Foreign-policy wonks enjoy movie stars and high fashion as much as everyone else, but this Sunday they may have extra incentive to tune in, thanks to two nominees very much in the center of pressing international political debates. It's not often that Hollywood films prompt official Senate inquiries, but the early scenes of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty, which strongly imply that torture was used to gain valuable intelligence that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, have reignited the debate over the "enhanced interrogation" practices of the George W. Bush era. Some insiders say the controversy over torture has scuttled the generally well-received movie's chances of taking home the big prize this year.
Meanwhile, Best Picture front-runner Argo, which presents a more uplifting -- if even more inaccurate - tale of American confrontation with radical Islam, has stirred controversy in Iran, the country where most of the action takes place. Last week, Ben Affleck's film was denounced as anti-Iranian and as an effort to drum up U.S. support for war against Iran at a government-supported conference on "Hollywoodism" in Tehran. According to the New York Times, the movie prompted one "specialist in anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic films" to suggest that "Hollywood is not a normal industry; it's a conspiracy by capitalism and Zionism."
It's hard to take film criticism too seriously from a country that has arrested or exiled its best-known filmmakers, but the bigger question posed is an interesting one. Does Hollywood have a discernible foreign-policy stance? Looking at the internationally themed films that the Academy has favored over the years, can one discern a clear ideology?
For many, the answer is obvious. Since the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood has been targeted for what conservative critics perceive as a hard-left, anti-American agenda. If there is such an agenda, it's hard to detect in Hollywood's most successful films, blockbusters like 2012's top-grossing film, The Avengers, in which usually American superheroes step in -- generally backed by U.S. military firepower -- to save the rest of the world from aliens, mutants, supervillains, or other threats. (Many have even read Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as a defense of executive power in the war on terrorism.)
But it's fair to say that the kind of prestige films that get nominated for Oscars tend to come from one side of the political spectrum. From Vietnam-era dramas like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to the growing number of Iraq movies like Green Zone and 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, the most celebrated movies have tended to take a critical look at America's wars, often questioning the motives of senior officials and examining the psychological effects on the men who fight them. From Jack Nicholson's sneering colonel in A Few Good Men to the cynical incompetence of the officers in Three Kings, the military tends not to get too positive a portrayal when the movie is about an actual war, rather than an alien invasion. (World War II movies are a possible exception, but even films like Saving Private Ryan are more about how the war affected individuals than military achievement.)
Not that the civilians fare much better. Whether they're colluding with the communists (The Manchurian Candidate), whacking their own people (The Parallax View), concocting a war to cover up a president's improprieties (Wag the Dog) or standing idly and incompetently by in the midst of a genocide (The Killing Fields), Hollywood has taken a dim view of U.S. policymakers and diplomats. (Steven Soderbergh's virus thriller Contagion, entirely ignored by the Academy, is a notable exception.) They get off easy compared to global corporations, invariably the villains in films like Syriana and The Constant Gardener.
This skepticism has carried over into the depictions of terrorism in post-9/11 films. Steven Spielberg's Munich, for instance, certainly can't be accused of sympathy for jihadists, but took a tone of ambivalence about the ethics of counterterrorism that led critics like the New Republic's Leon Weiseltier to accuse it of "the sin of equivalence" between the Israeli spies and the Palestinian terrorists they were hunting. Questions of accuracy and the torture debate aside, Zero Dark Thirty probably belongs in the same category: a movie with no hesitation about the evil of terrorism that also asks what a society loses by bending its own moral code to prevent it.