Does Hollywood Have a Foreign Policy?

Tinseltown’s biggest films tend to be highly critical of American power, but also reinforce the idea that the rest of the world is a place best avoided.

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.

But just because Hollywood tends to be ambivalent about U.S. power in the world doesn't mean that foreigners get a sympathetic portrayal. The overwhelming message of Hollywood movies that touch on U.S. foreign policy is that the world is a scary place that's probably best avoided.

Take Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Dawn, a movie whose broad theme is the hubris of American power as seen through the 1993 battle of Mogadishu. But as the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell noted in his review, "the lack of characterization converts the Somalis into a pack of snarling dark-skinned beasts, gleefully pulling the Americans from their downed aircraft and stripping them. Intended or not, it reeks of glumly staged racism." A similar charge was leveled at the Deer Hunter's depiction of the Vietnamese in the film's famous Russian Roulette scene, and the portrayal of Mexicans in Soderbergh's anti-drug war movie Traffic was not much better. A host of well meaning films about Africa in recent years, from Blood Diamond to Hotel Rwanda to The Last King of Scotland, are generally sure to note U.S. or Western culpability in the horrific events taking place, but don't really do much to dispel the notion of a continent plagued by dictators and warlords, a land beyond all hope.

The 2007 nominee Babel, though intended as a meditation on globalization, also reinforces the "better-stay-home" message: In one of the film's intersecting plotlines, an American woman vacationing in Morocco is shot by a goat herder testing out his new rifle and prevented from receiving medical care by the lack of communications technologies and political disputes. Meanwhile back home, her young children are taken across the border by their Mexican nanny and -- through a series of politically charged events -- wind up being left alone in the Sonora desert.

Even Oliver Stone, Hollywood's most famously left-wing director and -- at least until the emergence of Bigelow -- the one who engaged most consistently with international themes, hasn't exactly championed the people of the developing world in his films, despite his friendship with the likes of Hugo Chávez. From the sadistic and venal depiction of Turks in his screenplay for Midnight Express, to the menacing Viet Cong in Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July, to this year's Savages, in which nearly every Mexican character is an over-the-top, well, savage, Stone's negative attitude toward American power is matched only by his seeming conviction that foreigners are dark and dangerous.

Argo is the latest film motivated by the sort of liberal isolationism that tends to guide Hollywood when it aims its cameras overseas. The movie's take on U.S foreign policy is more negative than its Iranian critics give it credit for. I'd be willing to bet that the film's animated introduction, which provides the history of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran's democratically elected government, was the first time many American moviegoers had ever heard about the event, a major factor in Iranian resentment of the United States to this day. Some might see the film as glorifying the CIA, but like Zero Dark Thirty and the hit TV series Homeland, its hero is not the agency itself but a driven, rebellious agent who seems to spend more time battling bureaucracy than bad guys. On the other hand, with the exception of a loyal maid at the Canadian ambassador's house who helps protect the hiding American hostages in the film, Iranians are shown either as fanatical, if dim-witted officials or as an undifferentiated mass of beards and hijabs.

Argo is a much safer movie than Zero Dark Thirty, vaguely political without containing anything that any Americans will find offensive -- a kind of foreign-policy Crash. And unlike China, which has enough clout in Hollywood to get a feature film re-edited before its release -- Iran isn't exactly a major market for Tinseltown's wares.

One big question going forward is whether Hollywood's increasing reliance on international audiences will affect the kinds of stories that get told. The Academy has shown itself to be more open to films with Indian protagonists like Slumdog Millionaire and The Life of Pi in recent years. Perhaps it will soon be ready for a movie about America's place in the world where the rest of the planet gets a speaking role.

Keith Bernstein – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


The Little Search Engine That Couldn’t

How China’s Communist Party tried to compete with Google, and failed miserably.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. In January 2010, Google announced that it was the target of cyberattacks originating in China; just a few months later it shuttered its China-based search service. By that point, privately owned Chinese Internet giant Baidu controlled a 73 percent stake in China's $1.7 billion online search market, with Google's share shrinking and smaller, entrepreneurial firms making up the rest. The Internet, then a Wild West where acerbic bloggers debated armies of government-sponsored flacks (known as the Fifty-Cent Party, for what they're allegedly paid for promoting the party line) and homegrown movies and TV shows competed for eyeballs with bootleg Hollywood films and grainy Japanese porn, was probably the only sector in China's state-dominated business landscape where the Communist Party feared to tread.

