The Big Issue : Edition 425
While the World prepares for the oscars, Glenn dunks peeks behind the curtain to see What role american politics plays on the silver screen. IF THe ReCenT US presidential election taught us anything, it’s that the world takes American politics very seriously. The role of Commander-in-Chief carries with it such significance and power that no other country’s political circus receives such coverage from the international media, and not even the ego of Hollywood is immune. In fact, Hollywood has been using the world’s enthralment with American politics to its advantage for as long as cinema has existed, frequently churning out movies that examine America’s political role, both past and present. The American film industry’s fascination with politics is very apparent in the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, three deal primarily with the political realm: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Ben Affleck’s Argo and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery in 1865, a Middle eastern rescue mission in 1979, or the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which concluded in 2011, these films are potent examples of how American filmmakers continue to take their nation’s historic moments and re-imagine them for contemporary audiences. What does it say, though, about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation that hosts the annual trophy-giving shindig, when this type of film is hailed so often? Are they simply responding to quality filmmaking (a subjective term, to say the least), or is there something more significant at play? As the Academy’s global scope continues to expand – British members, for instance, are now said to be prolific enough within the organisation to ensure that films like The Crying Game (1992), The Full Monty (1997) and Atonement (2007) receive larger-than-expected nomination hauls – it could be assumed the reach of political stories may diminish. not so. If anything, the connected world has made these distinctly American films even more pertinent to a global audience. One could hypothesise that the Academy sees it as a patriotic duty to reward these films and their makers. To stamp these films as important works of cinema is to elevate the subject matter, while simultaneously confirming the Academy’s role as a barometer of the country’s shifting tastes and attitudes. So frequently is the film industry accused of frivolity, of worshipping at the altar of money and beauty (especially the Academy Awards), that awarding Bigelow’s low-budget Iraq-war drama, The Hurt Locker, the gong for Best Picture in 2010 could be perceived as the industry’s 34 THe big issue 8 – 21 Feb 2013 attempt at validating its own existence; an acknowledgement of cinema’s ability to inform and mould audiences’ perception of world affairs. By rewarding such a politically charged film, the Academy almost demands that a wider audience will discuss its themes and issues for years to come. The history of cinema is littered with films about the American political scene. DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) – coincidentally a reference point for another 2013 nominee, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – is infamous for its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as honourable men who restored order to the chaotic south after the American Civil War. Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) brought the Watergate scandal to a broad audience with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the leads. Oliver Stone dramatised the web around two of the nation’s most famous leaders in JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995). This year’s crop of films certainly isn’t lacking discussion points. Argo, a thrilling if glamorised take on the recently declassified Iran hostage crisis (1979–1981), has been criticised for its representation of Iranians as rabid crazies out for blood, and for diminishing the efforts of the Canadian Government. Critics have met the more refined qualities of Spielberg’s Lincoln with rapturous praise, but some historians have found inaccuracies in Tony Kushner’s screenplay. On the other hand, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the most controversial of them all, has been criticised for being too accurate in its representation of CIA torture tactics and the intelligence that was gathered by these means (see ‘Film’ in Ed#424). The argument over whether showing ghastly acts equates to endorsing them has remained a sticking point with the film’s more ardent detractors. Furthermore, a perceived pro-Obama stance was rumoured to be the reason its release was postponed until after last year’s US election. Such films fascinate in much the same way as America fascinates the world: a nation that garners such global influence and power must surely have lessons to teach, plus warnings to heed. These political films offer insight into the workings of Washington DC, and are backed by star power and big budgets. Whether the Oscars have an agenda in promoting these films is something we may never know, but by memorialising them the Academy is promoting certain versions of American history and politics. » Glenn Dunks is a regular film reviewer for The Big Issue. The Academy Awards will be presented on 24 February.