‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Showcase the Banal Militarism of Hollywood

Foreign Policy in Focus / By Fouad Pervez  – ALTERNET

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

February 27, 2013

The latest Academy Awards ceremony, which crowned the  well-intentioned but fatally flawed Argo as the year’s best film, merely formalized the nearly universal acclaim that director Ben Affleck has received for his gripping CIA drama set in Iran. It also said a lot about what’s wrong with Hollywood today.

Indeed, the Oscars this year seemed to exhibit more American exceptionalism and less diversity than previous years. Just 10 years ago, filmmaker  Michael Moore used his acceptance speech to slam the recently launched Iraq war, issuing a prescient warning that was widely criticized for its political content but notable for its inclusion.  This year, we had Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and a military entourage for the first lady. We also had very few brown faces, and no mention of anything happening in the world outside of Hollywood.

Hollywood may be returning to making “serious movies,” but the scope of that seriousness still only extends to mostly white American characters. Argo’s main shortcoming was its poor job contextualizing the situation in Iran in the 1970s. It also followed the Hollywood trend, frequently rewarded, of humanizing Americans while dehumanizing everyone else. Nearly every Iranian in Argoresembled a religious fanatic, and there was minimal effort to explain the source of Iranian rage—in this case, the imposition of a U.S.-backed tyrannical dictator. Given the strong beltway lobby for war with Iran, this caricature is not helpful.

One could argue that it isn’t Hollywood’s job to provide such context, but this misses the reality of the society we live in. The arts serve as a form of cultural diplomacy and fill in gaps in public understanding left by journalism. In an age when foreign news bureaus have been decimated, news research budgets slashed, and local stringers and fly-in celebrity journalists comprise “world news” in America, Hollywood could genuinely enhance the public discourse by giving life to regions of the world most Americans know little about. Instead, films like Argo andZero Dark Thirty opted to serve as PR arms for the Pentagon and CIA.

Instead of a critical examination of controversial issues like war, drone strikes, and torture, we get what David Sirota calls the “ Military Entertainment Complex,” whereby the government essentially lobbies Hollywood to serve as its mouthpiece.

There are exceptions—particularly in the Best Documentary category, year after year—but those mostly prove the rule. Argo gave us CIA talking points on Iran, missing most of the information from 1953-79, and even minimizing Canada’s role in the operation. Zero Dark Thirty gave us a Pentagon/CIA/White House-backed film with false information on torture. The artists and their studios opted to provide minimal humanization of any non-American characters. You feel horror at seeing the children during the violent raid scene in Zero Dark Thirty, but because you have no previous connection to them, it’s not exactly empathy. Finally, both films are passed as true stories. But while each makes use of historical facts, they play with context to manipulate the audience into a pro-American froth.

Appealing to jingoism is certainly easier than prompting national introspection, but is priming an audience for blood what we call art today? It doesn’t mean we need anti-American films, or films that downplay whatever real threats might be posed by Iran or international terrorists. But when dealing with contentious and critical global issues in films, one would think understanding perspectives other than our own, even for limited moments, would be crucial to both artistic integrity and public discourse.

We keep looking for the answer to “why they hate us” even 12 years after 9/11. The answer isn’t pretty, but it isn’t terribly elusive either. Unfortunately, our films keep us searching for the answer.

Fouad Pervez is a contributor toForeign Policy in Focus, where he writes on U.S. foreign policy and security issues in South Asia. He is currently pursuing his PhD in International Relations. He is a writer and policy analyst, and occasionally blogs on There is No Spoon. He can be reached at fouad0 at gmail dot com.
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2 Comments
  1. I feel Hollywood has crossed another, ethical boundary when they claim that movies of fictitious versions of real events, such as Argo, are loudly proclaimed in ads as the “True story”…blah, blah, blah. It is one thing to twist the story of who were the heroes (the Canadians) and who was the “Johnny come lately, (Affeck’s puffed up CIA “hero.”). Such is the script of the CIA crowd to fed the endlessly gullible
    public the PC version of that event. They know better than anyone the facts, though that rarely interferes with the covert crap they perpetrate on the globe, and consequently, the American public! One thing this film did unmask, was the front that George Clooney has in the past tried to humor himself with; an intellectual teller of truth, championing causes in the 3rd world, (great photo ops there), and suavely hinting at a possible, political career. What a joke! My cynicism once more is racketed up! Then, the Archie Bunker, versions of ALL Muslims as wild-eyed, blood thirsty savages is about as valid as John Wayne’s versions of Native Americans being…blood thirsty savages. Stereo types such as those are, if nothing else, products of lazy script writers; just haul out the same, vapid, stereo types, strung together in some insipid “plot,” with government justifications for the destruction being wrought and, Wa La; another Oscar’s on its way! Justify the destruction of a country for outrageous lies, no problem! We, the silly sycophants of mindless militarism, will shed a tear of patriotic zeal. We are being collectively lowered to the level of tea bag trash as we cheer on the murder of an innocent state and bomb them back to the Alley Oop age! Slowly we are becoming numb to torture, American style, as necessary, even a “patriotic,” act! We sneer at International law, because WE have the right, nay, the duty to ferret out the “truth” from a native, regardless what pitiful human remains we leave behind, and often find out that, oops, he was just a by stander or “collateral damage” Great euphemism there, sounds like all the “damage” that was done was a few banana carts destroyed as the CIA roars to the rescue. Historical standards of abiding by the Geneva Convention, along with OUR constitutional rights are just trivialities that any red blooded America wouldn’t think twice about shedding OR if they do, they may be partying with the “bad guys.” Even the Catholic Church during their Inquisitions and burnings as well as Kings, such as Henry VIII, admitted that “Under torture you can get anyone to admit anything.”
    Just give the mouth breathers one shot of a “B” film, radical terrorist and the Pavlovian trained, simple minded viewers will be happy, could they whip out an American flag and cheer on the massive destruction that would make a CIA director’s heart, burst with propaganda pride. Time for the people who know this is inhumanity paraded as patriotic acts to shed light on this perversion being served up by the military/industrial/Congressional complex! Just a act as simple as a letter to the editor decrying such manipulated “history” or, refusing to pay tickets to watch such travesties would be
    a vote for an end to such flagrant Machiavellian methods by Hollywood and their CIA masters. .

  2. great article. this years oscars seemed to be alot about a marriage between hollywood and the government. Argo, ZD30, Lincoln, and of course, michelle obamas bizarre appearance near the end where she was surrounded by military personnel.

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