Wild Wild West

Don’t look to Hollywood for historical truths: Movies like “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are based on fairy-tales rather than fact.

Four of the ten nominees in the Best Picture category at the 2013 Academy Awards were clever political movies: Django Unchained, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lincoln.

Each film has been pored over by commentators to untangle its essential meaning. Especially ZDT: does it rehabilitate W.? Endorse Obama? Justify torture?

However, as my momma used to say, “by honing in on certain films and bits of films, our political understanding of Hollywood becomes like a box of chocolates: you always know what ya’ll gunna git.”

So, let’s put aside the Oscars briefly and consider the context of Hollywood in 2012. The CIA worked with Tom Cruise on the Mission Impossible franchise since 1996 and its influence lingers in the latest MI4: Ghost Protocol. The 007 franchise produced its 23rd instalment in the form of Skyfall, reassuring us through the authoritative figures of Judi Dench and Daniel Craig that Western governments are diligently battling the forces of disorder. The Red Dawn remake, originally the pet project of Reagan administration hawk/MGM board member Al Haig, treated us to a military invasion of the United States by, er, ahem, North Korea. The Navy gave on set support to Battleship, so its personnel are shown – with cool artificial limbs – defending us from alien invasion.

In short, a body of high budget cinema collaborates with the US government to produce narratives that actively support the national security state and the inflation of external threats. This is to bolster military/security service recruitment, retention, and PR, accompanied by the whiff of hubris.

You might think such films do not have as much political significance as the Oscar nominees. Maybe, but just consider the cast of one such lightweight film, The Expendables II – Arnold Schwarzenegger (W’s buddy), Chuck Norris (Bibi Netanyahu’s buddy), and Sly Stallone (the cigarette industry’s best buddy through the 1980s). Big names – however silly they may seem – are instrumental in promoting big interests. It’s the rest of us who are expendable.

Atlas Shrugged: Part II celebrates the ultra-capitalist views of Ayn Rand. The original was a commercial and critical write-off but the sequel – released to coincide with the November election – raised $16m through a private debt sale. The series is backed by one of the US’ most powerful conservative organisations, “Americans for Prosperity,” which told the BBC: “We supported it; we had screenings around the country… we liked the ideas to be out there.” The “inherent morality of capitalism” the franchise celebrates is summed up by the heroes’ negative response to the question: “You really don’t care about helping the underprivileged, do you?”

So when was the last major movie that was controversial for challenging entrenched systems of power rather than defending them? Fair Game and Green Zone back in 2010? Well, they pointed out the blindingly obvious consensus that the Bush administration sold out its own people and lied about WMD, but even then these messages came seven years too late to alter the fortunes of Bush or Iraq.

There remain renegades who fight against the tide: the Brits Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, and “Sir” Ken Loach. There is still quite a healthy scene for political documentaries, as this year’s Oscar nominations for The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras (films that deal with the Israeli/Arab conflict) attest. And although overlooked by the Academy, Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games trilogy is a thrilling endorsement of libertarianism.

ZDT might endorse torture, but it does it more subtly than Hollywood’s usual efforts (24, Unthinkable, Taken). Does that make it more effective in legitimizing the practice? It’s hard to say without mass polling the audience, but it could hardly be called a repudiation of rendition. The film pointedly ignores directly pertinent information, such as the CIA destroying 92 videotapes of high value interrogations. In truth, ZDT scrupulously avoids supporting one political party over another by giving an agonizingly intelligent “thumbs-up” to everyone involved in avenging 9/11. Likewise, Argo, winner of the “Best Movie” category, is less offensive about Iranians than its racist precursors like Not Without My Daughter (1991), but it remains a film that depicts an official enemy with whom we are teetering on the brink of war, and in which the heroic real-world role played by the Canadians is downplayed in favor of lauding the CIA.

We know the CIA, White House, and Defense Department gave unprecedented cooperation to ZDT, prompting a brief furore. Argo comes directly from the CIA’s own mythology, though I am waiting on a Freedom of Information Request to reveal whether they played a more direct role in the actual script development. From experience, I expect to be waiting a long time for precious little.

Hollywood is not obliged to educate us about politics or history. Frankly, the most political I like screen entertainment to be is when a plasticine Hugh Grant takes a cutlass to Queen Victoria in The Pirates! (which was nominated this year in the animation category). The problem is that Hollywood consistently mis-educates us, often with the deliberate connivance of serious organizations seeking to justify their role as our champions.

So entertain yourself with this year’s Oscar winners and nominees, but remember that however much they seem normal to celebrate the rescue of hostages from Tehran, or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, in the real world it wasn’t carried out by people half as good looking. It was just told by them. And that’s routine in Hollywood.

Read more in this debate: Terry Christensen, Charles Musser, Guy Westwell.

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