The buzz in Los Angeles is that Argo will win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.
The Ben Affleck-directed CIA thriller has already won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild. Only in Hollywood you can win Best Picture without the guy who put it all together being nominated for Best Director (that will most certainly be Hollywood’s Zeus, Steven Spielberg, for his Civil War epic Lincoln).
Are we talking politics and movies? You betcha. It’s impossible to understand Washington without spending time in Hollywood. I had a ball doing it – from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Never bothered to join the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) though; just a bunch of twats in awe of the star system whose only purpose in life is to be wined and dined before voting for the Golden Globes.
And still I went to all the junkets, all the screenings in the studios, all the parties, met a galaxy of stars and lesser “stars”, saw how deals were cut, enrolled in the annual pilgrimage Hollywood-Cannes (for the film festival). I even held an Oscar in my hands once; in 1993, from Emma Thompson, in the press room, while she was composing herself to call then-husband “Kenneth” [Branagh]. Oscar is not heavy, and not particularly handsome. But yes, it’s the Holy Grail, like being a tenant in the White House. If you nail how the industry works in Hollywood, you nail Washington politics virtually from A to Z.
So let’s talk about this year’s key political contenders; Spielberg’s Lincoln, Affleck’s Argo and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30).
ET come home
In the Hollywood ethos, nothing is political; everything must be subordinated to an intoxicating haze of bipartisan hyper-nationalist myth. For Hollywood, wars and history must always be subordinated to ideology (and that explains why Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – an ideology strip-tease – “is” the real Vietnam war).
No wonder Argo is being defined in Hollywood by the innocent cliche of a “liberally Hollywood-ized chronicle”, when it’s in fact a hard-hitting CIA promo about an agent coming up with a scheme to extract a few diplomats caught inside the American embassy during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis; the plan is to disguise them as a – what else – Hollywood film crew.
Affleck is embraced in Hollywood as a “liberal”, much as George “Free Sudan” Clooney. Long gone is his Nespresso poster-boy gig; Clooney – quintessential Hollywood royalty – is an Argo co-producer, alongside Affleck and Grant Heslov.
In a neat juxtaposition, Argo is the story of a rescue while ZD30 is the chronicle of a hit foretold (as is Lincoln, incidentally). Where Argo meets ZD30 is that both are CIA eulogies. Thus, inevitably the Iranians depicted by “liberal” Affleck are nothing but a hysterical, fanatical mob, as much as the Arabs and Pakistanis depicted by Bigelow are either to be tortured, or merely qualify as nuisance in the backdrop.
Argo displays its claims of historical credibility with a cartoonish five-minute initial presentation supplying minimal background for audiences to understand the complex forces at play in the Iranian revolution. From then on, it’s the CIA in the saddle. Forget about context – not to mention an attempt at dramatization of at least a single Iranian character; just wave after wave of that screaming, irrational mob.
Not a word that Iran’s democracy was assassinated by – who else – the CIA in 1953. Not a word that the Shah’s secret police, the Savak, had “disappeared”, tortured and assassinated at will, trained by – who else – the CIA.
It’s enlightening to remember that immediately after the Iranian revolution, throughout the 1980s Afghan jihad, the CIA channeled loads of money and weapons to Salafi-jihadis, including one Osama bin Laden, and alongside Saudi funds, propped up a Frankenstein – the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. Nowadays, the CIA supports Salafi-jihadis from Libya to Syria – a remix of 1980s Afghanistan.
These CIA exploits cannot but be contrasted with the (not exactly subliminal) message peddled by “liberal” – as in “progressive” – Affleck; all over Argo, Iranians are depicted as terrorists who hate “our values”.
Lincoln is just as “liberal” as Argo. But Spielberg is a cinematic master, way more effective in manipulating emotions. If Baudrillard was alive he would have deconstructed Lincoln as a sterling example of history as simulacrum.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is a larger than life icon, an ahistorical totem in front of which audiences should ritually prostrate themselves, part of a perpetual sacrifice in the altar of politics as the supreme affirmation of the US political system. He is the perfect representation of the American dream and American values. Lincoln is on screen to be adored. Lincoln is, not surprisingly, ET. Suspension of disbelief? Oh yes, we shall all remain in awe.
