The following is an excerpt from “Virtue Bombs: How Hollywood Got Woke and Lost Its Soul,” available now.
Siskel and Ebert made it hip to bicker about movies.
The Chicago-based film critics brought their outsized opinions to TV screens beginning in 1975 and kept the act going until Gene Siskel’s death in 1999. (Roger Ebert carried the TV torch until his passing in 2013.) They weren’t movie-star handsome, but their passion for film made them famous. And rightly so.
Siskel & Ebert rendered their verdicts with the now-iconic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” decree, distilling their complex views into an easily accessible symbol. Studios craved putting “Two Thumbs Up” on their movie posters and DVD covers.
This critic always found it funny when a movie poster had a single Thumbs Up, which all but screamed the other critic hated it!
Movie criticism flowered in their wake. The Internet gave every wannabe Siskel or Ebert the chance to share their reviews with the world. And plenty did just that.
Every online critic owes a debt to the duo. I know I do.
Still, no one critic could compare to Siskel & Ebert in terms of fame or influence today. And, in an undated clip from their series, the pair shared a chilling warning about the future of movie criticism. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t listen.)
The pair broke down an emerging cultural trend that spelled doom for their profession.
“There’s a whole new world called political correctness that’s going on,” Siskel said. “That is death to a critic to participate in that.”
“You’ve really put your finger on something,” Ebert jumped in, but Siskel was just warming up.
“Just personally wanting to be liked, wanting to go along with the group, is death to a critic. Take your best shot,” Siskel said. “I’ve been given this lucky break to say what I think. If I censor myself, I’m gonna regret it, I’m gonna regret it.”
Ebert cautioned how aspiring writers of the era were falling victim to the growing P.C. mentality. Remember, the movie P.C.U., a film mocking the rise of politically correct universities, hit theaters in 1994. (Few movies demand a remake more than that one.)
“A lot of college writers are either working for their student papers or they’re writing papers that are gonna be read out loud in class,” Ebert said. “Political correctness is the fascism of the ’90s. It’s this rigid feeling that you have to keep your ideas and your ways of looking at things with- in very narrow boundaries or you’ll offend someone.”
Anticipating the ideological conformity in the mainstream press to- day, he went on.
“One of the purposes of journalism is to challenge just that kind of [P.C.] thinking,” Ebert said.
“Certainly one of the purposes of criticism is to break boundaries. It’s also one of the purposes of art.
“If a young journalist…tries to write politically correctly, what they’re really doing is ventriloquism. They’re not saying what they think. They’re projecting their ideas into another politically correct persona and trying to pretend that persona reflects their ideas, and that’s tragic.”
“You’re training yourself at a very young age to lie, to lie,” Ebert added for emphasis.
It’s like the duo took Doc Brown’s time machine into the future, took furious notes, and then returned…much the wiser.
Ebert looked back at his own college days at the University of Illinois, when his school newspaper featured voices from the Left and the Right.
“Let’s have a lot of opinions, and that’s very important,” he said, not knowing the website that carries on his reviewing tradition today lacks a single, openly conservative critic on staff.
“Today on the campus there’s such tunnel vision when it comes to political correctness that people are afraid to use terms or to have feelings that haven’t been approved.”
Imagine what the famous duo would think of the modern film critic. Yes, some still abide by the gig’s core tenets—no spoilers, just a smart sense of whether audiences will like a particular film.
A growing number of modern critics, though, fall into the sad description shared in that undated show clip. They act as both the woke movement’s advocates and their unofficial enforcement arm. They count up the number of minorities in films, attacking the production should it come up short in their estimation. They rail against stories that suggest right-of-center themes, as if such ideas shouldn’t be considered in the creative process.
Some use the term “white” as a pejorative.
Forbes.com’s far-left film scribe Scott Mendelson used the word “white” four times in the opening paragraph for his review of the 2018 political biography Vice.
Yet the movie, which itself is a cinematic mediocrity that is being hailed as a potential Oscar contender partially due to its subject matter and the established pedigree of its white male filmmaker.
The film offers a seething indictment of who we automatically presume to be competent and worthy of leadership roles (white guys of a certain age).
TheWrap.com’s liberal critic, Candice Frederick did the same for Vice:
If there’s one thing writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice does well, it’s highlight how white mediocrity has thrived in American politics and pop culture. But McKay also does this by way of making a mediocre movie about mediocre politician Dick Cheney played by a surprisingly mediocre Christian Bale. At some point, and at some level, you wish the white mediocrity could be reined in, but it never is.
She does it again later in the review:
And that’s pretty much how a mediocre white man, whose own wife at one point remarks how disastrously unappealing he is as a public speaker, rises to power. The narrator of the film (Jesse Plemons, in a thankless role) notes that Cheney has “an ability to make his wildest ideas sound measured.”
In short, they completely ignore both the Siskel & Ebert model, as well as their advice regarding P.C. groupthink. And there’s little sign this will change anytime soon.
The Daily Beast’s film reporter savaged Disney’s 2020 hit Soul, a movie luxuriating in black culture with black characters voiced by black performers.
