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.