Argo to Lincoln to Zero Dark Thirty, this season’s biggest Oscar contenders are all explicitly political films that, whether set in the distant or very recent past, aim to speak to the contemporary moment. Although the attitudes towards American history and its bearing on the present on display in these movies range from the cartoony to the intentionally ambiguous, all three films are problematic in their embrace (in partial or whole) of some of the less felicitous aspects of Obama-iste politics. Instead, it’s another year-end film, more modest in its ambitions and less spectacular in its payoff, that represents the satisfying political narrative unachieved by the more vaunted trio.
While a solid, engaging, attractively lensed piece of cinema, Gus Van Sant’s hydrofracking drama, Promised Land never hits the heights of the other films, offering neither the cross-cut thrills of Argo, the intelligent observation of behind-the-scenes political process of Lincoln or the stunning concluding set-piece of Zero Dark Thirty. What it gives us instead is a balanced look at the false dichotomy between job creation and environmental protection that shows its protagonist moving from one side of the issue to the other as he talks with the townspeople who will be affected by his company’s decision to frack their hamlet for natural gas. If the conversion feels somewhat inevitable - especially knowing that the film is made by good old liberals - it’s still an honest look at political understanding as a process of weighing the benefits of both sides of an equation before reaching the decision that the film’s creators (Van Sant and stars/screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski) have seemingly foreordained.
Damon stars as Steve Butler, a salesman for a natural gas company that heads out with co-worker Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) to an economically depressed Pennsylvania town in order to sell it on the merits of gas extraction. While many townspeople welcome this potential economic boon, Butler is immediately confronted at his first town meeting by a local teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who proceeds to harangue him with the dirty facts about hydrofracking. As presented by Van Sant, Butler seems a decent enough man (even those in the town who oppose his project call him a “nice guy”) who honestly believes he’s doing the struggling berg a service. On the other side of the fence is a charismatic environmentalist, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who begins distributing pictures of fracking-induced devastation, visiting local classrooms, and generally turning sentiment against the project.
While it ultimately takes a revelation about the corporate skullduggery of his company to fully alienate Butler from his former position, the path has been paved by his conversations with the locals and their citing of irrefutable evidence as to the dangers of fracking. Van Sant doesn’t push the film’s conclusions into more complex political territory (i.e. posing other solutions, such as green jobs), but by treating the generally overlooked people most affected by top-down decision making as not only viable individuals but as people whose voices need to be heard, whose complex needs must be balanced, the movie allows for the honest possibility of democratic triumph over corporate interest - at least in this one isolated instance.
Alas, for all the film’s flag waving, true expressions of democracy are wholly wanting in Ben Affleck’s Argo. Set during the Iranian revolution in 1979, the film, after dispensing with its almost perfunctory stabs at historical balance, becomes a rah-rah tale of C.I.A. heroism and Muslim duplicity, as Affleck’s agency stalwart, Tony Mendez, leads a daring rescue of American diplomats from the newly minted Islamic Republic. Adding to the film’s irresponsibility are its obvious present day parallels, as contemporary sentiment for war with Iran, a sentiment the film’s choice of historical incident and blinkered perspective on that incident encourages, continues unabated in both the United States and Israel.
Far more complicated are the two other major political films of the season, both, like Argo, centered on true-life events. Steven Spielberg’s Tony Kushner-penned Lincoln details the 16th president’s efforts to get the 13th amendment (the one prohibiting slavery) through the House of Representatives. While geeking out on behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, the filmmakers present a view of the political process as a corrupt game of give-and-take in which bribes and sought-after appointments are the necessary instruments required to secure much-needed votes. But for Spielberg and Kushner, the American political system is one that ultimately works despite, or even because of, this corruption. What’s remarkable about Lincoln is not that it acknowledges the imperfections of the system, but just how uncynical it is about this acknowledgement.
Read with an eye on the current political situation, which seems inevitable given the set-up of a charismatic president devoted to compromise, the film becomes a tad dicier. Yes, it’s easy to applaud Lincoln (and abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens) for effecting the outlawing of slavery, especially as no one today, excepting racist fanatics, could possibly be against the 13th amendment. But while compromise may have worked for Lincoln - he achieved a great victory for human rights at the price of a few bribes - Obama’s willingness to play ball with conservatives over Social Security and Medicare cuts in order to avoid going over the so-called “fiscal cliff” is quite another story.
More problematic is Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar front-runner Zero Dark Thirty, precisely because its tale of one C.I.A. agent’s decades-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is so scrupulously objective and anti-heroic and because it’s supposedly based on true-facts delivered straight from government agencies to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Recently Glenn Greenwald stirred up a good deal of controversy with an article in the Guardian in which, without having seen the film, he condemned it for “glorify[ing]” torture. While Greenwald’s unfortunate decision to forgo the viewing of the movie before writing about it leads him to mischaracterize the film as a heroic, pro-C.I.A. piece of propaganda and invalidates much of his argument, part of what he says remains wholly valid. While the film’s torture scenes make “enhanced interrogation” look like no fun for anyone involved, the movie does indeed confirm that torture yields useful results, in this case intel essential to the finding of bin Laden. Greenwald argues that this claim is inaccurate, that torture did not lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of the 9/11 mastermind, but either way, the film’s decision to unambiguously confirm the efficacy of torture, even if it can’t be said to glorify it, stands as far too much of an endorsement of the practice.
Because the film hides under cover of its objectivity, it’s difficult to pin it down to a single political position - and that is undoubtedly the point. But a film based on real events does not simply portray what happened, it presents it in a certain way through deliberate choices on the director’s, screenwriter’s and actors’ parts. Furthermore, when dealing with charged political events, the lack of a definitive viewpoint must itself be considered a viewpoint. Thus, while detailing the final raid on bin Laden’s hideout, Bigelow stages a thrilling set-piece that, while it avoids triumphalism and is careful to show the collateral damage inflicted by U.S. forces, nonetheless has us rooting for the Navy SEALS that carry out this illegal assassination. Bigelow even takes a few scenes to humanize these soldiers, showing them hanging out before the operation, the better to forge viewer identification. This may be as close as we’ll get to seeing how the killing of bin Laden actually happened, but it’s still a fictionalized take presented from a specific point of view. That this point of view confirms the dominant narrative of the war on terror makes Zero Dark Thirty a troubling movie indeed.