Oscar Rights Some Historical Wrongs, Creates Some New Ones

When members of the Hollywood establishment (most notably Jerry Bruckheimer with Black Hawk Down) partnered with the Pentagon after 9/11 to promote the war on terror, a dark shadow dimmed Hollywood’s bright lights. It usually takes about 10 years for historical pendulums to start to swing back, and the choice of Argo for Best Picture seemed to flash a beam of light up against Hollywood’s dark decade.

Ben Affleck in Argo

Ben Affleck in a fictionalized Iran in Argo.

Standing with co-producers, including George Clooney, director Ben Affleck accepted the Academy Award for a quirky film that stands as a humanist rejection of what has dominated Hollywood of late. How many films open, like Argo, with a voiced historical vignette admitting to a moment of American infamy in the Middle East? The U.S.-engineered 1953 coup in Iran began the Shah’s reign and set the country into a vortex of repression and violence, chaos that would ultimately result in American hostages.

Grounded in this context, Argo tells the story of a nonviolent rescue mission driven by a fantastical science-fiction film fantasy, instead of a mission that fills movie screens with Black Hawk helicopters and post-9/11 tropes that dictate mass murder of stereotyped enemies who so richly deserve to die.

Though it’s based on the actual 1980 CIA-inspired escape of Americans from Tehran, many have exposed the fictions of Argo. Most of the heavy lifting was actually done by the Canadians, and the real history of the U.S. in Iran remains hidden. NBC‘s Brian Williams (2/21/13) questioned the film’s claim to reality because of the suspenseful, dramatized airport chase in the final get-away scene, and others point out that the cover story never had to be implemented. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir described the film as “a propaganda fable,” ┬ábut when the Academy chose Argo and almost ignored Zero Dark Thirty, I cheered.

Navy SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty

Actors playing Navy SEALS in Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty was given thumbs down, receiving no major awards. (It shared Best Sound Editing with Skyfall.) At least during Oscar night, global audiences were spared the torture sequences that have proven so hard for director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal to explain, and more importantly, justify. With its lengthy and graphic attention to “enhanced interrogation techniques” and a main character who accepts torture as a pathway to Bin Laden, the tone and sensibilities of ZDT couldn’t be more different from Argo, though both are fictionalized, historical spy thrillers.

The first frames of ZDT claim the story is “based on real events,” and the early buzz promoting the film touted Bigelow’s journalistic background and her admirable ability to expose onscreen the gritty process of the hunt and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Indeed, the term “procedural” has now entered media’s descriptive lexicon.

But the most valuable quality of the film has proven to be the outrage and public discussion it has evoked around the topic of torture. Sadly for the filmmakers, these are not Oscar criteria. Flags were raised almost immediately about the accuracy of the film’s narrative assertions that torture resulted in “actionable intelligence.” The filmmakers were then forced to reverse course and declare that their movie was, after all, fiction. It was the graphic experience that was real, the larger truth of the war on terror, not the sequencing of events that tied torture to Bin Laden’s end.

ZDT follows the post-9/11 escalation of torture as entertainment in popular culture, but it is usually depicted as a necessity for national security. When the enhanced interrogation techniques in ZDT had no compelling justification in what was now acknowledged to be a fictional rendering, Hollywood and filmgoers were left in the awkward position of having to accept such horrific brutality as simply entertainment. Hopefully for some, the criticisms of the film have led to the realization that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence strategy.

The makers of ZDT showed an astounding lack of judgment in embellishing such a raw and monumental moment in American history. It was certainly predictable that an army of ground truthers, both online and in mature media, would pick through every detail.

The film’s embrace of torture in the tale of getting Bin Laden shows how deeply and uncritically many in Hollywood accepted the tactics of the war on terror and promoted them as entertainment. The best long-term outcome of ZDT may turn out be the fissure that the film has opened up between the entertainment industries and the military. We can only hope that entertainment stamped with the Pentagon seal of approval may become less prominent in American media culture in the future. And Oscar will have played a role in that.

Now Hollywood needs to work on telling the real story of Iran.

Robin Andersen, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, is a member of FAIR’s board of directors.