Oscar films draw debates on U.S. Foreign Politics

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Beyond the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards, this year’s crop of nominees include a heavy dose of U.S. politics.

At the forefront is Ben Affleck’s Argo and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Both films take place in the Middle East and deal with issues in American foreign policy.

But given the two films’ commercial and awards’ success, there’s been a considerable amount of backlash from critics on the events portrayed.

Argo, which tells the story of the 1979 CIA operation that led to the liberation of six Americans in Iran, has been criticized for telling a biased account of events that glorify America.

Having helped report on some of the events during the crisis, Toronto Star’s film critic Peter Howell is particularly disappointed with Affleck’s undermining of Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran who protected Americans at great risk during the hostage crisis.

While the film appears to give full credit to CIA agent Tony Mendez, Howell says Taylor had a much bigger role in the rescue by keeping Americans hidden at the embassy in Tehran and helping  their escape by getting fake passports and plane tickets for them.

“(Americans) see it as all these years, these poor, demented Canadians were pretending that they did this when in fact, the CIA were the real players.”

But considering that Argo  also appears to honour  Hollywood’s efforts in the rescue, Howell isn’t surprised with the film’s narrative and the acclaim it’s been receiving.

Calling the plot an example of U.S. exceptionalism, he says Hollywood tends to enjoy stories that favourably portray Americans.

“If you work in Hollywood and a movie makes you look good, it can’t possibly hurt,”  said Howell, mentioning that the average voter in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a white male in his 60s.

“(The Academy) tend to choose stuff that reflects their lifestyle and Argo has this whole subplot about how Hollywood saves the day.  What’s not to like about that?”

Howell thinks a film like Zero Dark Thirty lost much of its momentum going into the awards race for Best Picture.

Based on the events leading to up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the film  has been met with much criticism from politicians such as U.S. senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain who say the film glorifies torture.

With scenes of waterboarding in the first half hour of the film, Howell says he thinks the film company would have sold the movie better had they addressed the graphic images during their Oscar campaigning.

“The superficial reading of the movie has somehow become a cheerleading session for torture,”  Howell said, disagreeing with those claims.

“The movie actually shows that the torture wasn’t very helpful.  In fact, it could have even been a hindrance.  I think people are uncomfortable with it and it’s become politically incorrect to support it because there’s the residual belief that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture.”   

But given that the capture and killing of bin Laden took place only in May 2011, Critics at Large writer and part-time film instructor Kevin Courrier says he believes the reason why Zero Dark Thirty  hasn’t been doing as successfully is because it doesn’t provide enough hindsight on the events that have passed.

Believing that Affleck has more interesting dramatic ideas in Argo, Courrier thought Bigelow’s film was dull and less controversial than it seems because she neutralizes the subject of torture with little insight on what happened.

“She’s trying to depict something that’s happening right now which is always hard to do when you’re in the heat of it.”

“I think it would have been better had she committed herself to getting inside the uncomfortable areas of that subject. I know for a fact that Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t endorse torture but she doesn’t want to raise the question as to why that policy would be one that would be considered.”

A reason why he believes Bigelow strays away from picking sides is because there probably hasn’t been enough time to reflect on the events of 9/11, which the U.S government is still dealing with today.

“Part of the problem with movies that are made post 9/11 is that they’ve in some ways not understood that there’s been a progressive change in policy. You have to rethink everything that you’re doing.  How you’re doing intelligence, how you do interrogation.”

Predicting that there probably won’t be any meaningful movies addressing 9/11 until about a decade later, Courrier says audiences aren’t connecting with films made today because filmmakers aren’t looking at the issues deep enough.

“(Movies) are too busy trying to deal with their outrage with the war or they’re trying to find melodramatic ways to kind of approach it. They’re seeking to see things in very easy terms of morality and as a result, we’re just not getting the movies we could get.”

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