Enter the People's Daily, the party's official mouthpiece, and the website it manages, People.com.cn, which had been trying to update its offerings for a generation that has better things to do than read the paper's stilted official pronouncements. A newspaper it supervises, Global Times, was becoming a successful broadsheet both in paper and online, and People's Daily wanted to expand its reach further still.

On June 20, 2010, People's Daily announced the launch of a search engine, now titled Jike, a Chinese word for "immediately." Deng Yaping, a low-ranking party official who happened to be a four-time Olympic gold medalist in ping-pong and a Cambridge University Ph.D., was appointed the site's general manager; she said it would provide "a fresh news experience." In what was good for government relations but perhaps an inauspicious sign of what was to come, the announcement received a congratulatory message from then Propaganda Minister Liu Yunshan. "Now, the position of online news propaganda is growing more and more important, but the position of guiding online behavior has grown more and more strenuous" he wrote, adding that he hoped the website and its search engine could play a "pacesetter" role in guiding online opinion.

Almost three years and dozens of millions of dollars later, Jike has become an Internet joke, the object of mockery among Chinese netizens. The site captures less than 0.0001 percent of the search-engine market, according to China-based web analytics firm CNZZ, which notes that its "rate of utilization" is almost zero. On Sunday, tech guru Lee Kai-fu posted a series of questions about Jike to his more than 30 million followers on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging service similar to Twitter. Why, he wondered, was it necessary to even use taxpayer money to create a search engine? And how could a search engine work without a commitment to open information?

Jike would seem to prove that it can't. The Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which monitors Chinese journalism, recently published an analysis of the website that illustrates just what kind of "guiding" Minister Liu had in mind. A search for "separation of powers" sends readers to articles arguing that such ideas are not fit for China's "unique situation." A search for dissident artist Ai Weiwei features the censorship line (common in other Chinese media properties) that "according to relevant laws and regulations, a portion of the search results aren't provided," then follows with a series of state-sponsored articles critical of Ai.

In sectors where it tries to appear liberal and open, a quick and easy search reveals that far more comprehensive offerings are available just a click away. The five bars on top feature options to search for news, webpages, pictures, videos, maps, as well as two features designed to be more unique: "Food Safety" and "Exposure Platform." Food safety displays articles about Chinese and international health problems, but nothing that's not much more accessible and better curated at Baidu. Exposure Platform's webpage, alas, is also made up almost entirely of food and health scare articles, mirroring a push by the government to improve food and health safety. Searching Exposure Platform for the English or Chinese for Bloomberg, which in 2012 published a series of explosive reports on high-level corruption, or for the scandal-ridden former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, returns an icon with a warning sign and the phrase "Very sorry, we were unable to find exposes related to" the item searched. A recent search for the Chinese phrase "Xi Jinping Corruption" on the Exposure Platform returns only one search result ... about China's new leader's calls for a crackdown on corruption. Neither Baidu nor Google pretend to be solving the government's problems by mentioning low-level scandals and ignoring the bigger issues.

Lee's comments stung, especially as Lee is the founding present of Google China, a service that Jike has unabashedly (and unsuccessfully) copied from the beginning: Jike was originally called Goso and its logo bore a suspicious resemblance to Google's famous colorful icon. Jike still seemed so similar as of November 2011 that an article in Shanghai's Oriental Morning Daily was titled "Deng Yaping: Jike Search won't completely imitate Google."

So does Jike do anything well? It's a surprisingly good source for movies. In both an English- and Chinese-language search for "Batman," for example, the first hit that comes up is a link that takes you to a "High Definition Movie Channel" with a big link for watching the movies instantly on file-sharing site Youku (though in the United States, where I conducted all of the searches mentioned in this article, the video won't run, instead showing a note that says, "Sorry, this video can only be streamed within Mainland China.").  

Perhaps the only advantage Jike holds over Google is its government connection. After Lee publically questioned Jike, he found himself locked out of his microblog for the first time. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but that week Deng had found herself and the search engine the target of fierce criticism, with articles in the Chinese press claiming she had cut 100 people out of Jike's nearly 500-person staff, and that she bragged about her ping-pong exploits during staff meetings, telling her employees that "she was always No. 1" and that they must learn from the best and "emulate Google."

But clearly, for the Chinese Communist Party, that's easier said than done.

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