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Kathryn Bigelow is a very good filmmaker. Her Strange Days (1995) is arguably one of the best cult movies of the swingin’ 90s supervised by William “Bubba” Clinton. It’s a matter of no debate in Los Angeles that Bigelow is the female version of the late Tony Scott.
With ZD30, the point is not whether Bigelow has turned into the American Leni Riefenstahl (sorry, Leni). The point is – and you don’t have to ask Godard at his apex in the 1960s – it’s all in the editing (even when it was not in the screenplay to begin with).
ZD30 opens with a black screen and an audio mix of terrified phone calls on 9/11. Cut to the torture of “Ammar” in a CIA black site, the prelude for upcoming soft waterboarding. That sets the tone; ZD30, as it is edited, is an awesome commercial for the Bush-Cheney GWOT (global war on terror).
In this filthy Oz, the CIA only tortures certified evil terra-rists; the US government never kills innocent civilians; and all torturers, analysts and high-tech killers are unimpeachable selfless heroes.
Gotta love this CIA who relentlessly lied to get a war on Iraq; who engaged on a torture fest in endless black sites after endless extraordinary renditions; and who now has switched to a Drone War – HUMINT takes too long and is too costly – to improve its killing performance, frequently adorned with collateral damage.
A digital tsunami has been devoted to torture as depicted in ZD30. Bigelow has essentially defended the torture scenes as “depiction”, not “endorsement”. Well, once again it starts with the screenplay – written by Mark Boal, a former hack who was briefly embedded in Iraq. He based the screenplay on exclusive, privileged, “firsthand” access to CIA torturers and assorted CIA sources. Boal and Bigelow have stressed for months that ZD30 is a documentary-style “factual” narrative of the Osama bin Laden hunt and then the hit. They say it’s factual. But they also say it’s just a movie.
Here’s the most articulate Bigelow has been in defending ZD30. She insists she was not “interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences”. She insists ZD30 is “rigorous” – as in stressing its “documentary” side. She also insists she is a “lifelong pacifist”.
Bigelow did shoot ZD30 – aesthetically – almost as a documentary. She depicts torture not graphically, but in a carefully sanitized way. Torture, in ZD30‘s terms, feels entirely justified. Thus entirely normalized. Thus entirely endorsable; after all the torturers themselves are so human – just like the hostages in Argo. Sartre to the rescue: hell is indeed other people, especially if they are Muslims.
Boal and Bigelow have also insisted they worked in a “journalistic” way. That’s – literally – the killer; it proves ZD30 is the ultimate product of GWOT, embedded journalism. Once upon a time, the blues had a baby, and they named it rock’n roll. In post-modern America, the Pentagon created embedded journalism; and the CIA had its baby, embedded moviemaking.
ZD30 should be seen as the ultimate cinematic product of the Obama era. The record shows how the “”Yes we can” icon with silky rhetorical skills (wake up Spielberg, here’s your new Lincoln) has trampled everything from ethics to the rule of law – not closing Guantanamo yet effortlessly pivoting from GWOT to shadow war and an exclusive kill list (no, “we don’t torture”, as he says in a TV interview in the background of a scene in ZD30). In the meantime, major sponsors – as in the CIA – merrily bask in the glow of cinematic myth.
The beauty of it is that Hollywood, the way it works, does not even need the CIA – or the Pentagon – as sponsors. Hollywood does His Master’s Voice by default. And it already starts with a winning hand, technically – because nobody, save the odd European or Asian epic, can fight its unrivalled production values and period recreation know-how.
Still, Hollywood prides itself as “liberal”. Argo may get Best Picture and Spielberg may get Best Director. But make no mistake; as the supreme representative of the post-modern military-industrial-security-Hollywood complex, nothing beats ZD30.