This is a piece I wrote about the Academy Awards and American politics in cinema for a recent edition of Australian print magazine (yes, I feel like I have to include the word "print" nowadays) The Big Issue.
If the USA’s recent presidential election taught us anything, it’s that Americans take politics very seriously. No other country’s political landscape receives such circus coverage by the world’s media. The role of Commander in Chief carrying with it such global significance and power that 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 cinemas has existed, frequently churning out movies that examine America’s political role on the world stage both past and present.
The American film industry’s fascination with politics is no more apparent than in the nominations for this year’s 85th Academy Awards. Of the nine films nominated for the coveted Best Picture prize, three deal primarily with the political realm—Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Ben Affleck’s Argo, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty—and cover a breadth of time periods. Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery in 1865, a Middle Eastern rescue mission in 1979, or the present day hunt for Osama Bin Laden, these films are undeniably potent examples of the genre, demonstrating the way American filmmakers continue to take their nation’s historic moments and reimagine 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 so commonly hailed? 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 that films like The Crying Game (1992), The Full Monty (1997) and Atonement (2007) have emerged with larger than expected nomination hauls—it could be assumed that the reach of these stories may diminish, but that’s not the case. If anything, the connected world in which we live has made these distinctly American films as pertinent to a global viewership as ever.
One could hypothesise that the Academy sees it as their patriotic duty to reward these films and their makers. To stamp these films as important works of cinema is to solidify them as a defining take on the subject, 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, with their shiny exterior—that awarding Kathryn Bigelow’s low budget Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker (2009) Best Picture could very easily be perceived as the industry’s attempt at validating its own existence; an acknowledgement of cinema’s ability to inform and even mould audiences’ perception of world affairs. By rewarding such an intellectual, politically-charged film, the Academy in some way 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. D. W. 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 Klu Klux Klan as honourable men who restored order to a chaotic post-war south. Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) brought the Watergate scandal to the world 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 certainly isn’t slacking for discussion points. Argo, a thrilling if glamorised take on the recently declassified hostage crisis of 1979–1980, has been criticised for its representation of Iranians as rabid crazies out for blood, as well as diminishing the efforts of the Canadian government. Critics have met the more refined qualities of Lincoln with rapturous praise, but some historians have found inaccuracies in the screenplay of Tony Kushner (Angels in America, 2004).
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. The age-old argument over whether showing ghastly acts equals endorsing them has remained a sticking point with the film’s more ardent detractors. Furthermore, a perceived pro-Barack Obama stance was rumoured to be the reason its release date was postponed until after the election that Obama eventually won.
These films, and many more like them, fascinate in much the same way as America fascinates the world. For any nation to reach America’s level of global influence and power must surely have lessons to teach, plus warnings to heed. These political films can do just that by providing access to the wheelings and dealings of Washington DC (with the star power and budgets to do so). Whether the Oscars celebrate these films with a subliminal agenda is something we’ll never know, but by memorialising them the Academy is telling the world that these are versions of American history that moviegoers everywhere should be willing to explore.