (2015)

Those who came of age when the Internet gained serious prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s will be familiar with one of my favorite artists of the last thirty years, Don Hertzfeldt. You may not have known Hertzfeldt's name, but you have likely chuckled at one of his cartoons or identified with the characters therein. Hertzfeldt is a young-ish animator whose work strikes an effective balance between lighthearted and cynical. Hertzfeldt's artistic style is simple; his tone, dark. To illustrate, here is a short clip from one of his most popular short films, "Rejected."

Much of Hertzfeldt's early work was of the beat-down-the-guy-in-the-non-silly-hat variety. However, with World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt dives into some serious subject matter. At the heart of the subject matter, the viewer must consider what his/her future will be... or if there will be a future at all.

In the film, a young girl named Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt's niece whom he recorded during adorable musings) answers a telephone-like device. In doing so, she comes face-to-face with her future self from roughly 240 years in the future. This "third-generation Emily" explains to the small-child Emily that all is going well in the future, even as some troubling details come to light. I don't want to rob you of some of the excellent dark humor that follows, but the most critical feature of this future is that humans have developed the ability to produce perfect clones of themselves into which they can upload their memories. By doing so, humans essentially manufacture immortality by continually re-uploading their consciousness into clones of themselves.

I have been doing some reading about artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness lately, so this was very interesting to me. Prior to seeing the film, I was very excited about the prospect of reaching the point at which this consciousness-uploading would be possible. However, the tone of World of Tomorrow tempered that a bit. It changed how I think about my future, what I think it will be, and whether I have a place in the future of the human race. It also raises questions about whether immortality is inherently good (or bad), and whether our memories are ultimately what define us. Against the backdrop of these questions is the persistent innocence of the child Emily, who (whether through Hertzfeldt's intention or not) convinced me that it is more important to enjoy the present time than to worry about third-generation Kurt.

The simplicity of Hertzfeldt's animation style only accentuates this message. I would strongly recommend you seek this film out if you have access to Netflix, where it is currently streaming (as of October, 2016).

3. The Big Short (2015)

I can't sugar coat this item on the list or the influence it had on me. Nor can I hold my head high and claim to have been educated on the financial system in the United States prior to seeing this film. I am still by no means an expert on issues related to finance (although I did invest in solar panels and gained 0.4% this year... I'm clearly the next Warren Buffett), but seeing The Big Short not only changed my attitudes about the shady dealings of the financial sector, it rocked my fundamental beliefs about the dominant political structure in the U.S.

The (very) abridged summary of the film is that several small independent groups of investors and financial consultants observed a trend whereby banks had been providing people with subprime loans that were about to be defaulted on. The pervasiveness of these subprime loans (including mortgages) made them the backbone of the U.S. economy in the mid-to-late 2000s. When those loans defaulted, the economy tanked. Of course, you know this. You were there. You lost money. You saw who did it. And you got angry.

Ryan Gosling handsomely explains the housing crisis in The Big Short.

After seeing this movie, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, I took an active and concerted interest in how American politics are related to the American financial sector. I did significant research about the companies responsible for the subprime loans and which politicians they funded. It influenced my voting tendencies, and will continue to do so in the elections I vote in for the rest of my life. The Big Short, simply by nature of telling me the story of the 2008 financial crisis in a way I could understand, fundamentally altered my beliefs about finance and politics, as well as my behaviors related to my participation in the democratic process.

More than many of the items on this list, The Big Short exemplifies the strength of the narrative format. By simplifying the complex financial issues surrounding the crisis, dolts like me could understand exactly what happened. The importance of this kind of explanatory power is hard to overstate.

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

This movie is the aforementioned "one of the best I've seen since 2000." It may seem a strange addition to the list, given that there is clearly no persuasive intent on the part of the filmmaker, and the story of Jesse James and Robert Ford really has no larger influence on any topics of importance. That said, this movie fundamentally changed my perceptions about two mythic figures in American history.

For those who are unfamiliar, Jesse James was an outlaw in the American near West (centered in Missouri) who took to robbing banks and trains after his participation as a rebel in the Civil War. Owing to the persuasive effects of another type of story format (penny comics), James achieved mythic hero status in American folklore as a type of "rebel Robin Hood." A member of James's gang, Robert Ford, killed James in return for a reward promised to him by the governor of Missouri at the time. In contrast to James, Ford's reputation is that of a coward--one that turned on the heroic Jesse and gunned him down in cold blood.

In this movie however, the performances of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford completely changed how I perceived the two men. Although I never thought of James as a hero type, Pitt's portrayal showed what historians agree was likely James' true demeanor. Unhinged. Depressed. Unpredictable. Always dangerous. Affleck's turn as Robert Ford was one of the best portrayals I've seen in recent memory. Rather than pile on Ford by making him out to be a gutless coward, the film showed the nuances of Ford's admiration of James. It showed Ford to be trapped in a situation where he was caught between his own safety, his desire for notoriety, and his sense of loyalty to Jesse. Taken together, their performances absolutely shattered my images of the two men, changing how I think about the history of the James gang and the events surrounding them.

The final few minutes of the movie capture the true sense of sadness surrounding Ford. Spoilers ahead, so if you want to experience the beauty of the final scene on your own, don't watch the clip. But I would strongly recommend it for anyone that wants an abridged version of the tragedy of Robert Ford.


There are countless other examples of movies that have had a persuasive impact on me, but these are the four that I've seen most recently and have had the most perceptible effect. I consider myself lucky in that I can study how and why these films resonate with me, but I never think academically while I actually watch them. Therein lies the persuasiveness of the narrative format. We never know we're being changed when a story does the changing.

Feel free to share which movies, books, or stories have changed you in some way in the comments below. If nothing else, you'll give me something to seek out and experience.

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