Thunderheart (1992) and its companion film Incident At Oglala (1992) were both directed by Michael Apted and fit in the vein of the filmmaker’s politically minded thrillers. While Apted’s motives are genuinely noble, Thunderheart, the fictionalized account of the historic record, proves so unimaginative that the “white savior” narrative is inevitable. Furthermore, Apted’s film locates “white savior” Val Kilmer as the audience’s proxy and operates under the assumption that the only audience for Thunderheart is an all white middle class with politically centrist views.
The failings and weaknesses of Thunderheart as a political text are identical to that of Mississippi Burning (1988). Neither political thriller can fathom telling their stories from the perspective of the victimized minority community. Instead these films embrace the Lakota Tribe and Black Americans as cherished, yet fetishized, objects or pawns to be manipulated by the white characters. To be Black or Lakota in Thunderheart or Mississippi Burning is to be “other”; removed from the emotional network that binds the viewer to the image. Thunderheart may develop its indigenous characters more, but only in the interest of servicing the Val Kilmer character’s own development.
In the tradition of Oliver Stone, Thunderheart uses catchphrases like “third world” and “not for sale” to articulate in the broadest terms possible the highly nuanced politics of the Pine Ridge Agency. The “world” that the Kilmer character enters in Thunderheart is described in soundbite ready phrases that indicate the general ignorance of the filmmakers than to immerse the viewer in a specific social milieu. As much as Thunderheart insists that the Reservation is an alien world the film does all it can to make that world recognizable through these labels and phrases, thusly undermining its pretensions of authenticity.
But the real problem with Thunderheart is its self-congratulatory tone. As the Lakota people flock to Kilmer’s cause one is left with the impression that the filmmakers feel as though by making Thunderheart they’ve done this great favor to indigenous peoples everywhere. This is likely unintentional of course, but the condescension spoils whatever good will Thunderheart may have been able to successfully foster in its spectator. At least Val Kilmer, like the character he plays, is exactly one-fifth Native American (Cherokee according to Wikipedia).