“Miscasting, Propaganda, and Psychologically Twisted Violence: A Look at Disturbing Films”


Spoiler alert: the films discussed in this essay include Saving Private Ryan, The Stoning of Soraya M., and Zero Dark Thirty.

My parents didn’t own a television until I was twelve and they limited our viewing time. My mother would say: “You should learn how to entertain yourself.” I didn’t have that many channels but I also didn’t have commercials so it wasn’t bad advice; however, it left me vulnerable whenever I was exposed to someone else’s television. I wasn’t used to how coldblooded it was. I was haunted for months by a TV show I saw at my grandmother’s house: two young men were confronted by a street gang in the 1950s; one ran away, but his friend was beaten to death. When you’re five or six years old that is hard to process.

Forty years later (more or less) I was visiting my parents in Southern California. We hardly ever watched movies together since my father and I can talk for hours and my mother’s taste in movies was different than mine. We were watching a war film though, and when it was over they yawned and said goodnight and went to bed. It hadn’t phased them, but I sat there stunned and wide-eyed as the ramifications were hitting home.


Saving Private Ryan (1998) screenshot

One scene in particular: an American soldier encounters a Nazi in a house in a French village. They fight hand-to-hand, having run out of ammunition. (I’ve read about the lack of realism in war films where soldiers shoot their weapons for far longer than the weapons’ capacity for ammunition.) The American pulls a knife but the German grabs his wrist and overpowers him. The American ends up on the floor on his back with the German on top. The knife hovers over his upper torso, pointed down, and his resistance is ebbing as he tries to keep the knife away from his heart. The director (or the screenwriter) adds an insidious note to this life and death struggle. It takes on an intimate tone as the German leans down and whispers in the soldier’s ear about giving up and accepting death. The knife sinks into his chest and it is over.

When the German leaves the room, he passes another American soldier on the stairs. The latter has a rifle but is so petrified with fear he can’t use it. The German walks by him like someone whose spineless existence is not worth acknowledging. By that time I was floored and cursing Spielberg (or the screenwriter Robert Rodat) for the diabolic genius of the scene, however much it favored the Nazis. Fortunately they lost the war.

I had been exposed to quite a few films by then, but nothing like Saving Private Ryan (1998), especially when the soldiers land on Omaha Beach and walk into a buzz-saw. It took up half an hour at the beginning of the film and is so well done that veterans with PTSD are warned about viewing it.

Another film I found disturbing was The Stoning Of Soraya M. (2008). Instead of hundreds of men being gunned down on the beach, here is one woman buried up to her waist while men throw rocks at her (including her son and husband). It’s a clumsy form of execution and it goes back thousands of years. Even worse, she hadn’t committed the alleged crime (adultery).


It’s an American film, set in Iran, and based on a book by a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam. The film got mixed reviews, which was a little surprising. Rotten Tomatoes said it “…drowns out its message with an inappropriately heavy-handed approach.” Those hands have rocks in them. People were shocked and put off by the stoning scene. I thought the film was well done, however brutal and direct and hard to watch at times. The woman’s husband is such a slimy-casual sociopath you’re hoping he steps on a landmine. His marriage was becoming inconvenient and he found a way to get rid of his wife. Simple as that.

Other aspects of the film are not so simple and are addressed in this article, “Sensationalist Film Exploits Human Rights Issue in Iran.” Stoning in Iran is very rare. “[T]he Head of the Iranian Judiciary announced a moratorium on stoning back in 2002… Sadly, at least three people have been executed by stoning since then. Interestingly, all three were men.” Meanwhile, in the US over 1800 women were killed every year between 2003 and 2012. (In a third of the cases the men were husbands, boyfriends, exes, etc. In half of the cases the men used a gun.) And too many films require the death or terrorizing of a woman in order to generate a plot.

In The Stoning of Soraya M. a woman is executed by a method found in biblical times. In Noah (2014) you have a biblical story where the human race is condemned to death by the god of some delirious wishful thinkers in the desert. The only people who will survive are Noah and his family. The movie is ridiculous and disturbing. Noah plans to stab his daughter’s baby with a knife for theological reasons. The main problem is the original story from the Book of Genesis (in the Torah and the Old Testament). I wrote about it in an essay entitled, “Neo-Noah: The Bastardization of a Jewish Myth.”

I should note that I’m not including slasher films in this essay. I’ve seen very few and those were enough. The gore is unbelievable these days (and that’s just on Game of Thrones). It makes you wonder what sort of repressed urges are lurking in directors and viewers.

There are films I find disturbing which I’ve never seen. For example, J. Edgar (2011). The reviews were lukewarm. The screenplay is by one of the Hollywood castrati. It has no balls.

From The Guardian:

The movie does not quite reclaim Hoover for gay history, neither does it exactly claim a tragic status for Hoover’s imprisonment in the closet, nor quite suggest that his tentacular empire was a symptom of sexual repression. There is a weird, muffled neutrality to all this, a lot of pulled punches and fudged issues, as if screenwriter and director have made an uneasy alliance to create a Hoover they admire from different angles: the fictional love child of Harvey Milk and Dirty Harry. And there’s an infuriating final twist that sneakily preserves the movie’s impartiality.