It wasn’t enough:
Pixar’s latest film is a return to form for a company that has built a reputation for heartwarming stories with a creative twist, but these stories continue Disney’s tradition of giving Black leading bodies little screen time as they often morph into either an animal or something else inhuman. If you were looking to watch a very lively Gardner grooving to jazz through- out the film, as was suggested in various trailers and commercials, guess again. Expect to see a melanin-less soul with the voice of Foxx floating through much of the film instead; and if that weren’t enough, Gardner’s body is later overtaken by another soul, voiced by Tina Fey, while Gardner assumes the form of a cat.
Remember, you can never, ever be woke enough.
A critic, in theory, could rattle off his or her (is that offensive?) take on a film’s intersectionality scorecard while still keeping the film’s principles in mind.
Is it funny? Scary? Thrilling? Well-acted? Joyful? Sad? Impactful? Entertaining?
Yet we often see the woke complaints factor into the reviews, often in a sizable fashion. One famously corrupt review gave an “F” to a movie because the story implied a pro-gun position.
Would the critic reverse that grade if the story packed a pro-gun control message?
The 2018 movie Kin featured a young black male as the lead, but that clearly wasn’t enough for Entertainment Weekly. The liberal site shredded the film via critic Chris Nashawaty, who objected to a fourteen-year-old character, the aforementioned black teen, using a space gun to defend his family from bad guys.
That’s three years younger than Dylagn (sic) Klebold and Eric Harris were when they went on their killing spree at Columbine High School and six years younger than Adam Lanza was when he murdered 27 kids and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New- town, Connecticut. You can disagree with this reviewer’s take on Kin and what it’s saying both explicitly and implicitly about guns. But I can’t and won’t recommend it in good conscience.
He doubled down on Twitter:
If you think a movie with a 14 year old with a giant gun sounds cool, you’ll love ‘KIN’. Also, you’re insane. My first ‘F’ review in some time.
Just remember. If your family is in jeopardy, do not pick up any weapon that might save them, especially a shiny space object. Let them die in peace.
Dear Chris: Is it a good film? Will we be entertained? Does the story move along, or is it plodding? Are the performances worthwhile? Do we care about the main characters?
What if we don’t hold the same rigid, nay, maniacal, anti-gun beliefs you do? Do we still count? Are we insane for enjoying the film—or is that a wee bit of projection?
None of that matters to this social justice scold, or to countless others like him. And, in his political crusade, he ignores what a film critic should do: advise readers whether a film is engaging enough to spend ninety-odd minutes watching it.
What about a better film, one that’s an unabashed B-movie, but told with verve and humor?
Run Hide Fight dared to depict a teen fighting back after a team of school shooters enters the building. The movie offered a strong, empowered lead (Isabel May), crisp action beats, and very little messaging. You can see a glimpse or two of it, that’s all.
So how did critics react to the movie? Hold on.
[Thomas Jane] didn’t survive three biogenetically enhanced backwards-swimming super sharks so that he could live to help sell the “good guy with a gun” fallacy from Redbox kiosks in red state gas stations….
[Director Kyle] Rankin is uninterested in gun fetishism, white nationalism, YouTube radicalism, or any of the other clear and present dangers that dangle over America’s classrooms like a scythe—and he sure as hell isn’t interested in starting “a conversation.” If the willful obliviousness of his movie’s relationship to the real world implicitly aligns it with Republican ideology, Rankin’s only legible goal is to imagine what John McClane’s daughter might do if some pubescent terrorists took over her school.
One quip from the comments section of the site was worth repeating:
“Nice to see you didn’t let your political biases cloud your review…. “
The Hollywood Reporter noted the movie was “slick and compulsively watchable.” So that’s a Thumbs Up in the grand Siskel/Ebert tradition, right?
[Director Kyle] Rankin (The Battle of Shaker Heights) knows his way around efficient thriller construction, getting capable assists from Darin Moran’s prowling camera, Matthew Lorentz’s nervy editing and the ominous score by composing duo Mondo Boys, which includes a moody cover of the ’60s protest song “Eve of Destruction” on the end credits.
But a numb detachment takes hold as you realize sensationalism is being flimsily packaged as social commentary on the kind of scenario that has caused America immeasurable suffering. What’s next, a pulse-pounding action thriller about a fierce transgender warrior thwarting a deadly assault on a gay nightclub in Florida? Please, no.
Woke film critics get to say what subjects are appropriate for filmmaking, and what ones aren’t.
Critics should be on the front lines of the current free speech fight. Instead, they’re often cheering for the wrong side. That was never truer than when No Safe Spaces hit theaters at the end of 2019. The docudrama couldn’t be more prescient about how the anti-speech forces on college campuses would, sooner or later, leak into society at large.
The film wasn’t dogmatic or partisan, just eager to protect our right to think and speak freely.
That triggered more than a few film critics.
Common Sense Media uncorked this doozy of an argument against the film.
The crux of No Safe Spaces’ logical hole is that although Carolla and Prager work really hard to convince us that curtailing free speech is tantamount to fascism, they’re making their points on a stage, to an audience, with microphones—freely. If free speech is truly in such terrible danger, where are the protestors and police to stop this not-so-dynamic duo?
Actually, protesters very often do just that. Just ask Ben Shapiro and many others like him.
The saddest part of it all?
Who knows if Siskel and/or Ebert would be brave enough to repeat their ’90s lecture on woke film criticism…or if they would have given two thumbs up to the mob?
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.