"what’s maddening about 300 ... is that no one involved … seems to have noticed that we’re in the middle of an actual war. With actual Persians. ... to cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness. One of the few war movies I’ve seen in the past two decades that doesn’t include at least some nod in the direction of antiwar sentiment, 300 is a mythic ode to righteous bellicosity."
I have one thing to say to the over-sensitive Slate movie reviewer Dana Stevens: This is SPARTA! (*kicks her down well*)
The politics of 300 perfectly sum up the present American political moment.
300's gender politics are kind of awesome (where kind of = qualifiedly, as opposed to unexpectedly). Leonidas looks to his wife before kicking the Persian emissary down a (very deep) well not for approval, but instead for decision-making. One reason the emissary is eligible for a well-kicking: insulting Spartan women, who not only give birth to Spartan warriors, but who are declared to be stronger as warriors than soldiers of other cultures.
The Queen gets some bloody vengeance on her own on a traitor to Sparta who convinces her to trade sex for politics. (And here's the 'kind of': trading sex for politics is feminism? leadership? It's supposed to be self-sacrifice for the good of the state, a sacrifice to match those of her husband and his warriors, but instead it's complicatedly problematic.)
This movie is unabashedly and dramatically homophobic. Xerxes looks, sounds, and acts like RuPaul, only with more makeup, more jewelry, and more effeminacy. I won't even get into the 'all I ask is that you kneel before me' component of his characterization.
Outside of the overpowering enemy-as-gay-icon themes, the Spartans themselves make comment contrasting their culture with Athenian "boy-lovers." This is noteable not just for its factual falsehood - if anything Spartan culture was more prone to homosexual/homosocial relationships within the confines of military authority (boys at the age of 7 taken from their mothers and becoming wards of the all-male military culture for, essentially, the rest of their path to adulthood) - but also for its establishment of masculine virtues as heterosexual ones.
War on Terror politics:
Here's where it starts to get interesting. The film's political stance on the War on Terror is appropriately muddled, given the present American relationship to our neverending conflict with radical Islamism. 300 confidently asserts the values that we can all agree upon ("Freedom isn't free" is spoken more than once in the film). Sparta's need to defend herself is unquestioned by the film's point of view, just as the need to use violence to defend America against radical Islamism is nearly unquestioned in our society. But there is no strict allegorical correlation between the War on Terror and the battle of Thermopylae. Dana Stevens claims in her article that "we're in the middle of an actual war. With actual Persians (or at least denizens of that vast swath of land once occupied by the Persian empire)." Only, we're not. Not exactly, anyway. We're at war with religiously-inspired zealots who hail from these lands but who are a definite minority. The enslaved fighters who fight for Xerxes fail for lack of motivation; they need to be whipped to be spurred to battle. The zealots in 300 are the 300 Spartans, fighting for ideology and the liberation of their land from foreign occupation. With the right directorial hand, this battle of East vs. West could have taken a turn towards Battlestar Galactica and carried inverse political implications. Yes, the enemies fight for Persia, but they hail from all of the lands conquored by Xerxes. They are the previous victim's of Xerxes' expansionist imperialism.
"All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." - Guy Debord
Bloody carnage. Under the attack of great numbers, from all sides. An impossible defense. The capability for heroism in spite of certain death. The muddled politics of a divisive and eternal war. A willingness to engage the enemy from the safety of an theater seat. An entertainment mechanism for dealing with uncertainty, victimhood, terrorism, and continuous global conflict?
Forget the politics; is it effective? Is 300 moving? Short answer: uh, not really. Pretty boring, in fact, to say nothing of overwrought. Whichever critic cut through the movie with its own dialogue ("This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this.") had it nailed. But most people go to the movies to be entertained for 2 hours, not to be haunted or spurred to thought. It serves well enough as spectacle to erase the outside world, and for most moviegoers that's all you can ask for.