It is unconscionable to cover such a vile person as J. Edgar Hoover with a “muffled neutrality.” He was head of the FBI for nearly half a century, during which time he was more intent on persecuting pot smokers and people in the civil rights movement than organized crime. “We want no Gestapo or secret police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail… Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him” (“The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover“). That is not a leftwing radical speaking, it’s Harry S. Truman.

Hoover looked like a toad who wore his mother’s clothing with a gun in his hand (“FBI agents upset over movie alleging J. Edgar Hoover was gay“). So who do they get to portray him? Leonardo DiCaprio. Talk about historical revisionism. It makes you wonder about the extent of government propaganda in our culture. It has always been there to some extent, but the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 “explicitly forbids information and psychological operations aimed at influencing U.S. public opinion.” That was nullified by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2012 (“The NDAA Legalizes The Use Of Propaganda On The US Public“).

We now have films like American Sniper (2014), glorifying a mercenary killer with a thousand-yard stare. And Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which exploits the dubious story of Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan. Keep in mind that the FBI has stated it has “no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11” (FBI says, “No hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11”). We have no evidence that the unarmed man in his fifties who was shot when  American soldiers broke into his home was bin Laden. There were no photos or DNA test released, and the body was quickly dumped in the ocean. Supposedly he lived for years near a Pakistani military base and they didn’t know he was there. Even more suspicious: since the operation was run by the CIA any records of it cannot be accessed by the public. (The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh thinks the raid was staged.) And the film, which tries to put a positive spin on torture, was secretly aided by the CIA. (Read “Hollywood History: CIA Sponsored “Zero Dark Thirty”, Oscar for “Best Propaganda Picture” and “The director of the CIA secretly helped produce Hollywood’s biggest movie about the Osama bin Laden raid.”)


Zero Dark Thirty (2014) screenshot

Then there are the 9/11 films which I refuse to see (except for the documentary Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup (2009)). There are several films about Flight 93, which is said to have crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers tried to take back the plane from the hijackers. It was probably shot down by a fighter jet since debris was spread over miles of countryside. The alleged crash site has little or no wreckage (“Highjacking The Highjacking: The problem with the United 93 films“). The films conform to the official fairytale of 9/11 and I find that disturbing, especially when someone like Oliver Stone makes a middle-of-the-road movie about a couple of responders trapped in the rubble. “World Trade Center doesn’t do much with 9/11, except to sentimentalize it for popular consumption” (Slate). Like that hadn’t been done already.

There is another aspect of movies which bothers some people: the casting. It’s an ethnic minefield, for one thing. Movies were invented and developed by people of European descent, but that doesn’t mean a white person should portray someone of a different race. When a famous white actor is used it may have more to do with box office concerns than racism, but tell that to those who want to see their own kind on the big screen.

There was a controversy about who should portray Frida Kahlo (who was Mexican and Jewish) in Frida (2002). They ended up with Salma Hayek (whose background is Mexican and Lebanese). It was a semi-obtuse choice, but imagine what a travesty it would have been if Madonna had gotten her clutches on the role (she tried to). Many people objected to Zoe Saldana (who I liked as a blue-skinned alien in 2009’s Avatar) in the role of a darker-skinned Nina Simone (Nina (2016)). A woman wrote the screenplay and directed the film, but according to the Guardian “… it is an inept, cliché-ridden story edited together in a treacly and cheap manner.”

I mentioned the miscasting in J. Edgar, but why would Leonardo DiCaprio play a sleazy stock broker in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)? Is it anti-Semitic to have a Jewish actor play a Jewish swindler? For that matter, why would the more positive role of a writer, David Foster Wallace (a Gentile), be given to a Jewish actor? (“Why The End of the Tour isn’t really about my friend David Foster Wallace“)

Other films I found disturbing:[1] The Deer Hunter (1978) – not so much when they’re eating monkey brains, but the Russian roulette scene (one of the actors reminded me of my brother). Repulsion (1965) by Roman Polanski – a woman is cracking up and cracks appear in the wall. Some people find his past disturbing and won’t go near his films. Inland Empire (2006) – David Lynch is one of my favorite directors but this one got away from him. He didn’t even try to make sense of it. I walked out of the theater cursing.

There was a short film I walked in on one afternoon at the Art Institute. The theater was nearly empty. A man on the screen was slowly and methodically disemboweling himself with a sword.

[1] I knew a sensitive and religious woman who would watch the most gory films, the kind I won’t go near. My father doesn’t go to the movies anymore because the sound-system in the theater is like a giant robot stomping on people. My mother-in- law hated The Revenant, mainly for what happened to a horse (she has two horses). My wife found Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas too disturbing to watch, along with Fatal Attraction (a rabbit is boiled) and Jaws (she saw it as a young girl). She got tired of a TV series, Mad Men, because of how women were treated in the 1950’s. No brides were burned, but many women were prevented from living up to their full potential.

Steven Gray has lived in San Francisco since the 1970s.  His most recent book of poetry is Jet Shock and Culture Lag. He writes reviews for