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.