academy award for best picture

Posted: February 24, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explore topics outside of the job world.]

Politics and the Oscars

There are three films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture that fascinate me: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo.  All tell stories that the public knows: the 13th Amendment was passed, Bin Laden was killed, and the hostages were released.  Even so, these films spin narratives that keep the audience engaged.  We are taken into worlds that make us feel what the characters are feeling, which is one hallmark of great art.

I’ve met some people who found Lincoln too slow, too detailed.  For me, the film was rich in its context and narrative.  I’ve read several books about Lincoln, but none of them gave me the same feeling for the man and his struggles.  Spielberg depicts Lincoln as the folksy wise man that every school child knows.  However, he also shows the president as the pragmatic politician who will make deals to achieve his end.  We see a human Lincoln who has to navigate a mess democratic system during a civil war.  I believe that this film will be as influential as any biography of its subject.

Zero Dark Thirty holds the audience with its narrative, but, for me, its content and ethics are problematic.  This film centers on one character Maya who resembles Ahab in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.  She holds to her pursuit of Bin Laden even when her superiors tell her to move on.  As we all know, the mission was successful.  My problem with the movie, as it is for other viewers, is that torture is a “tool” used by agents to obtain information.  It’s not pro-torture, but the depiction of “advanced interrogation” is problematic.  Viewers are left to wonder if the ends don’t justify the means, a darker pragmatism than that practiced by Lincoln.  I do believe that the CIA and other law enforcement agencies mean to keep us safe.  In fulfilling this mission, their methods must never go beyond the law if we are truly to be better than those who threaten our country.

I just saw Argo last night, and, of the three films, it is the most suspenseful and best made, which is a high order.  For my money (all two cents of it), it is the best film I have seen this year.  Ben Affleck has taken a little known, forgotten story of the hostage crisis and brought it to life in a way that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats while challenging us to think.  We see how Americans came to be trapped in the American Embassy in Tehran.  Six escaped to the Canadian Embassy.  Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, devises a scheme to sneak them out by creating a fake film called Argo and having the six Americans be his team for site selection.  While the film shows the brutality and zealotry of revolutionary Iran, it also calls out the U.S. and the CIA for their role in installing the equally brutal Shah.  It also shows Mendez as a moral man who won’t follow an order to leave the six behind.  I found this film much more realistic and impressive in this regard than Zero Dark Thirty.

While these three films all have some relevance to our current political reality, they are also movies, stories that can be shaped by a writer and refined by great directors.  Real politics – as Lincoln’s story demonstrates – is much messier.  The press and members of Congress would frequently challenge Lincoln to state his policy.  He would respond: “My policy is to have no policy.”  He understood that simple answers don’t work in a complex world.  At the same time, he knew how and when to be strong and make bold decisions.  Would a great leader like Lincoln be able to manage today’s world of political divisions, sensational (and simplistic) media, and a disengaged citizenry?  I don’t think so.  Until things in Washington sort themselves out, we will need more good movies.

P.S.  Sam Husseini, a writer at Common Dreams, has a very different, very negative take on Lincoln.